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Punctuation rules for dialogue, plus classifications, tension, swearing and other elements

Week 10 -- Focus on Fiction


The information for this article comes from Writing Dialogue: How to create memorable voices and fictional conversations that crackle with wit, tension and nuance by Tom Chiarella, published by Story Press, 1998. Your facilitator highly recommends you buy this book if you can find it, because it covers everything you need to know about writing dialogue. Only portions of this book are shared here as a review, per copyright agreement.

To give you an idea of the thoroughness of this writing book, these are the chapter titles: Listening, Jotting, Crowding; the Direction of Dialogue; Compression; On Silence; Radio, TV, Movies; Using Dialogue to Create Stories; and Nuts and Bolts. The titles reveal topics you may not have considered.

The Direction of Dialogue: Examples and Possibilities

Writing dialogue is so much about the energy and direction of the story at hand that many of the things a writer does are intuitive. A turn here. An exclamation. A silence. I’ll often hear experienced writers say they have an “ear” for dialogue. The implication is that dialogue exists in the world and writers merely record, with good writers—those with the “ear” for it—recording a little more clearly. But, the truth is, it’s not solely about recording, or listening, but about shaping.

When I speak of the energy and direction of a story, I am referring to its tone and emotion (energy) and tension (direction). Writers craft, or shape, patterns of energy and direction in dialogue. In many ways these become the signatures of their dialogue, the things that make the voices of their characters recognizable and sustainable. Writers may have an ear for dialogue, but what they work with is a voice, shaped and charged by the needs of the story. What your character says is directed by the needs of your story.

Classifying dialogue by technique is troublesome. We will use it here only for the purpose of comparison. You should be looking for the occasional pause, the turn, the reversal, the silence that defines each of these moments. Naming the patterns is unimportant; reading to uncover them is a worthy task.

Thus you must be willing to take dialogue apart to look at what makes it tick. As you read, be willing to isolate moments within a dialogue. Highlight them in your book. Dog-ear the pages. Tear out a page and tape it to the wall above your computer. The idea is to take the dialogue on its own terms, to isolate the specific techniques the writer uses, before returning to a story as a whole to examine the dialogue’s function in the larger context.

Begin looking for the general tension of the dialogue. Some beginning writers confuse tension with conflict, assuming it comes and goes depending on whether characters agree or disagree. Tension is more like the energy between charged particles. Its always there, even if the two characters agree.

Think of two cars traveling a reasonable distance apart from one another along an interstate at 65 miles per hour. Safe distance. Same direction. Same speed, no tension, right? Wrong. We all know it takes one little bump in the road, one touch of the brakes, a doe in the headlights (more likely a cow in Texas) for everything to be suddenly and completely redefined.

So you might start looking for these three qualities when gauging the tension of your dialogue: direction, speed, and distance (or separation).

Tension in Dialogue

How do I apply all this talk of direction, speed, and distance to a dialogue?

Set two characters in a blank room—that is, a bare stage, a void, a place not yet defined. Now make a decision. One of them wants something. The other one does not have it, or cannot get to it. How will the first get it, if not by speaking? He must move in the direction of his desire.

1. Give it to me.

The direction here is clear and declarative. It’s palpable tension. You can see that this addresses a need in a particular way. Nothing has been named yet, we have no fix on place, or even space, and yet the character speaks out of a sense of what she wants. But, it would be no less so if it started this way.

1. Excuse me.

He is still moving in the direction of his desire, toward what he wants, by breaking the silence, by starting things up. I don’t have to move much past that utterance to see a sort of tension filling up the space. Where would you expect this to move from here? Direction is a natural part of dialogue. We expect to be led somewhere by the response. How will the other character deal with this? As the answer to this question becomes clearer, we often start to see this issue of distance, or separation being defined. The tone of that response will set up speed. You might expect me to say that the tension I’ve set up demands that he reveal everything he wants in the first line. For now, let’s have the second character work from a position of total neutrality.

1. Excuse me.

2. Yes?

1. Do you know the time?

2. No, I don’t.

1. Do you have any sense of how long we’ve been here?

2. No.

That’s probably as neutral as you’re going to get. Still, speaker 2 is resisting. It’s possible to read a certain distance into that exchange, an attitude that suggests speaker 2 isn’t going to help speaker 1 in any way, shape, or form. The brief responses lend an element of increased speed. Play it any way you want. Some element of tension is generally shaped by the act of speaking.

