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Friday, April 19, 2013

Wordworking: Q is for Dialogue

Today's title is in honor of
It's a favorite read at the Hall House.
Q is for Duck as Q is for Dialogue.
Ducks quack and for us to have dialogue, we need (double) quotation marks.

As my five-year-old understands, if there are quotations, then somebody is talking. She also knows that if the word before the quotation mark is said, it is followed by a comma.

Julia said, "Quack."

But what if the word isn't said? Then what happens?

I have a trusty notebook given to my be the incredible Ilima K Todd. It's battered and worn and my kiddos have pulled out a few pages. It's a little like Kristin Cashore's fireproof safes full of her notebooks.

One page of my notebook is devoted to dialogue.
It looks like this:

And yes, although it is hard to tell in my writing, the comma and period (full stop) are inside the quotation marks:) 

I wrote it last summer. While I know these by heart now, I still turn to this page from time to time and smile.
Do you have notes like this that keep dialogue (or something else) straight in your mind so you don't have to google it every time?

Said is the tag of choice. No need to scream, cry, berate, yell, explain, etc.

If you smile, laugh, grimace, make a face, stick out your tongue, etc. you cannot do them as you speak, so instead of a comma, use a period.

Wrong: I smiled, "You are the sexiest man this side of that cactus."
Right:   I smiled. "You are the sexiest man this side of that cactus."

Tim Wynn-Jones is the master of dialogue. I was lucky enough to be in his class during WIFYR last summer.

  • Dialogue REVEALS character. If it's not doing that, it isn't doing it's job. 
  • Dialogue is not the time to tell backstory. (two best friends discussing something they both know)
  • In dialogue, no hitting the pause button, it's like pausing a movie to explain a scene to someone who hasn't seen the movie. 
  • Beats should not be an arbitrary observation: it is part of the conversation. (think of the beat as a third character in your dialogue)
  • Dialogue can't be too witty--the joke can't be from the author, but from the character. 
  • Even funny dialogue must further the story
  • Reflection must happen in real time. Ex: While Tim gets his coat Rebecca can think about their argument. If only three seconds pass in "real time" only three words can pass on the page.
Check out Tim's Eleven Things You Need to Know (5 thru 9 are all about dialogue)


  1. Most enjoyable !Q! post to read.


  2. Dialogue can really trip me up. Sometimes I'm right on, others I'm not. Comma... period... who the heck knows. Well Robin knows! I need to bookmark this page.

  3. TWJ's presentation on dialogue was unbelievable. Also, I love writing dialogue. :)

  4. Those are some great tips! I love the one about thinking of the beat as a third character in dialogue. That's so true! I'd never thought of it that way before.

    Happy Thursday!

  5. I don't always follow strict dialogue rules, because they don't always serve my purpose. And I disagree with the smile period thing on all occasions. A period implies that the action precedes the quote, so I often use the comma to show that the quote is happening during the action. You can smile and speak at the same time. I'll also throw dialogue into the middle of a sentence with no commas offsetting it when I want the thing that is being said to be treated as object. For instance:

    He threw an "I'll be careful" back over his shoulder as he walked away.

    How you work dialogue is important in fiction, and it's one of the areas I think the author should be able to really bend the rules around... if s/he knows the rules and knows what s/he's doing.

  6. This was great, unless you're J. K. Rowling.