Today is the 4th final episode in Jeanne‘s Writing Dialogue Series.

Read the rest of the series:
Part 1 Are You Talking to Me?
Part 2 I…I Can’t…Believe It
Part 3 I Thought So!

He Said: She Said

Writing Dialogue: Part 4

 By: Jeanne Marie Leach

 Unless you are the lead dog, the scenery never changes.

We’re in the final week of the Writing Dialogue series. I’m using this week to sew up some loose ends and give you some miscellaneous dialogue “rules.”

  1. Backward tags. I’m surprised at how many books I edited last year in which the author wrote dialogue tags backward, that is, said she, instead of she said. Although there’s technically nothing wrong with this, it is considered Victorian and outdated. I must admit that all of these clients were senior citizens, so this is probably something they grew up with. Suggest to the clients that books today usually use the style of she said.
  2. Matching dialogue to the characters: When I judge writing contests, this is a big element I look for in a work of fiction. Nothing is more confusing to readers than speech that doesn’t sound like it belongs to the character who’s speaking. You wouldn’t hear a backwoodsman using the word “perplexed.” Neither would you have a college English major saying “aint.” Make sure the way a character speaks matches who they are and the proper time period in which the story takes place.
  3. Foreign words: This doesn’t happen too often, but it’s something to look for these days in light of the popularity of Scottish legacies and Amish fiction. These two genres take up at least 1/3 of the Christian bookstore fiction shelves right now. In an attempt to make these books sound more authentic, authors drop in some of the “flavor” of these people by using German words the Amish have grown up with and Scottish phrases. This isn’t a bad thing, as long as the reader can somehow know what it is the author is talking about.

However, if not done well, this can become very annoying. A couple things that annoy me most about this technique are:

  • When the author doesn’t include the meaning of the word naturally in the narrative, and instead opts for a glossary at the end of the book. Who wants to go to the back of the book every few paragraphs or so in order to understand what the story is about?

And this isn’t always confined to dialogue, but the narrative often is written this way too. This is clearly a case of someone who made a trip to Scotland  or to and Amish community for research and felt the need to show us just how much she learned.

In the ACFW we are taught to use foreign speech sparingly, and then utilize it only if the reader understands the words. The author must remember that they are writing for the American audience. Use English.

4. Proper usage of punctuation inside quotation marks. This is another stumbling block for beginning fiction authors. The CMOS 6.10-11 shows how punctuation in fiction dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, including a single quotation mark. “But colons and semi-colons—unlike periods and commas— follow closing quotation marks; question marks and exclamation points follow closing quotation marks unless they belong with the quoted matter.”

These are the examples given by CMOS that will show you all these different guidelines:

  • Take, for example, the first line of “To a Skylark”: “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!”
  • I was invited to recite the lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil”; instead I read from the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
  • Which of Shakespeare’s characters said, “All the world’s a stage”?
  • “Timber!”
  • “What’s the rush?” she wondered.
  • “Admit it,” she said. “You haven’t read ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’”

The first three apply to non-fiction, while the last three show examples of fiction. However, the second could also be an example of fiction written in first person past tense.

Quoting Scripture in fiction. If a character is speaking a biblical quote, it should be done in the manner of how a real person would say it when talking naturally.

“It says in John 3:16,” Margie said, “‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’”

If the person is paraphrasing it, then there is no need for the scripture reference. “You know how much God loved you? He sent his only Son to die a horrible death on the cross. That’s how much!

Always use only one version of the Bible in a fiction book, since parentheses (New King James Version) after each individual reference cannot be used. To have the character quote which version they use each time they speak, wouldn’t flow well either.