Dr. Kristi Siegel
Mount Mary College
Fidelis 223
(414) 258-4810, ext. 461

    Using Dialogue Effectively ...

    Show.  Don't Tell

Do you remember hearing "Show. Don't tell." ?  What did your English
teacher mean? 

"Telling" is exactly what it sounds like.  You are narrating events by telling
what happened a Lego block at a time.  Without showing (by using clear,
compelling descriptions or by using dialogue) the narrative becomes flat
and dull. 

Consider this.  A friend of your states, "Mike said some nice things about
you." Would you reply, "Oh, that's good," or would you ask, immediately,
"What did he say?"  Dialogue is more interesting and vivid than summarized
conversations. Dialogue also helps signal the more important or dramatic
moments of your narrative.

As with description, it's also possible to overuse dialogue.

Writing Good Dialogue

How do you write good dialogue?  Easy.  Listen.  Listen to how people speak.  Eavesdrop a little and try to write down some conversations.  What you'll find is that people usually don't speak in long, well-developed sentences.  More often, conversations consist of incomplete sentences, cliches, stringy descriptions, sudden shifts of thought, and even non-words, e.g., "Uh ..."

If you write dialogue where your speakers use long formal sentences, it's going to sound fake (unless this is the way these characters actually spoke).  For example, consider the difference between the dialogue in example one and example two below:

Example one:

"Alex," my mother asked, "what were your activities and pursuits at your middle school today?"

"I had a full day of activities, Mother.  My teachers were stimulating, and my English class was especially delightful."

Example two:

"How was school?"

"I don't know.  All right, I guess."

It's unlikely that you'd write dialogue as poor as that in example one, but writing good dialogue is a skill.  You need a good ear.

Also, in the second example you might substitute, "I dunno." for "I don't know."   But be careful.  If you use too many phonetic substitutes your charcters are going to sound illiterate.

Punctuating Dialogue Correctly

Every time there is a change in speakers, you need to begin a new paragraph; this applies even if it's just two people talking back and forth:

"What did he say?"

"The usual.  How much he hates his job.  How pressured he feels."

"What's he going to do?"

"He didn't say.  Probably nothing.  I can't talk to him."

Try to use interrupters like "Mary said," "Bob replied" sparingly.  If it's clear who's speaking you don't need to keep identifying the speaker.

Use quotation marks and commas correctly.  Here are some examples:

One sentence of dialogue with the speaker "identification" in the middle:
"It's raining outside," Heather complained, "and it's only going to get worse."

Two complete statements with the speaker "identification" in the middle:
"It's raining outside," Heather complained.  "How can it rain on my wedding day!"

Do not put indirect dialogue in quotes.  For example, the following sentence contains an indirect quote: < George said that he'd come home as soon as he could.>  In the previous sentence, you are reporting what someone else said.  It is not direct speech so you would not put the reported dialogue in quotes, e.g., George said, "that he'd come home as soon as he could."  If you were quoting George directly, his comment might look like this:  George said, "I'll come home as soon as I can."

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