Medievia Mudslinger

June 24th, 2002

Mudslinger Writer's Guide - Part XII - By Excrucior

I say...

Money talks, or so the saying goes. The main factor here is that people do as well. You can write a piece that is completely without dialogue of any sort but it's completely flat and lifeless in aspect. Occasionally you can get away with that, and I even managed to get away with a tale that was purely speech, but it is rather rare to mange this. People talk and say things - it's a very important thing to do correctly as you can impart a lot of information to the reader that way. You can convey many different things through a conversation - emotions, plot twists, characterization etc.

What does a conversation need to contain? For a start off, it needs to have people speaking between the appropriate quotation marks. Try this.

He said, "What's that?"

She said, "The Ivory Chalice of Wytherwind."

He said, "Can I have a drink?"

This is correct grammatically, but it lacks any real style. For a start, you can see that the "said" part is at the start of the line - you can do it this way, and Feist certainly does, but the standard style is to have that at the end of the quotations.

People say a lot. Read the average fictional piece and you will see the word 'said' often. Watch for the word, and you will start to be bored. Let's face it - people expostulate, scream, contradict, chide, reply, challenge, remark, and use all other manner of methods of communication.

People use all these methods, so you should to liven up your piece - correct?


The word 'said' is very powerful, and its power comes primarily from its near-invisibility. Until I pointed out above about how to read for it - examining every sentence with speech - you wouldn't notice it. Being nearly invisible, it is absorbed quickly by the reader's mind. You don't want your audience to pause over the end of every sentence - no matter how momentary the pause will be. Your intention should be to impart as much information to the reader as possible, but also to do this within as short a time as possible.

How should you emphasise what people say? The choice of someone's words is important. Someone angrily denouncing a proposal in a senate would not say, "I don't think that's actually fair, if you don't mind me saying so." Someone desperately hungry wouldn't say something such as, "I faint from hunger. Say, is that a Goya? I do believe it is! Worth a fortune on the open market. Stolen by your uncle, you say? A man of refined tastes."

You could also add adverbs - words that describe actions - to emphasise things, but this should be done rarely. Adverbs and adjectives are dealt with elsewhere in more detail, but the simple rule is to try and avoid them. They are lazy ways to define something. They tell instead of showing.

My preferred method of emphasising the way someone talks is to use actions. Everyone does things when talking - scratching their ears, filing their teeth, decapitating another orc, or whatever. What a person does can have a huge impact on how something is interpreted.

"My lord, the enemy cavalry is but two days away," the captain said, making marks on the map and glancing at the latest scouting reports.

Caligula frowned and stared at the map, running his finger over the contours. He tapped a few locations, indicating good spots for ambushes, and smiled. "They shall not concern us," he said.

"My lord, the enemy cavalry is but two days away," the captain said, making marks on the map and glancing at the latest scouting reports.

Caligula waved airily, summoning a servant to pour more wine. "They shall not concern us," he said. He leaned back in his seat and began to smoke a strangely scented tobacco.

There are two Caligulas here, each using the same words. Their actions define their attitude. The first is a military commander of skill and thought. The second is a wastrel who cares nothing for life, or for the lives of his men.

Occasionally, you will be forced to use words other than 'said' to make your 'tag' (these descriptors are known as 'dialogue tags'). There is no great shame in doing so, but it's best to avoid this if possible. As far as I am concerned, the verbs 'asked' and 'replied' are fine companions to any relevant part of conversation. They are nice, simple words that every one understands.

There are tags that you can use happily on appropriate occasions, such as 'bellowed', 'shouted', and 'whispered'. Tags such as 'hissed' are to be used warily - can you really hiss the sentence you just wrote? You need a very sibilant sentence to do that.

There are tags I never want to see. 'Declared', 'chided', 'remarked', 'contradicted' and the like. Even the best authors can rarely jsutify using those words. I can't, and I'm only a shoddy hack artist.

Short, sharp conversations without any tags can be effective.




The above is short and therefore quickly moving, and even staccato - it adds a sense of tension to the piece (although it is taken badly out of context here). Occasionally, not having any comments after a spoken piece can work very nicely as long as it's obvious who is speaking.

What should a conversation contain? Most real life dialogues are pretty boring affairs, one in a story should be relevant to the piece in question and should be used to advance the plot or explain a point. If you use small talk, you must either have it relevant to the piece, or limit it heavily so that the reader will not lose interest. A little is fine, especially if it helps to characterize someone properly, but too much means you're padding a short tale. Small talk is often good for imparting occasional pieces of useful information for later in the piece.

A really good writer should be able to allow people to know who is speaking just from the word choice they use to denote characters. I don't expect that from the average submission, but it would be nice to see it.

How long should a dialogue be? Not too long, is the short answer. It is possible to have a long conversation but only in really long books - part of the scaling I mentioned before.

As a side note, while you can use actions to imply extra emotions within a statement, it is possible to do the exact opposite. If you want to read an example of what I mean then read "Behind the Bar" - one of my own pieces. In that there is not a single word of action, but instead it relies on a soliloquy (a single person speaking) to narrate the event. Instead of saying that Basil was large, I had the barkeep telling the customer to, "look up a bit. Farther up Sir, no - farther still. Yes, he is very big Sir..." This shouldn't be overused in a standard piece (Behind the Bar was hardly standard), but it can save you from chopping between various lines of quotations marks.

There are a few rules to observe when dealing with dialogue, not just the stylistic comments above.

New speaker, new paragraph. This is standard grammar - when someone speaks, keep an eye out for another character speaking. Try the above example for a terse conversation - you must have a new paragraph when you change a speaker, no matter how short the paragraph is. It is quite permissible, and desirable, to have a character start a paragraph with speech, do something in the middle and then resume their explanation. A good style is to have a first spoken sentence, use a tag to show whom is speaking, and then continue with the rest of their speech.

End of comment punctuation is important. Don't overuse the exclamation or question marks. One is quite sufficient and should not be used on every sentence. Exclamations marks are to be used when you really need to, and you should try and emphasize the emotion in the actions and how they say it instead. Never use more than one at the end of a sentence. Question marks should be used when someone is asking a question, quite simply. Never use two (or more) together, nor should you mix the two.

"This sort of sentence is quite repellent!?!" I told the submitter, rejecting his article with a flourish of my quill.

Generally speaking, if you are using exclamation marks, you should be looking for better ways to emphasize the emotions you are trying to pass across to the reader. Look at the mention of adverbs above and think on it. Think of exclamation marks as a last resort and you'll do well.

If you want to quote someone else's sayings within another character's words, use apostrophes to define that instead. Example -

"What did he say? It's important that you tell me his exact words," she demanded.

"He said, 'Half a wombat can be worse than a full one'," the servant replied miserably. The whims of the upper classes were far beyond his reach.

If you ever get to the stage where you want to quote someone's words within someone's words within someone's words, you've gone too far - hit the backspace and rework it.

Always make sure the reader knows who is talking. You may end up with many peoples' names mentioned, but make sure the reader knows who is talking. Refer to people in different ways: Sue, she, the girl, the chambermaid; Bob, he, the boy, the kitchen scullion.

People use each other's names from time to time, even when there are just two people in the conversation. Sometimes it can be used to emphasize an emotion such as love or exasperation. At other times, you just need to remind the reader who is speaking and in the room. Always strive for clarity.

Dialogue is a very useful tool for many things - characterization, revealing plot information, a merry quip and so forth. Use it well and it's a powerful weapon. Ignore it and you ignore something people do all the time and a chance of realism.

Next section - comedy.


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