40 3. Using Dialogue
As I said earlier, dialogue is a wonderful tool in narrative writing. It gives your characters a three-dimensional reality. Think about the last time you were very happy, or very angry. Think about the words you chose to express yourself. The words you use represent your personality. People create impressions of you based on what you say. That is very important in narrative writing, where the only thing the reader can judge you on is the choice of words you use. Each character should have a unique way of speaking, a realistic way of speaking.
There are a couple of basic rules I’d like you to think about:
- First, use a new paragraph every time someone speaks. Sometimes paragraphs will be very short, but that is ok. The new paragraph helps the reader recognize that someone new is speaking.
- Don’t get too fancy with attributions. John said, “I am going to the store…”, is much better than John exclaimed, “I am going to the store.” You should help the attribution identify who is speaking; it should not be a distraction to what is being said.
- Dialogue has very basic punctuation rules:
- Capitalize the first letter in any direct quote, whether at the beginning of the sentence or after an attribution: “Looks like it is going to rain,” John said. John said, “It looks like it is going to rain.”
- Don’t capitalize the first letter of the second part of a direct quote following an attribution that breaks up a sentence: “We will work on it,” John said, “when we get a chance.”
- The punctuation (comma, period, etc.) at the end of a direct quote comes before the quotation mark: “No way,” I said. “Are you kidding?”
- Don’t overuse dialogue. Use it to emphasize something. I’m not asking you to write a play. Just use dialogue here and there to highlight the action of the story.
Here is a short sample from a short story by Guy de Maupassant that illustrates dialogue. Look at the way the author uses dialogue to tell the story:
The mayor was waiting for him, seated in an arm-chair. He was the notary of the place, a tall, grave man of pompous speech.
“Maitre Hauchecorne,” said he, “This morning, on the Beuzeville road, you were seen to pick up the pocket-book lost by Maitre Houlbreque, of Manneville.”
The countryman, speechless, regarded the mayor, frightened already by this suspicion which rested on him he know not why.
“I, I picked up the pocket-book?”
“I swear I didn’t know nothing about it at all.”
“You were seen.”
“They saw me, me? Who is it who saw me?”
“M. Malandain, the harness-maker.”
Then the old man remembered, understood, and, reddening with anger:
“Ah, he saw me, did he, the rascal? He saw me picking up this string here, M’sieu’ le Maire.”
And, fumbling at the bottom of his pocket, he pulled out of it the little end of string.
For more information on using dialogue, check out your handbook (look in the Index under “dialogue” or “quotation marks.”