Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Basic Mechanics of Dialogue

Dialogue. What would fiction be without it? Well, we can make a fair guess at that by looking at the Foundation trilogy. And yes, I know it was very much admired, but still, not as fun a read as it might have been. I think it mainly appealed to those grim types who take their fiction ever so seriously. Which, as we both know, is not the case here.

I'm a big fan of lots of dialogue myself. I've been known to treat lengthy action sequences in a film as if they were commercial breaks. The way I see it is, 'if no one ain't talking, ain't nothing happening.' While this may be a little extreme, novels are, after all, about people, and the main way in which people interact is by talking to each other, so unless you're doing some kind of very unusual novel where no one needs to talk, you will need to be comfortable with writing lots of dialogue. A lot of novice writers have trouble with this, so today I'm going to look at the basic mechanics of how it works.

Now I'm not going to talk about content today. Content in dialogue is a vast and perilous estate, having to do with the use of inflexions and dialects, character exposition, and a whole raft of issues. I may or may not address it another time. Today we are concerned with the nuts and bolts.

1. Indicating Speech

The first thing to consider is that you must show your reader that someone is speaking. In written English, we use quote marks to do this. Quote marks are the text equivalent of the speech bubble in a comic.

I'll be using the convention of double quotes for speech and single quotes for quoted material. It can also be done the other way around, but the double quotes are more commonly used.

To indicate that someone is talking, you wrap the speech in quotes, so: "I hope that fireman asks her out soon. This is getting old."

See how, when we repeat the speech from the illustration above, the quotes take the place of the bubble? That's all that needs to be said about quotes.

2. Termination.

Pattern 1 - Speech is coextensive with sentence.

Ordinarily, a sentence is terminated with terminating punctuation - a period, question mark or exclamation point. This is, of course, also true of sentences in dialogue. An added complication however, arises when a sentence of dialogue is not coextensive with a sentence of your narrative.

Consider the following:

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon."

In the above example, we may note that the spoken sentence is coextensive with the written sentence. It fills up the whole sentence; there is no 'he said', and the single sentence of speech is in every respect identical with a sentence of narrative except for the fact it is enclosed in quotes. This is the simplest form of dialogue.

Pattern 2 - Speech is contained within a greater sentence.

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon," said Fluffy.

Here, there is more to the sentence than just the speech; there is a speech verb, too, and a subject. This is a well-formed sentence; it has a subject, verb and object. The object of 'said' is the entire speech. It is what Fluffy said.

Notice that, unlike the first example, Fluffy's speech is here terminated with a comma, not a period. This is because the end of the speech is not the end of the sentence, as it was in the first example. When a speech ends before the end of the sentence, the period is replaced with a comma. Note that this will not be the case if some other termination is used - a question mark or exclamation mark. In those cases, the punctuation remains unchanged:

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon!" said Fluffy.

Pattern 3 - a sentence contains more than one sentence of dialogue.

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon. This is getting old," said Fluffy.

Here, you can see that only the last period in the speech is replaced with a comma. Any other terminating marks within the speech retain their normal values.

3. Other punctuation.

There is more to punctuation, of course, than terminations, and in dialogue this is even more the case than in narrative, for punctuation, as I've mentioned before, adds inflexions and intonations to the spoken word. You will probably find you're using more punctuation, ceteris paribus, in dialogue than in narrative. Consider the following examples, where ellipses are used to indicate less than total concentration on the part of the speaker:

Fluffy is falling off his branch and struggling to hold on as he speaks:

"I hope... that fireman... oh, help! ...asks her out soon," said Fluffy, scrabbling about for a better view, and almost losing his grip on the branch.

Fluffy is relaxing in front of the fire and drifting off to sleep:

"I hope... that fireman... asks her out soon..." A gentle snore indicated that Fluffy had given up the fight to stay awake.

4. Fragments.

No discussion of dialogue would be complete without mentioning that, in dialogue, it is not necessary that sentences be well-formed. As the fundamental requirement of narrative is that it be correct English, so the fundamental requirement of dialogue is that it be, or at least sound, 'natural', and therefore, in well-written dislogue, the well-formed sentence is conspicuous, if not by its absence, at least by its rather spotty attendance. Just as humans do not speak in a controlled sequence of perfectly formed English sentences, neither should your characters, unless there is a good context- or character-driven reason for it. Human speech is full of sentence fragments, and becomes fuller the more casual the situation.

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