Dialogue Part 2: Practical Tips with Tracey Kathryn
Last month, I wrote about how listening and observing combine to improve dialogue-writing skills. Every writer is an analyst. We evaluate situations, people, and events, then use them to inspire our work. Dialogue is a special component of writing, however. Learning to write unique, realistic, plot-enhancing conversation is difficult. This month, I have compiled several links, plus offered insight about why those links are helpful.
As I researched the concept of dialogue writing, I found many sites that offered great tips about composing strong dialogue. The Writer’s Digest website is a trove of dialogue-writing advice. This column is a bit older but it’s a gem. It includes fantastic tips, and my favorite is to use dialogue to avoid the problem of backstory; it’s a technique we all should hone. I recently started reading a much-hyped thriller but didn’t finish it because the backstory bogged down the narrative. Every character was introduced with a plot-clogging paragraph of description, and scenes were slowed by deviations into what happened in the past. I made it through the first ten chapters, then back to the library the book went. I was glad I didn’t spend money on it.
This column from Writer’s Digest details how the placement of tags affects the reader’s interpretation of what’s being said. For example, placing a tag in the middle of the dialogue reveals that the speaker is pausing to think before finishing his sentence. That technique is brilliant. Plus, it saves an adverb. Rather than describe the speaker as talking slowly or thoughtfully, the tag does the work. (I also enjoy this column because its author describes overhearing a man in a hotel lobby who was talking in two distinctly different ways. As I mentioned last month, a writer’s power of observation comes in handy when composing dialogue!)
Punctuating dialogue is its own specialty. Surprisingly, I’ve found that many strong writers struggle with punctuating dialogue. They sometimes even overlooking simple standards such as using a comma to introduce text. Helpful tips for proper punctuation can be found here and here. (Yes, studying dialogue punctuation rules is tedious. But as mentioned in one of the links, proper punctuation adds to a writer’s credibility, especially for self-published authors.)
One issue that I struggle with is when to begin a new paragraph. I was trained to begin a new paragraph whenever someone begins speaking; however, it seems that method has relaxed. Experts recommend starting a new paragraph when someone new is speaking as well as when a topic changes. Otherwise, it’s permissible to include dialogue at the end of a narrative paragraph. This article explains it well.
Finally, this article offers comprehensive advice about both dialogue punctuation and dialogue in narrative paragraphs. I like that it emphasizes helping the reader as much as possible with placement of punctuation and paragraphs. After all, writers use commas, quotations, and tags to support the story and convey ideas as clearly as possible.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post about dialogue, I enjoy writing it. I find it a challenge to think about how someone else would express themselves. Further, call me a nerd, but I like studying how dialogue is represented on the page. I pay attention to punctuation and find it satisfying to know how to do it correctly. For the remainder of the summer, I’ll be reading more about stories and dialogue including the books on the subject written by the wonderful Robert McKee.