Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing Fiction: Session 9 - The Mechanics of Dialogue

The Mechanics of Dialogue

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. There is a definite format to writing dialogue and if you, as the writer, adhere to this format, you’ll impress editors and agents everywhere. I don’t know how many times I’ve edited first novels and found that the person has no idea of how to write dialogue. We’ll address voice later, because that has a lot to do with dialogue, but today we’ll just talk about the mechanics of formatting dialogue.

Rule #1: Paragraphs

First of all, to make it easy on your reader, please adhere to the rule of one speaker per paragraph. This means that every time someone speaks, you give that person a new paragraph. You start that paragraph with their dialogue or with any statements that change the attention to him/her. For example:

Don’t write:

“Hi Mary,” Sarah said. Mary turned at the sound of her name. “Hi Sarah. Good to see you,” Mary responded.

Instead, it would be written:

“Hi Mary,” Sarah said.

Mary turned at the sound of her name. “Hi Sarah. Good to see you,” Mary responded.


Easy enough, right? So are you gritting your teeth because you have lots of dialogue to re-format? I know it’s a lot of work, but once you grasp these few formatting rules you’ll make your life in writing dialogue much easier.

Rule #2: Quotation Marks

Spoken dialogue is put within quotation marks. The rule for quotation marks is that dialogue and punctuation of the dialogue go within quotation marks. Easy enough, eh? Then why do I find so many commas outside the quotation marks? Okay… here’s an example.

“I like the color of your car,” Sam said.

Notice the quotation mark begins the dialogue, then we have what Sam said followed by a comma and the quotation mark to end what Sam said. Notice that what Sam said does not end in a period because the tag line follows it (a tag line tells the reader who is talking).

However, if you turn it around, it would end with a period and then the quotation mark. For example,

Sam said, “I like the color of your car.”

Instead of a comma, it ends with a period before the final quotation mark because that is the last word of the only sentence that Sam said.

If Sam says more than one thing in that paragraph, you don’t put quotation marks around each sentence. Rather you put the quotation marks around all the continuous words coming out of Sam’s mouth within that paragraph. For example:

“I like the color of your car, Jim. You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida, who wants a black car. Too hot,” Sam said.

So what happens if Sam switches topics? In normal writing without conversation, you would just start a new paragraph when you switch to a new topic. If Sam is talking on and on and switches topics before someone else speaks, you would have to handle your quotation marks accordingly. If you have used a tag to indicate that Sam is talking as a way to end the first paragraph, it would be like this:

“I like the color of your car, Jim. You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida who wants a black car? Too hot,” Sam said.

“You must try the new cookies my wife made,” Sam continued. “You’ll love them.”


If however, you don’t put a tag at the end of the paragraph because it’s obvious who is talking, you omit the quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph but put one at the beginning of the second paragraph. This signifies to your reader that Sam is still talking. For example:

“I like the color of your car, Jim,” Sam said. “You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida who wants a black car? Too hot.

“You must try the new cookies my wife made. You’ll love them.”

Got it? Good. Practice that with some of your dialogue and we’ll go on with the use of tags next time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Fiction: Session 8 - Plot


Plot : Asking The Question

Without a plot, you won’t have a book. With a bad plot or a boring plot you’ll have a book that no one will finish but your mother. And, she might lie to you about finishing it. So let’s talk about the essentials of a good plot. What are they?

Every plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That sounds like the easy part, but it’s not. Many writers begin writing about their character’s life, thinking that they have a plot and that they are telling a story. Unless there is a compelling underlying question to weave the events in a person’s life into a story (with a beginning, a middle, and an end), you are merely making episodic entries into your character’s diary. Some of those episodes might be interesting, but they won’t necessarily make a story.

Essentially a good plot will lead your character from the event that creates some sort of conflict or question in his/her life to the resolution of that conflict or question. That’s the key to it. Everything in between is the plot.

Think about the best novels you’ve read. You don’t want to put them down. Why? Because the writer has asked a question or some questions that haven’t been answered. The questions are compelling and the reader feels a need to find out if they'll be answered. Throughout the book the writer answers just enough of the quetions to satisfy the reader, and then, WHAM, the writer throws more and more roadblocks and questions in the way of the resolution. As a result, the characters have more trouble solving the problem(s) rather than less. The tension builds and continues to build until the reader concludes there’s no way out of the snarl of it all. Finally, the writer resolves the issues (the climax) and the reader sighs and says, “What a great book!”

We all want the reader to say that about the books we write. So, how do we get to that point? In developing a plot, you must find a question you want to ask or a conflict that the character will face at the beginning of the story. Bring that question to the attention of your readers early and hook them to want to answer that question by finding out what happens. For example, in murder mysteries, there’s usually a dead body in the first few pages. That’s it. Put a body on one of the first few pages and immediately that body creates questions in your readers’ minds. How did that body get there? Did someone murder that person? If so, who did it and why should I care? And why should the main character care? Does the main character have to solve the mystery? If so, how important is it for the main character to solve the mystery?

You see where I’m going with this. Your plot whether it’s a mystery, an adventure story, a love story, or a saga, must ask a question or questions in the beginning. That gets the ball rolling – or the pages turning in this case.

The middle still must compel the reader to turn pages, also. So, while giving the clues, the writer creates more questions.

The important thing is to make sure you don’t answer your big question too soon. Your plot is over once you do. For example, if Sally discovers a body and John Doe walks into the room and says, “I killed Sam,” your question is answered and your story is over.

Your question needs to be big enough to support the full plot. Let's say there’s a body draped over the piano. It’s Sam, John Doe’s partner. John Doe isn’t there but his car keys are on the floor beside the body. When asked, John Doe tells the police that he was home alone. He has no alibi. Instead of just answering the questions of the police, he begins twisting and turning and answering with increasingly vague answers. So, now you have the question: Can John Doe prove he didn’t kill Sam or find who did before the police arrest him? There you go… that question is probably big enough to support your plot.