The Do's and Don'ts of Dialogue

It seems that the more current fiction I read these days the more dialogue I am seeing in the text.  As a matter of fact, most novels written today are heavy on the dialogue and lighter on the long paragraphs of detailed description. Dialogue is a tool used to further the action, to give us a sense of characterization and to ultimately drive the story along.

The problem is that some indie writers either do not understand the rules for writing dialogue or want to make up their own.  The only writer ever to change the conventions of dialogue in prose was James Joyce (indicating dialogue with dashes) and even he followed the following rules.

Do's:

  1. Proper Quotation Marks - Dialogue is set off with quotation marks ("), not single marks, unless the character speaking is quoting someone else.
  2. Punctuation - If the sentence of dialogue is divided by a descriptor (i.e. said Bill as he stirred his soup), the writer must end any dialogue before the descriptor with a comma and then a quotation mark.  If the character is making a speech that requires another paragraph, quotation marks are not needed until the speech ends, but each new paragraph has to have quotation marks at the start where it is indented.
  3. Grammar - It is not necessary to use perfect grammar when illustrating speech because most people do not speak perfect grammar all the time.  It should depend on the education level and cultural background of the speaking character.
  4. Action - Any dialogue should not be filler and should drive the story forward.  Cut out any dialogue that does not achieve this purpose.

Don'ts:

  1. Describing Action - Do not describe what the character is doing right before that character's dialogue begins.  It often leads to telling instead of showing.  Descriptors should be sprinkled throughout the dialogue in order to avoid the appearance of a couple of talking heads where no description is used at all.  I've read books where the dialogue is uninterrupted by any action for pages and pages.  I want to know what the characters are doing while they are talking, but balance must be achieved.  Let the tone of the dialogue denote emotion and meaning.
  2. Dialogue Within Paragraphs - One of the most annoying things that amateur writers do is place dialogue in the middle of a huge paragraph without giving each new speaker their own paragraph.  When writers don't follow this simple convention they run the risk of confusing the reader so that they don't know who is speaking.
  3. Flat Dialogue - Some writers simply do not have the talent to illustrate normal every day speech.  This comes with practice.  Writers must observe actual speech in order to illustrate actual speech in their writing.  The best way to do this is either watch some good television with great acting or sit around in a diner or other public place and observe people.  Another problem within this category is dialogue that is not specific for each character where all characters sound like the same person.  Each of our characters must have their own voice.

If you have any more suggestions about writing good dialogue or want to vent about problems that you have writing good conversation, please post below.