Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing Interesting Dialogue that Indicates Who is Speaking

By Yvonne Perry

Recently, Hal Manogue, an author friend of mine, had a question regarding the dialogue in his book, Living Behind the Beauty Shop, he is writing. In an email he stated: I intentionally tried to avoid using the word “said” after a statement because I felt the audience would understand who was making the statement. It seems using those "said so and so" is rather redundant unless there is some confusion about who is making the statement. What is your opinion?

Since this is a common question among authors, I want to take this opportunity to answer Hal’s question publically so our subscribers may benefit:

The use of the word “said” is very common in novels and other works that contain dialog. There was a season when authors stopped using it and tried using replacement words such as “replied, related, snapped, quipped,” but this was short lived because it interrupts the reading pace. It was discovered that the word “said” was the most natural insertion and the easiest word to ignore while giving the reader clues to keep the dialog on track.

What tends to get on the reader’s nerves is using a character’s name over and over in the dialog as in the sample below. This is one way to show who is speaking but it can easily be overdone.

“Margie, you have a great book.”

“Thank you, Alan.”

“I hope I’m not being redundant, Mase, but I’m trying to help.”

“I see, Cindy. Let’s move forward.”

Although some people do speak this way, it is not natural—it feels a bit contrived. And, to top it all off, we still don’t know who the speaker is in each instance. If we do our jobs well as writers and editors, the dialog will be written clearly enough that we won’t need many “saids” or name tags. However, if the passages of dialogue are long and there are several speakers in the conversation, I will stick in a “said” to help clarify. This helps the reader maintain pace by not being confused or having to backtrack to determine who is speaking.

Many times an action can help determine who is speaking, but the action needs to be placed beside (with no line return separating them) the lines spoken by that person in order for it to be effective.

I’ve numbered the dialogue lines below so I can refer to them easily for the purpose of instruction. (Of course, you would never number the lines in your manuscript.) Notice that Jamie’s actions in lines 2, 6, 10, and 18 are next to his spoken lines. In lines 7, 9, 11, and 15, we have Alan’s actions. Then in line 19, we never note who is speaking but we can tell because the set up is effective: . . . the waitress came to take their order . . . Jamie grinned at the pretty co-ed.

“Did I tell you about Margie and Cindy?”

“Yes, how’s it going with them?” Jamie took a sip from the glass of water that was already on the table.

“Well, I just found out this morning that the baby has Down syndrome.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I can’t understand it.” Alan propped his elbow on the table and ran his worried fingers through his hair.

“Do you think you’re responsible for that?” Jamie’s eyes opened wide and his smile showed his perfectly straight white teeth.

“I don’t know, but I feel like I had a part in it.” Alan felt the women at the other table looking at him as he answered Jamie. Both women were listening to the conversation, but were trying to act nonchalant about it.

“Well maybe you did. I think I heard Down babies are born to older parents and you fall into that category for sure.”

“Hey, I can still kick a ball, and I able to run a mile in under six minutes. Age is just a number. It’s irrelevant.” Alan’s voice was shaking as he justified his age.

Jamie was not smiling anymore. In a low understanding tone, he said, “Okay let’s just say the baby wanted to be born that way and let it go at that.”

Alan perked up. “I never thought of that. Do you think babies have a choice?”

“Hell, yes, they do! I wanted to be black so I could bring a little contrast into this white-ass world and here I am, making a difference.”

Alan laughed. “They don’t teach that in my church, but I believe you’re right. I think maybe we all have a choice to be born how, where, and when we want. Maybe this kid wants to be born to a gay couple and a confused dad!”

“That baby is a form of consciousness right now. Spend a little time around the girls before he’s born, and I think you’ll realize that I know what I’m talking about.”

Alan thought for a moment. “Man, I appreciate your wisdom. You’ve helped me more than you know.”

The ladies smiled, still looking at the men. One of them said, “I heard you say something about a new baby. No matter what that baby looks like, you’re gonna love him.”

Alan smiled and thanked her as the waitress came to take their order.

“I think we both want a steak sandwich and the salad bar.” Jamie grinned at the pretty college-age girl.

“All right. Do you want anything to drink?”

“Water’s good, thanks.”

When an action goes with a spoken line, use a period, question mark, or exclamation point to separate them as indicated in lines 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 18. If using “said,” a comma is inserted as demonstrated in lines 10 and 16. Each time the speaker changes, a new paragraph is necessary. Also notice the punctuation is inside the quotation marks. A comma is used with the speaker’s tag. A period is used with the speaker’s action.

By the way, Hal’s book is going to be a wonderful metaphysical novel that I think many of our readers will enjoy. If you have a heart for the homeless, know someone who is affected by Down Syndrome, enjoy communicating with consciousnesses in other spiritual realms, and like uplifting books that encourage green living, this is the one to read.

Sarah Moore is proofreading Hal’s book now, and then it will go to our graphic designer, Jessica Galbraith for interior layout and cover design before being uploaded to Lightning Source. I’ll be sure to let you know when it is available. In the meanwhile, check out Hal’s blog

Yvonne Perry is a freelance writer, author and keynote speaker who enjoys assisting people on a spiritual path. She is a graduate of American Institute of Holistic Theology where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Metaphysics. She is the owner of Writers in the Sky Creative Writing Services—a team of freelance writers and editors located in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of The Sid Series, a book that build self-esteem and empower young ones to follow inner guidance and overcome fear. She has also authored More Than Meets the Eye: True Stories about Death, Dying and Afterlife, a book designed to help people release their fear of death, and comfort those who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

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