All good dialogue has direction. It’s a mishmash of need and desire on the part of an individual character weighed against the tension inherent in the gathering of more than one person. This is not grand conflict here, not man versus nature; nor is it painful tension. This is the stuff that fills the spaces between us, even when we don’t recognize it. As a writer you have to learn to trust that it’s there.

Go back to the conversation in the blank room. Try to make it as free of tension as possible. Would it look something like this?

1. Hi.

2. Hi

1. How are you?

2. Fine. How are you?

1. Great. Nice Day.

2. Really. Nice Day.

Sounds hauntingly like those conversations we all have in elevators, or at a chance encounter, or in the hallways at school. Most people say they hate this kind of jabber—and there’s no place for it in fiction. Sure people talk like this in the real world, but that’s why we must shape dialogue when we write it. Good dialogue requires sharper word choice, more defined attitudes, more originality. Good dialogue should be something of an event unto itself.

Could you nag out a neutral conversation (as the examples) for pages and pages, keeping it neutral the whole time? Your answer may be yes. Mine is no. That’s the sort of thing we do in life. Jabber about sports, ask about the grandkids, exchange greetings. These are the masks we wear. They don’t last long before we start to reveal who we are. Put two people in one place, force them to listen to one another, and soon they are telling stories, or more aptly for us, I guess, telling stories in the act of telling. That is what the writer must believe.

Your challenge is to set the stories within the words of your character. Looking for speed, distance and direction, and then manipulating these is a good place to start. If we accept that all good dialogue has these elements of tension, what is it that sets good dialogue apart from lifeless dialogue? Good dialogue rises out of the way a writer makes use of individual techniques such as:

Shifts in tone and place

The remainder of this chapter deals with other classifications of dialogue. Because of the limited time and space for the topic of dialogue, I’ll list the other classifications here. If you are curious to find more info on dialogue, Google these terms and your hits may gain you more reading and perspectives:

Directed Dialogue

Interpolated Dialogue

Misdirected Dialogue

Modulated Dialogue

A Character’s Diction and Dialect


Many books we read now a days is about full up with the word “fuck.” You may think that this word should never appear in print. That is your right. If so, I suggest you never print it. But whether you like this word or hate it, whether it’s ugly or beautiful to you, it’s a word that tends to leak its way into dialogue these days. Frankly, its frequency in our culture probably has a lot to do with the ocean of language we swim around in every day. It’s history seems as ancient as George Carlin’s routine on the seven words you can’t say on television.

It was once used to shock, to shake up the status quo, to make people listen, Now, its life cycle in the lexicon is almost complete, as it represents little more than a lazy adjective, a dim frequency of anger. For some it remains a potent verb, an accented adjective, particularly when crossing lines of culture. Whether you banish the word from your stories or not, I think there’s a way to think about cursing in general that can speak to dialogue writing in particular.

“Swearing,” as we called it in my family, appealed to me as a boy in the distant way that adulthood seems glamorous to a child. Soon, I would be twelve, or fifteen, or eighteen, and be able to use whatever sort of language I wanted. I listened with glee to the way adults put curses together. I looked forward to driving my own car too, and to getting my own place to live, but the ability to curse, and more importantly, to curse well, seemed the blood rite of adulthood.

I spent blocks of time at the dinner table trying to find ways to insinuate the word “ass” in the evening conversation. It struck me as a dirty word, but not so filthy as to send my mother for the wooden spoon. It was a testable word choice, a prime piece of eight-year-old diction, oily and ready for the speaking. I decided to use it casually in the course of telling a story at dinner. I waited before I had my corn on the cob completely buttered before I began.

“We were outside at lunch today,” I said, taking a casual bite,”and Charlie Viles got stung by a hornet.” I do not recall much reaction to my stories. They were generally true, though I often used them as a means of testing my parents’ limits. My father, I think, favored a shrug, while my mother generally cued me along with another question, leading me, she hoped to some reasonable point or revelation. Still they favored conversation, valued it as a linchpin of intelligent adulthood. After I told the part about the hornet, I distinctly remember a disinterested pause, which I knew I could fill right up for everyone’s benefit. So I added, “Right on the ass.”

My younger brother, who had been there for the stinging too, chimed in, “Right on the butt!”

“Bottom,” my mother said. My father clinked his fork against his plate, and stared at me.

“Ass,” my youngest brother said. “Ass, ass, ass, ass,” he said, sensing the power of the word too. I laughed. He was a good kid.

