Good grief, it's a running gag (lady_ganesh) wrote in fandom_grammar,
Good grief, it's a running gag

Dialogue 101: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Dialogue: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

With examples from Saiyuki, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, NICS, and Weiss Kreuz.

Dialogue is the backbone of most stories. It's a rare story that doesn't feature dialogue, and that's even more true in the world of fanfiction, where setting a scene usually comes second to letting familiar characters interact with one another.

Good dialogue can make your story more believable and interesting. Bad dialogue can make your story leaden, confusing, or dull. So it's important to know both the grammatical and the stylistic rules of dialogue.

Let's start with The Good and the Bad.

The Good and the Bad


Dialogue has its own rules of punctuation. Different languages and cultures denote dialogue differently, and even American English works can sometimes use different methods of noting dialogue, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. For the sake of clarity (and so this isn't five million words long), I'm going to stick with standard American English usage and punctuation.

Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind when writing dialogue.

Every speaker should have his or her own paragraph.

One of the challenges of dialogue, especially dialogue-heavy fanfiction, is keeping speakers straight. Let's have an example of how not to do this.

"What the hell are you doing?" Sanzo challenged. "I'm not doing anything!" whined Goku. "You're staring at me again," Sanzo snapped. "Cut it out."

What just happened here? Yeah, I don't know either. Let's try it with a few paragraph breaks for clarity.

"What the hell are you doing?" Sanzo challenged.

"I'm not doing anything!" whined Goku.

"You're staring at me again," Sanzo snapped. "Cut it out."

Oh, now we get it-- Goku's staring, Sanzo's annoyed. In fact, when we break out paragraphs, we don't have to break up the dialogue as much with other words:

"What the hell are you doing?" Sanzo challenged.

"I'm not doing anything!" whined Goku.

"You're staring at me again. Cut it out."

Goku's still staring, Sanzo's still annoyed.

This brings us to another rule:

It's okay to use 'said.' It's also okay, sometimes, not to note a speaker at all.

It's a common beginner mistake: Using 'said' constantly gets boring for us as a writer, so we end up using synonyms, or words we think will add more context to the story. The problem is, if you're not careful, you get deathless prose like this:

"It's not my fault," Tony whined. "It's Ziva's fault."

"It's not my fault," Ziva snapped. "It's hardly my fault that you tried to seduce a carpet cleaner."

"Muncher," McGee corrected, looking embarrassed. "You mean carpet muncher."

"Is this really the kind of American slang we're supposed to be teaching Ziva?" Gibbs asked.

"Is there something wrong with the phrase?" wondered Ziva.

A couple more paragraphs like this, and you'll start begging the writer to just use 'said' already. It feels labored and overly busy.

Here's a little secret for writers: the word 'said' is hardly even noticed by the reader. Don't believe me? Pick up your favorite novel. Chances are, the author's using 'said' all the time and you just haven't noticed. Even Charles Dickens, who was paid by the word, used 'said' a lot.

But if you feel like a broken record using 'said' all the time, there are other ways to break up your dialogue and indicate a speaker. Actions, you see, can speak louder--or at least as loudly--as words. Let's try that scene again:

"It's not my fault," Tony whined. "It's Ziva's fault."

"It's not my fault." Ziva snapped the paperwork down on her desk. "It's hardly my fault that you tried to seduce a carpet cleaner."

McGee put his hand over his face. "Muncher," he said. "You mean carpet muncher."

"Is this really the kind of American slang we're supposed to be teaching Ziva?" Gibbs asked.

Ziva looked confused. "Is there something wrong with the phrase?"

Suddenly, your story has action, you still don't feel like you're saying 'said' all the time, and your poor reader isn't exhausted by all the synonyms you're using.

Punctuation is tricky, but necessary.

Proper punctuation helps people take you more seriously as a writer, and makes your writing easier to read. But of course, you know the importance of good grammar, or you wouldn't be here! :D

1. Punctuation belongs inside the quotation marks. In fact, even when someone is interrupted or trails off, they still have punctuation, and it should stay within the quotation marks. It makes things tidier.

"Ah," Hakkai said. "When my sister and I were...."

"Right," Gojyo said. "Let's go."

Notice that even Gojyo's "Right" has its own punctuation. Each statement should stand on its own, just like in a sentence outside dialogue. Think of a set of quotation marks as a sandwich--the filling should all be inside, not out.

