Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dialogue Grammar and Syntax in Fiction

Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of fiction.  It reveals the true voices of the individual characters while also foreshadowing to much of the actionBut to use it correctly, you'll need to be familiar with how dialogue works as part of the sentence and in constructing paragraphs.

Dialogue in Fiction

Grammar-wise, there are two important points to bear in mind with dialogue. First is to remember that an entire utterance can count either as a complete sentence or as a sentence fragment. And this consideration is independent of what's actually inside the quotation marks. If it's a sentence fragment, then it becomes a subordinate clause to the 'he said, she said' parts of the sentence. Strangely, the speech attribution serves as the subject and verb of the complete sentence – the dialogue may draw the reader’s attention, but it’s a grammatical afterthought.

With this in mind, note that dialogue tags MUST refer directly to the act of speaking. ["I'm running," he said/spat/uttered/muttered.] is okay. ["I'm running," he dashed, escaping the velociraptor.] is not okay. In the second example, we have object/verb disagreement - it's impossible to dash the words you're speaking.

The second major consideration is the use of punctuation. Dialogue punctuation always goes right next to the word it follows - inside the quotes at the end of speech, and before the quotes if speech follows. ["I ran," he said, "because I wanted to see you."] A comma takes the place of a period inside dialogue whenever speech attribution follows, but exclamation points and question marks are never replaced by commas. In all cases, the punctuation must reflect the dialogue’s role in the paragraph, showing whether it forms an independent clause or a dependent/subordinate clause to the attribution.

Dialogue Demonstration - Short Version (syntax demonstration)
“Dialogue,” he said.
“Dialogue,” she said, “is dialogue.”
He did something. “Dialogue.”
“Dialogue?” she asked.
Thoughts, she thought. “Not dialogue,” she said. “Please not that.”
“But it’s time!” He did something to emphasize this.
“No,” she said, “it’s not.”

Note the syllable count and its effect on pace

Dialogue Demonstration – Extended Version (incorporates exposition and point-of-view)
“This is dialogue,” he told her. He used a comma because the dialogue itself was a sentence, but it was also a subordinate clause to his speech attribution.
“Dialogue,” she said, “is dialogue. And this isn't the time.”
He did something. “Dialogue.” She noted the punctuation inside quotes. He clearly saw this dialogue thing as so important that he gave it an entire sentence. We don't need a speech attribution because we know the words are his. And all this exposition is slowing the pace here – the idea of dialogue has not yet reached critical importance. But she was afraid it would.
“Dialogue?” she asked. She didn't understand what he was getting at. Yet she was careful to place her question mark inside the quotes and to include only a single space between the final quotation mark and the words “she asked.” Unfortunately, her attention to detail just wasn’t enough for him.
Thoughts, she thought. Then she got his meaning. The very prospect terrified her. “Not dialogue,” she said. “Please not that.”
“But it’s time!” he shouted. And he used an exclamation point even though his angry words remain a subordinate clause.
“But it's not the dialogue,” she said. "It's worse than that.” She was actually thinking about his autistic fixation on that word. The fact that he also had bad breath didn’t help. And the thought of carrying on an entire conversation with him for the duration of this exercise in punctuation? The very idea made her want to vomit.

I also like to note the syllable count and its effect on pace. Short, curt lines of dialogue speed up the pace - adding in exposition can slow it down. Generally, characters should speak less and reflect more, but the right balance will depend on the action and tone.


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