I waited for my father’s response without looking at him. Only two weeks before, he had asserted his adult’s privilege to words like this when my report card came back with three tardies. It was fresh in my mind. He had stared at the card, turned to my mother and said, “This really fries my ass! What the hell! Why do they even keep track of tedious shit like that?” I was at the kitchen table then too, in the same chair I would float the term ass like a friendly weather balloon over the pork chops. My jaw dropped. Fried ass! What the hell! Tedious shit! Three straight sentences. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am! To my disappointment my father downplayed his own transgression by focusing—unfairly I thought—on the fact that I couldn’t get myself to school on time. But I remembered it well.

Now, after my own use of the word “ass,” I hoped that he too would remember he was capable of multiple curses, without interruption, right here in our own kitchen. When I turned to look at him, he pointed a fork at me. “Don’t say ass. You’re not allowed that sort of language yet.”

There. He had said it. Yet. Language like that had to be earned, by age, or experience, or brute task. Use of such language in conversation was a privilege. You had to earn it. I believe such is the case with good fiction. Never be lazy with the language. I know that is the case with good dialogue.

I’m not arguing that characters should be allowed to swear at every turn. Nor should they be encouraged to. The truth is, adults can’t swear all the time. If they do, they tend to be looked on as pretty tedious shit. But they can, and do swear. That’s what my father was trying to tell me all those years ago. If they do it well, they choose their moments, pick their phrases, and employ their wit. They grow into a use of language that fits them. That’s how it should be with characters too.

The strong curse is

Pointed and Precise. When you’re dropping the word in out of habit, you’ve hit the point of too much. Hear it, precisely.

Quickly and forcefully crafted. Vary your use of words such as “fuck.” Think about how the same adverb used over and over loses its punch. Shape and vary the language you use.

Revealing, both intentionally and unintentionally. Language (that is, diction) changes when emotions are charged. But, that might be a moment when the swearing drops away. Work for the surprise.

These are the ways I’m encouraging you to create your dialogue. Good dialogue, whether windy or compressed, snappy or rambling, generally follows these principles. Like the good curse, strong dialogue lends shape to characters, even as the characters shape the words themselves.

Nuts and Bolts

There are a few particular elements about writing dialogue that are governed by rules, such as punctuation. Other rules you will generate for yourself, such as your use of dialog tags (he said, she cried), adverbs and present participle forms. Reading about dialogue and its rules can help you discover your own need for your own dialogue rules.


People always want to know about punctuating dialogue. Actually, it is very simple. First, remember that the punctuation always goes inside the quotes. That’s the first mistake many people make.

” It’s as simple as the smile on your face, ” he said.

Beyond that, understand that the dialogue tag frames the sentence in which it appears.

” It’s as hard as a rock,” he said.

The period appears after the dialogue tag.

” It’s like a candle in the wind, he said.

Other forms of terminal punctuation appear inside the quotes.
Exclamation points and question marks come to mind. The dialogue tag still acts as a part of a longer sentence; it is not capitalized.

” I like my pudding!” she exclaimed.

“You want me to turn it over?” she asked.

Terminal punctuation is never followed by a comma.

Keep in mind that the dialogue tag frames the longer sentence in which it appears. When placed in the center of a long line of dialogue, the tag acts as a pause, surrounded on either side by quotes.

”Rod, I’m worried about your fingers,” he said, “and the damage we’ve done to them by placing you in the middle of this insane experiment!”

Notice that the dialog tag is punctuated by commas on either side because it appears in the middle of a long, complete sentence.

If two people speak, without pause, or without a dialogue tag between them, it is customary to begin a new paragraph. The following would be correct:

”I’ve never stolen anything in my life.”
“Think twice before you lie.”

Whenever someone new speaks up, indicate the change by beginning a new paragraph.

”I’ve never stolen anything in my life,” he said, eyeballing the jewelry display.

“Don’t think of it as stealing. Think of it as larceny. It suits you better.”

If a character speaks for an extended period and you want to begin a new paragraph, it is not necessary to close quotes at the end of the first paragraph. This sample is correct.

”Interrogations happen when you do something wrong,” the agent said. “Retraining is all about doing it right. Look, we accept that the mind follows the body. Right? The mind follows the body! Poppycock. Bullshit. Rot and drivel. The mind is the body! Interrogations? Doomed to fail. You shock someone. I mean really shock him--cattle prod, 2.5 liter spray bottle of ionized water, metal chair, puddle of urine—the whole nine yards—and all you do is issue an invitation to the mind.

“You ask so little! Yet, threaten with all your heart, and still the mind does not follow. Get me? State of mind. Know the expression? Sure, you do. State of being, state of mind. Coincidence? Hell no! They’re the same thing. You see, the mind is being.”

© Copyright 2011 a sunflower in Texas (patrice at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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