Monday, August 14, 2006

Writing 003 -- How to Write Dialogue

Shh -- don't tell Donna Flarkmore about this episode (not that it's her real name).

What are your thoughts about the rules, the whole dialogue attribution thing and my take on meaningless dialogue?

What other dialogue issues would you like to see me discuss in some future show?

And was I cruel to the memory of Donna Flarkmore? (Not that she's dead, or anything.)


Umbrael said...

Good tips, the chart in the show notes helps a lot. I kinda had an idea about what the rules for setting up quotes and punctuation were just from reading books, but I was never really sure about it-- it's good to have the mean just laid plain like that.

I do have a question though, about punctuation with parenthesis, when incorporated onto the end of a sentence. Does the ending puctuation occurs inside or outside the bracket? I usually try to avoid parenthesis, or try to break them off into their own sentence, entirely inside the brackets, but I have always been wondering about this... what seems like the logical answer doesn't really look right.

Tom Occhipinti said...

I'm glad the chart helped.

Be careful with parentheses in your writing. They are often overused and can typically be eliminated by putting their contents into the main passage. Parenthetical sentences are intended as dramatic asides. If they are used too often, they will detract from the main action and jar your reader.

Regarding the punctuation:

1) If the parenthetical passage is a complete sentence, separate and unto itself, include the punctuation in the parentheses. For instance:

Roger left the museum earlier than he had expected. (The lines were unbearably long.)

2) If the parenthetical passage is not a complete sentence, but rather part of the structure of the overarching sentence, put the punctuation outside of the parentheses. For instance:

Deirdre added some new colors to her paint palette (indigo, turquoise, mauve and chartreuse) and set out to paint the landscape.


The driver pulled to the side of the road (and changed the tire).

Of course, the above examples do not even require parentheses, as indicated in these alternatives:

1) Roger left the museum earlier than he had expected because the lines were unbearably long.

2) Deirdre added indigo, turquoise, mauve and chartreuse to her paint palette and set out to paint the landscape.

3) The driver pulled to the side of the road and changed the tire.

Umbrael said...

Ahh! Yes, I see. Thank you, that helps a lot! Also, I'll take your advice about trying not to use parenthesis unnecesarily. I'll have to read through my work and check-- I don't use them that often, but when I'm writing, I tend to get focused on "what I want to say" and don't think as much as I should about "how I ought to say it". Heh, actually, that might explain quite a few things in my life, ome to think of it...
Eh. Anyway. It never really occured to me to wonder if I was saying things in the best possible way-- I kinda had a vision in my head of what things should look like, and tended to follow that without much question. (Yeah, I know that can be dangerous, lol!)

Along similar lines, I ran into another issue I'd like to ask you about. It has to do with dialogue, "interior dialogue," actually-- when a character is talking silently in his own mind-- should such things be placed in quotes?

For instance:

She started-- he really did have cat eyes, she thought.

“He is definitely the devil,” she thought, “definitely the devil”—she uttered a scream that got lost somewhere in her throat.

Could you please tell me what is the correct way to indicate interior dialogue and thoughts?

Tom Occhipinti said...

Ahh, darn. I meant to include that. If you check my show notes for Writing 002 - Part 2 (Sample # 3), you will see how I handle that.

Put thoughts in italics. It's as simple as that. That keeps it clear that it's an internal monologue and that's pretty much a norm.

Umbrael said...

Thank you very much, this is a great help!

Tom Occhipinti said...

No problem. Keep listening. It will keep me on-task with delivering new shows. And always keep the feedback coming.

Oh, and I'm very serious about creating a large subscriber base. It will give dimension to the show. There are plenty of writers out there and I think it would be great to get this show out to as many of them as possible. So tell some people about the podcast.


Jenn said...

Hey! I read through the comments and agree that I like what Tom says about the dialogue issues! Tom's awesome and is a great teacher! I had some trouble with dialogue because I didn't write very much until recentle y and well... I've been out of school for a while :) I really like how Tom types out different samples and shows the "right" way and the "wrong" way!

Tom Occhipinti said...

Thanks, Jenn -- Just let me know if you want me to illustrate other things in the show notes.


