The following is a guest blog post from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, whose short story, “Poetry by Keats,” took home the grand prize in WD’s 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition. You can read more about Trupkiewicz in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with her online. In this post, Trupkiewicz details the importance of creating realistic dialogue and punctuating dialogue properly in order to keep the reader invested. Even the slightest of errors can draw the reader out of the story.
Be sure to check out the other half of this post, where Trupkiewicz tackles said and other attributions.
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If the devil’s in the details, that makes dialogue for fiction writers one of the most demonic elements of a story or novel. Just thinking about it makes me want to shut down my laptop and take up another career. Something less taxing, like dedicating the rest of my life to finding the Holy Grail.
Think about it. It couldn’t possibly be any more frustrating a career choice.
On the other hand, without dialogue to break up the monotony, stories get wordy and dull. Paragraph after paragraph of description or action eventually bores a reader into throwing the book against the wall and declaring a moratorium on any future reading.
Which is a death sentence for authors.
The goal, instead, is to engage the reader so he/she never even entertains the possibility of tossing aside the book.
Here’s a quick-reference guide to writing effective dialogue in fiction.
Problem: What About Complete Sentences?
When I close my eyes, I can see my middle school English teacher, in a black broomstick skirt and print blouse, as she stressed the importance of “always writing in complete sentences.”
Any student hoping for a glowing report card would’ve taken the edict to heart. I started writing short stories in which the dialogue between characters read something like this:
“Good morning, James. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Thank you, Lisa, you as well. How have you been?”
“I’ve been very well lately, thank you, and you?”
Who talks like that?
Unless you’re writing dialogue in complete sentences for one character in your work of fiction, perhaps to emphasize a cultural difference or a high-class upbringing, few people really talk that way. What worked for Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice isn’t going to fly with today’s readers.
I’ll let you in on a secret. You’re going to have to disappoint your grade school English teacher.
Try an experiment. Go to a public place and eavesdrop. It helps maintain your cover if you’re not obvious about it, but just listen to the flow of conversation around you. You’re likely to hear snippets:
“Get lost, will you?”
“I can’t— no, I don’t feel—”
Not many of these are complete sentences, by grammatical standards. Where are the subjects and the predicates? Could you diagram these examples?
Sure—they’re called words and phrases, and they’re what people generally use in conversation.
It’s not a crime to use a complete sentence—“Get away from me, Jim, before I call the police”—but opportunities don’t come up very often. Dialogue will flow and read more naturally on the page if you train yourself to write the way you hear people around you speaking.
Problem: Punctuating Dialogue
Periods, commas, ellipses, quotation marks, tigers, bears … you get the idea.
Don’t panic. Punctuating dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated, and your editor and proofreader will thank you for putting in the extra effort.
Here’s what you need to know about the most common punctuation in dialogue:
- When dialogue ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark, put the punctuation inside the quotation mark:
“Sam came by to see you.”
“Come home with me?”
“I hate you!”
- When punctuating dialogue with commas and an attribution before the dialogue, the comma goes after the attribution, and the appropriate punctuation mark goes inside the quotation mark at the end of the dialogue:
Mom said, “Sam came by to see you.”
- When punctuating dialogue with commas and adding an attribution after the dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:
“She came home with me,” Will said.
- When you’re punctuating dialogue with commas and adding a pronoun attribution, the comma goes inside the quotation mark, and the pronoun is not capitalized:
“I hate you,” she said.
- With dialogue that trails away, as though the speaker has gotten distracted, use an ellipsis inside the quotation mark:
“I just don’t know …” Jenny said.
- When dialogue is abruptly interrupted or cut off, use an em-dash inside the quotation mark:
“Well, I don’t think—”
“Because you never think!”
- For a non-dialogue beat to break up a line of dialogue, use either commas or em-dashes:
“And then I realized,” Jane said with a sigh, “that he lied to me.”
“Without the antidote”—Matt shook his head—“I don’t think we can save him.”
- When the speaker has started to say one thing, and changed his or her mind to say something else, use the em-dash:
“I don’t want to—I mean, I won’t hurt her.”
Note that semicolons and colons are rarely used in most contemporary fiction. They tend to appear too academic on the page, and if you use one or the other, or both, you run the risk of reminding the reader that they’re reading a story. Try not to do anything that breaks that fourth wall and calls attention to the mechanics of the story itself.
Look for the discussion about the great debate between “said” and other attributions in Part II of this post.
What “rules” about dialogue do you remember from grade school, writing conferences, classes, workshops, or books? Which rules drive you crazy? Which ones do you find yourself struggling to solve? How have you tackled those frustrations? Share your wisdom so others can benefit—writing takes a community to succeed!
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Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz is an author, poet, blogger, book reviewer, and freelance editor and proofreader. She writes full-length thrillers as well as short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her blogs are Engraved: All About Writing (http://eleanoretrupkiewicz.blogspot.com) and Daily Poetry Prompts (http://dailypoetryprompts.blogspot.com) and you can find her on one of her websites at www.eleanoretrupkiewicz.com or Refiner’s Fire Editing (www.refinersfireediting.com). Follow her on Twitter: @ETrupkiewicz. She lives and writes in Colorado with cats, chocolate, and assorted houseplants in various stages of demise.
You might also like:
Back to Basics, Guest Post, How to Improve Writing Skills, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest
5 Writing Perspectives to Be Thankful For
6 Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing LGBTQI+ Characters in Teen Fiction
The Great Debate: To Prologue or Not to Prologue?
