Joe Perrone on How To Write Effective Dialogue

Have you ever begun reading what appeared from the cover and description to be a really good book, only to be disappointed by dialogue that was stiff, stilted, and unrealistic. Such is often the case in self-published fiction. Too many authors spend hours and hours on plot and scene description, while failing to comprehend the importance of good dialogue.

Here is an example of what I am talking about

The house stood like a wooden sentinel, perched on the top of the hill, with its oversized windows watching for the approach of strangers. When Tom pulled his car up the long driveway, he felt as though his every move was being observed. He turned off the ignition, stepped down on the parking brake, and exited the vehicle. A short, brick encrusted walkway led him to the front door. With no button in evidence for a bell, Tom used the heavy metal door knocker to announce his arrival.

(So far, so good, right?)

After a few moments, the door opened slowly with a creak, and a man in formal butler’s attire greeted him with a smile.

“May I be of some help to you, sir?” said the man. “I do not recognize your automobile, so I must assume that you are attempting to sell some merchandise. I am sorry to say that we have no interest in any products that you might be selling.”

(Ugh! It gets worse)

Tom stifled a laugh, then replied, “No, no. I am not trying to sell any products. I am an old acquaintance of the man who formerly lived in this house. I am trying to determine his present location. Can you possibly assist me?

Okay, had enough? (Well, by now, so have your readers)

Now, here’s the same dialogue, but written in a more authentic and interesting manner:

“Can I help you, sir?” said the man. “I’ve never seen your car before, so I’m guessing you’re a salesman. I’m sorry, but we’re just not interested.”

Tom stifled a laugh, then replied, “No, no, I’m not a salesman. Actually, I’m an old friend of the previous owner. We’ve lost touch with one another, and I’m trying to track him down. Would you have any idea where I can find him?”

See the difference?

When you write dialogue, try to get inside the skin of the character. Think of his age, his station in life, his demeanor. Where is he from? Does he have an accent? Is it an accent that is easy to replicate? Always read your dialogue out loud to see if it sounds natural, the way people really speak.

Another mistake that many writers make is trying to have a character speak with an accent. Most of the time it fails miserably. Instead, why not say something like this:

Gino spoke with a heavy Italian accent. Then, have the character speak in normal, everyday English, leaving the accent to the imagination of the reader.

Another problem is attribution

You know—who said what. It’s always imperative that a reader know who is speaking. That does NOT mean that you must always use “said Bob,” or “Bob said.”

Once you have established who is speaking in a two-person scene, it is often possible to maintain the conversation without any attribution at all. Try this: Write a piece of dialogue between two people, using what you would consider “normal” attribution. Now, remove the attribution (he said, she said, etc.) and see if you can still tell who is talking. If not, put back the attribution, one bit at a time. Each time, read it aloud and see if you can determine who is speaking. Here is an example:

“Fred, do you think Shirley will let you go to the movies with me tonight?” asked Harry.

“I’m not sure,” replied Fred. “She always likes for me to be home on Monday nights.”

“Well,” said Harry, “why don’t you just tell her you’re going?”

Fred replied, “You know what, Harry, I think I will! I’m sick to death of her telling me what to do.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Harry. “Tell her to stick it where the sun…”

Now, here the same piece of dialogue without all the attribution

“Fred, do you think Shirley will let you go to the movies with me tonight?” asked Harry.

“I’m not sure. She’s always likes for me to be home on Monday nights”

“Well, why don’t you just tell her you’re going?”

“You know what? I think I will! I’m sick to death of her telling me what to do.”

“Now you’re talking. Tell her to stick it where the sun…”

All that was necessary to know who was speaking was the initial attribution in the first sentence. This example might be a bit extreme, but you get the point.

So, what have we learned? Here are four basic rules to writing effective dialogue:

1. Think about who is speaking. Have a clear picture of their age, gender, ethnicity, social standing, etc. Girls should speak as girls, boys as boys. College graduates should not speak the same way as an inner city person, etc.

2. Read the dialogue you’ve written aloud to be sure it sounds natural, the way “real” people speak in every day life.

3. Keep attribution to a minimum, only using it when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion.

4. Don’t attempt to depict an accent, unless it’s easily done AND repeatable and consistent.

I think that if you follow these guidelines, you’ll begin to write better dialogue before long, and soon you will become a “dialogue” guru.

***

This post was written by Joe Perrone


Joe Fishing 2012 squareJoe Perrone Jr. is the author of the Matt Davis Mystery Series: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day, Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. His other novel is Escaping Innocence (A Story of Awakening), a coming-of-age tale set in the tumultuous Sixties. In addition, he has written two non-fiction books: A “Real” Man’s Guide to Divorce (First, you bend over and…) and Gone Fishin’ with Kids (How to Take Your Children Fishing and Still be Friends). At present, he is at work on a stand-alone thriller entitled Getting Even!