Once in a while you'll need to put something outside the sandwich, but that's when you're interfering as a writer.

"Ah," Hakkai said. "When my sister and I were...."

Did every statement of Hakkai's have to involve "my sister and I"? "Right," Gojyo said. "Let's go."

In this instance, Gojyo (and you, as the writer/narrator), is doing the questioning, not Hakkai, the speaker.

2. If you're italicizing or otherwise emphasizing something in a quote, the quotation marks should be in italics.

I'll use asterisks to indicate the italics.

"You're being *ridiculous,"* Crawford said. "I don't care if she's in a coma, you are *not* allowed to dress Fujimiya-chan up for Halloween."

3. Again: You must punctuate.

Every quotation must have punctuation at the end. If you need to break the quotation, put a comma there. If your sentence continues after the end of the quotation, put a comma there. If you write a lot of quotations, you should use a lot of commas. Make sure you break the sentence at a 'natural' break, where the person could plausibly pause for breath.

"You're insane," Crawford said.

"Yes," Farfarello confirmed, "but I'm effective."

4. Continuing dialogue doesn't need an end quote. If your character is droning on and on, they may need more than one paragraph. Don't put a close quote there! Just let them keep talking, and put another quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph.

"Christmas," Schuldig said cheerfully. "The most wonderful time of the year. Children screaming, crying, tugging at their mothers' dresses; grumpy fathers, angry Santas.

"Oh, and the mothers. They usually have migraines by now. You know what mothers with migraines do?" His grin turned wicked. "They yell."

And then there's the ugly.

There's two kinds of ugly, and the first kind, in my mind, is the gramatically incorrect. People don't talk the way you learned was proper in English class. They use slang, and shortcuts, and lots and lots of contractions.

Most good dialogue will use some of these everday errors and shortcuts. The trick is not to over-use them, because overused if you're not careful, your words can be hard to read and confusing. If your dialogue is too thickly accented or dialect-heavy, it's particularly difficult and often can turn readers off completely. Accents are usually best applied with a light touch, not a heavy one.

The second kind of ugly is a bit dicier. This kind of 'ugly' dialogue uses slurs or profanity to show a character is uncultured, stupid or nasty.

Sometimes you need ugly dialogue. But ugly dialogue can also be lazy writing. If you want to show that someone is a bad guy, having him use 'n*gger' might work. But it's far more satisfying and interesting, both to the reader, and, in the end, to you, to show us Bad Guy acting like a bad guy. Too often ugly epithets are a shortcut you shouldn't be taking. Sometimes they need to be used, but always use them with caution.


These are Amazon links, but most of these are available dirt cheap at your local used bookstore.

On Writing, by Stephen King. I don't care if you think he's a hack. Read it. His fiction books also handle dialogue incredibly well.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Most of the book is dialogue-based, and the dialogue is formatted differently than standard American English. It's also a good, if profoundly depressing, read.

Listening is also key to writing good dialogue. There are two fabulous tools for learning good dialogue through listening, and you should do them both.

The first is to spy on people. Be subtle about it. "Tell them," as my late college professor recommended, "you're writing a letter to your grandmother." You don't have to, as he had me, write down every word they say, but you do have to listen. Listen carefully. Listen to the errors, the accidents, the way that people who are intimate talk to each other and the way strangers interact.

And then you have to listen to good dialogue. Good dialogue, as I've said above, is not identical to 'actual speech.' Listen to books on tape, remember to read, and watch movies. Watch good movies. A few examples of dialogue-heavy good movies:

Glengarry Glen Ross, a modern, talky movie based on a play.

We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.

Some Like It Hot, a classic comedy known for its sharp dialogue and great laughs.

We're up the creek and you want to hock the paddle!

The Laramie Project, adapted from a play and based on interviews of real people from Laramie, Wyoming.

My secret hope was that they were from somewhere else...that then you can create this distance. 'We don't grow children like that here.' Well, it's pretty clear we do grow children like that here.

Have any other questions? Want to give your favorite tips? Please feel free to inquire or share in comments!
Tags: !feature, author:lady_ganesh, dialogue, dialogue:punctuation, dialogue:tags, language:english dialects, style, writing tips, writing tips:dialogue

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