Launching Into Scenes with Action
The ABCs of Story: Plots, Subplots, and Sub-Subplots
Admission officers are swamped with applications. Swamped. Particularly at very selective institutions, they need to make quick judgements about students' applications and personal statements. This makes the opening line of that application essay critical. If you want to wow them from the get-go, follow the advice below.
“I hate to break it to you, but your essay might not get read,” my college counselor remarked without even looking up from his computer as I nervously handed him my first draft.
I was horrified at the time, but he was, and still is, right. Just picture it: admission officers, especially those for the most selective institutions, are sifting through a record number of applications and have about three months to eliminate the majority of those deserving, accomplished candidates.
And guess what? When it comes to the Ivy League and their ilk, most of those applicants look identical on paper, with comparable grades, test scores, activity lists, accolades, and course loads. After pulling several weeks’ worth of consecutive all-nighters, the admission officers’ eyes start to blur, and they can barely differentiate among the nation’s best and brightest teenagers, all eagerly vying for a coveted spot in their school’s freshman class. As they flip through the paperwork of yet another valedictorian, someone remarks, “Annie Applicant looks like a run-of-the-mill achieve-o-tron.” But they haven’t gotten to the essays yet, and that’s where students really set themselves apart! They note items on the transcript—over 200 hours of volunteer work at a local special needs daycare, a patent application, a regional award for a short story, the lead role in three school musicals—that really fascinates them, so they assume the essay will shed light on some of these impressive endeavors. Right?
Then they hit the first line of her personal statement.
“For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. When I was younger, books were my escape. I could really relate to the characters and would get lost in various stories for hours at a time. If I had a bad day, I would curl up with a book.”
Before the admission officers even hit the fourth sentence, they’ve tossed her file into the “eh” pile, purgatory for applicants who don’t have the writing chops to match their academic records. Have Annie’s chances of admission been dashed? Not necessarily, but the uphill battle is infinitely steeper now that she’s done nothing to set herself apart from the other applicants who, shockingly, also love to read.
Perhaps the third paragraph is where Annie’s narrative really comes alive as she weaves readers through her favorite novels and relates characters to her everyday life, giving insight into her world, but who would read that far? The opening is so generic that admission officers simply don’t have time to give Annie the benefit of the doubt; they quickly move on to their discussion of Joe College, whose first line describing his sublime experience as Townsperson #5 in his school play makes them laugh out loud.
So how do students master that strong opening without seeming too gimmicky or desperate? How do they make the gatekeepers to the country’s top schools stop and think, “Wow, even though I am going blind from squinting at countless single-spaced pages, I sure wish this particular essay were longer than 650 words!”?
A great way to capture admission officers’ attention in the application essay is starting with dialogue. This approach is certainly not a Band-Aid for an otherwise mediocre essay, but it might just keep someone reading long enough to get to know you as an applicant.
But before you slap a witty exchange on the top of your essay, make sure you heed these warnings:
Don’t make the other person too interesting
You open with: “‘Hey, are you free to come to the environmental club meeting?’ asked my friend Kevin, who was canvassing the library to recruit helpers for the school-wide solar panel installation project he would be pitching at the next faculty meeting.
‘Sorry, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep!’ I tell him as I launch back into my independent research project on the theme of depression in Robert Frost’s poetry.”
How might admission officers respond to this exchange? Suddenly, they are more interested in Kevin than they are in you. Then, they put your application aside and look to see if there are any applicants named Kevin from your school so they can learn more about this unique solar panel project.
You should have used Kevin’s voice as a sounding board for expressing your own passions and beliefs, not as the force driving the conversation. You have to remember that you’re selling yourself, not your friends, and you don’t want to be overshadowed by your own essay’s supporting cast.
You open with: “’I have to scamper off to my occupation of preparing caffeinated beverages!’ I elucidate for the benefit of my roommate, Natalie, as I ambulate through our means of egress.”
Admission officers will read that, scratch their heads, and think, “Yeah, I see that she knows some SAT words, but did she mean, ‘I’ve got to run to my job at the coffee shop!’ I shout to Natalie as I scamper out the door”? That version would have saved time and sounded more like an authentic teenager. Now they really have no idea who you are, and even worse, they probably find you annoying.
. . . but not too natural
You open with: “’I’m so wiped I don't even know what to do. Like, I can’t even. It’s ridic!’ I whine as my BFF Selena sits down beside me in English class.”
Admission officers ask themselves, “Is this her real essay? Someone must have hacked her Common App account, because no one would risk coming across as this vapid!” They then worry that you won’t be able to hold your own in seminars on War and Peace when you don’t have the attention span to finish typing the word “ridiculous.” Even if you sound that way in real life (I hope not!), you need to be cognizant of the fact that an essay this important requires you to bring your verbal A-game.
In general, don’t be afraid to lead off with an in-medias-res conversational tidbit that will help you come to life.
Here is an example:
“You ski for how many miles? Then you shoot a rifle?” Andy gasped in disbelief as I explained that I couldn’t hang out after school because I had to go to the range and practice my aim for my upcoming biathlon.
“And every time I miss the target, I have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop just for good measure,” I added, chuckling as Andy’s jaw dropped.
Take your time thinking about what examples best represent you as an applicant in the context of the application essay prompts given. Then, once you narrow your options to a worthy anecdote, explore that moment—and the unique, enchanting, entrancing dialogue within.
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