Visit Joe’s website at www.joeperronejr.com to follow his blog. You can also follow him on Twitter @catsklgd1.

Capitalisation – The Small Matter of the Big Letter

When to capitalise, or not  

The small matter of the big letter

By Lucy Pireel

“I know when to use capitals.” I bet you’re thinking that, but you would be surprised by how much goes wrong with capitals. Besides the obvious, there are more rules on when, or when not, to use them.

The first word of a sentence

“Duh, I know that.” But do you know that when the sentence starts after a colon, you do not capitalise? There is, of course, an exception to that rule. When two or more sentences follow the colon, we do capitalise the first word of all sentences following it. Although there are certain style guides that say, “When the sentence is an independent clause, even if it’s only one, you do capitalise its first word.” Which basically means that it’s a style choice you need to make for yourself and stick to it throughout the entire piece you’re writing.

Quotes are sentences, and as such, the first word is capitalised, even if the quote is only one word.

“No,” she said.

Likewise when that quote comes at the end of the narrative sentence. She said, “No.”

But not when the quote is interrupted speech. “Hey,” she said, “will you listen to me for once?”

How about when there’s an independent question in a sentence? Then its first word needs a capital. Like in this following example: Some people have trouble with capitals, Did you know that?

This might look funny, or even wrong, but it is a seldom used–even obscure–rule, or style choice, and maybe forgotten by most.

Proper nouns

All proper nouns and words derived from proper nouns should be capitalised. But, where there’s a rule, there’s an exception. When those words are used in a non-unique way, use lowercase. Just think of the Roman Empire (there’s only one of those) but roman numerals (take your pick, there’s so many of them). Or Hershey Kisses as opposed to regular kisses. Remember that a proper noun is still a noun, but a noun is common, while a proper noun refers to a unique entity.

Having trouble distinguishing nouns from proper nouns? Take, for example, cookies (noun), but only when I write Oreos (proper noun) you’ll know I’m talking about chocolate cookies. Or the Eiffel Tower (proper noun) as opposed to the tower (noun) Job built. Which takes us to the next rule.

Names

Easy? Maybe not. Even names have their difficulties. For example, federal or state in the names of official agencies. When they represent an official name, capitalise, but if used in general, don’t.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates.”

“I will visit three states.”

The names of specific course titles are always capitalised. Meaning Algebra (specific) is capitalised as is English (derived from a proper noun) but not history (could be any kind of history). However, when you refer to algebra in a common way, it should be lowercase. “I love algebra, except when I have an Algebra II exam.”

We capitalise the points of the compass, but only when they refer to a specific region.

“We live in the South.”

But not, “It should be in the southeast section of town.” Because southeast is an adjective here.

Are you dazzled already? Names are easy, aren’t they? Well there’s one more rule, or rather an exception to the rule.

Never, ever capitalise the names of seasons, except when that name is the first word of a sentence, or part of a proper noun, then it is personalised. “The girl, Summer, qualified for the Winter Olympics.”

Kinship names

Those are names and should be capitalised when used alone or when they immediately precede the name of the person.

“It’s true that Mom bakes a better cake than Aunt Bessie.”

But do not capitalise when it’s describing the name or follows the name. Sounds more difficult than it is. “My aunt’s cake is not as nice as Jacob’s mom’s.”

Titles

Whether it’s a publication’s or a person’s, all titles are capitalised. Except … Yes, this rule has its exceptions too, like all.

The complete title of a publication is capitalised, except for the little words such as: a, an, but, and, if, or, nor, etc., or prepositions, no matter what their length. On the subject of prepositions there are two opinions among the stylists, because it’s also said that when a preposition has four or more letters it should be capitalised. In this case, the rule of thumb is: Pick your choice of style and stick to it. Be consistent, and you’ll be in style.

A person’s title is capitalised when it’s used as a direct address or precedes the name, but not when it follows the name, except when it’s on the address or signature line.

“Good afternoon, Doctor.”

“Doctor Frankenstein created a lovely monster.”

“The monster was created by Frankenstein, the doctor.”

“Sincerely yours,

Frankenstein, Doctor.”

And last, but certainly not least, the titles of high-ranking officials. Those types who reside in capitals, but only when the title is used before their names.

“The president (not followed by his name) will address Congress (name of an official body).”

Or:

“It was when President Obama met the senators that Lieutenant Governor Smith dropped the ball.”

And now to end with one that confuses almost everybody.

Lists

It’s not that difficult. When it’s an outline, each item is capitalised.

This is what I need to do, Get gear, Book a trip, Find a Guide, Climb that mountain, Don’t die trying.

But not when a list of items follow a colon.

This is what I need to bring: shoes, rope, carabiners, and a helmet.


I hope this small piece about the big letter helps you to avoid that capital mistake when writing about Capitol Hill.