Presentation by Cheryl Bolen
Before we get
into a discussion of dialogue, we need to define terms. Dialogue
is conversation said aloud to at least one other person. Attribution
is the manner in which credit is given--or attributed--to the
person who said the words. Most of the time attribution is
expressed with the simple word said.
I. Purposes of
Dialogue must move the story forward. Cut greetings,
leave-takings and idle chit-chat that does not pertain to or advance the
this is Lenny. Lenny, Kate.@
are you, Lenny?@
he said. AYou?@
Dialogue can give Aback-story@
better than pages of boring narrative or unnecessary scenes.
had it tough. Our play toys were rats.@
-- Miracle Worker
this dialogue from Animal House:
the worst fraternity on campus? Who dumped a truckload of fizzies in the
swimming pool? Who strung underwear on trees?@
would be Delta House, sir.@
Dialogue can reveal character and setting.
come to a good station =ere,
except for Mister Nose-in-the-Air. You=d
was the duke =imself.
Too good to eat with the rest of the servants.@--A
Duke Deceived--Cheryl Bolen
grabbed the deck of cards. AI
will have a look at the cards, Miss de Mouchet.@--A
Lady By Chance--Cheryl Bolen
Dialogue can be used to inject humor.
this it the chit you married?@
Color rose to his face. ASo
sorry, your grace,@
Twigs said to Bonny. ANot
a chit. Don=t
know what I was thinking to say such a thing.@
quite all right, Mr. Twickingham,@
looked behind him.
talking to you, Twigs,@
the duke said.
Twigs replied. ANot
used to anyone calling me Mr. Twickingham. Thought me father had come.@
-- A Duke Deceived--Cheryl Bolen
Correct methods for using dialogue
Every time the speaker changes, begin a new paragraph; otherwise,
the reader will be confused
Said is the preferred form of attribution.
Though said is the preferred attribution, it should not be
overdone. There is nothing wrong with back-to-back sentences with said
as attribution; however, three in a row seems excessive. One way to
eliminate excessive saids is to use an action to let us know who=s
if you please, rise so that I might determine if you will do,@
am sure I will do, my lord, for your mother herself cast approval on
Anna said with false confidence as she stood up.
circled her. AI
can see I will be the envy of every man at Lord Wentworth=s
his action, we know Haverstock is the speaker of the last sentence.
overuse attribution. In the following dialogue, the underlined
words should have been omitted:
please, Morgie, enter a wager for me,@
my word, Lydie,@
Morgie answered, Aeven
your brother would draw the line at that.@
being the gentleman you are, I know you won=t
first underlined attribution (Morgie answered) is unnecessary. The
second (she said) is not needed because she pouted tells us who
the speaker is.
If there are several speakers attribution is necessary so the
reader knows who=s
speaking, but in such a case, said can be overdone. Therefore, to
avoid using too many saids, some of the following words might be used
Avoid stilted, unnatural dialogue. Generally, shorter is better.
saw an Apache hiding when we were coming here to the fort.@
doubt if it could have been an Apache you saw because Indians of that
tribe are noted for their stealth.@
saw an Apache hiding when we were coming here to the fort.@
you saw him, he wasn=t
Wayne in Fort Apache
Lee Brown, the first Black elected mayor of Houston, won
re-election in a runoff.@
the underlined phrase (appositive.) Appositives are almost never used in
wanted her to help him--and his sister--gain social acceptance.@
his sister is separated by dashes, which indicate a conversational
quality that is acceptable in fiction, provided it is short. Make sure
the words within the dashes are located next to the noun they modify.
In dialogue, contractions should almost always be used because
how people really talk.
will give you two days to leave.@
give you two days to leave.@
second sentence is not only more natural sounding, it conveys more
are permissible for foreigners or royalty or some characters in
English, it is not very good.@
better to say Ait
me by telling me what you have done.@
In this case, a historical character is speaking as they would have at
that time. AYou
is better here than Ayou=ve.@
Avoid overuse of character=s
names in dialogue.
she had 73 pairs of shoes.@
has nothing to do with that statement.
Give different characters different speech and speech patterns.
the book Angela=s
Ashes the reader always knows when the father (from Northern
Ireland) is speaking because he=s
the only character in the book who says, AOoch,
dialogue could be peppered with Aya
Use foreign words sparingly. If they are used, be sure to explain
but I assure you I=m
not the devil.@
Use dialect sparingly, but be consistent. When using dialect in
dialogue, I usually narrow it down to one verbal trait to convey the
class of the person. For lower class English, I simply drop the AH@
sound. For some ethnic groups, the AD@
sound takes the place of the ATH@
sound, as in dis for this.
Women and men do not speak the same.
speech is shorter, with fewer adjectives and adverbs. Men speak of news,
politics, sports and jokes.
speech is longer with more questions (Aisn=t
and qualifiers (AI
Women like to discuss personal experiences, friends, thoughts, feelings
and everyday events.
male would say, AThen
you must seek permission.@
female would say, AI
really think you ought to try to get permission.@
Attribution is always set apart from the rest of the sentence
with a comma and quotation marks around the exact words being said.
If the attribution precedes the quotation, the comma goes with
the attribution, not the words said.
If, however, the attribution goes at the end of the sentence, the
comma goes with the words being said.
the character is asking a question, the question mark must go inside of
the quotation marks.
my father here?@
Bolen is indebted to the University of St. Thomas's
Sam Havens, to bestseller Barbara Dawson Smith and to Houston author
Thelma Zirkelbach whose excellent workshops contributed to her body of
knowledge on dialogue.