Irfan said...

What an inspiration this is! I cut remedial writing when I first got into college and always felt there was something missing. Now I know I can catch up on all that basic stuff I missed! Thanks for helping me write great fiction!

Tom Occhipinti said...


My only regret is that I haven't been coming out with shows more regularly. I am trying to streamline some things in my life, and will produce 2 - 4 shows a month.

I promise!


Logan said...

After listening to this podcast I realized that my readers (friends and family) were paying more attention to my writing style than the important part, my dialogue because I was trying to get away from the 'He Said' 'She Said'. Thanks for the help.

Whedon said...

As a woman with an extremely high-pitched voice, I think you were cruel to make fun of Donna's voice, especially when it has nothing to do with the main point, which was her dialogue.

Other than that, I love the show. Thanks!

Tom Occhipinti said...

Oops, sorry for the cruelty.

Actually, to be honest, "Donna" did not sound quite like that. Her voice was somewhat high-pitched, yes -- but she mostly just sounded like she was swallowing her tongue when talking. Plus, she talked pretty quickly.

End result: one could only understand every fifth word she spoke.

Well, I guess this anecdote doesn't make me look any more compassionate in your eyes.

Again, oops.

Some people felt that little story, as told, added some humor to the show. Some others found it clawingly annoying (including myself). Either way, it's important to note that I never returned to it. Nor will I.



Whedon said...

Well, we can always speculate that Donna took some public speaking classes in the last 20 years and is doing much better now. :)

Sarah said...

Whedon brings up an important point--with everybody so hypersensitive and litigious these days, MUST we look to outer space for villains and comic characters?

What do you think of the advice to writers that they sit down at the neighborhood cafe and listen to the REAL dialogues going on?

Tom Occhipinti said...

I'm not sure why the following comment didn't post to this message board. I submitted it for approval after it landed in my inbox.

I will simply copy and paste it here.

Apologies to Robin L.
Robin L. said...

The voice was hilarious! I feel for you having to endure that in two classes. :)

Servant of the Secret Fire said...

I'm only up to program 4, but have been enjoying the podcasts. (Unfortunately, I haven't managed to write anything yet, and this is a parenthetical remark!)

Speaking of dialogue, there was one thing I found extremely annoying in a recent novel that I heard cited on one radio program as one of the best of the year. Whenever the author would write dialogue, she would write it as if it were a screenplay, like this:

John: What's that up in the sky?
Mary: It's - Superman!

Grrrrrr!!!!! I found that so distracting that I finally gave up on the book, and will probably never find out if it's any good.

jsd said...

I found your podcast last week and have listened to the first three episodes. I'm hooked! I'm not not a writer or even an aspiring writer, but I enjoy learning. Please keep the shows coming. I hope that your high school students realize how lucky they are to have you.

BEK said...

I took a creative writing class that addressed the creation of dialogue and how to write it. One of the rules was to be careful of using colorful language to indicate that someone was speaking.

For example, my teacher said never to use words like gaffawed or chortled because of the sounds. The words distract the reader and take away from the situation. However, it is necessary to stray from he said, she said in some instances. I think he whispered was mentioned during the podcast.

Barbara said...

Okay, here I am almost a year later, writing to you about the podcast. I am a teacher of creative writing at a public school in PA, investigating ways to enliven my class. With the introduction of technology, I can now have all my kids hooked up to a laptop while listening to this lesson on dialogue. How COOL to show some examples, too.
I don't have any questions about the rules; they are the same things I try to plod through, but you will make it much more enjoyable for them.
I do have a question about the song choice at the beginning and end of the show. WHY? What is the connection?
Thanks a lot and we will be listening. Hey, I could get my kids to join to blog. Interested?

Tom Occhipinti said...


My pal is a member of the group I feature both in the show intro and outro. I like the songs and, well, he gave me the rights to use the songs.

And sure, have your kids join the blog, though I have to be honest, I'm putting the podcast itself on a short hiatus.

I'll be explaining the nature of the hiatus soon.


coach3_us said...

I just wanted to let you know that I listened to the show for the first time and loved it. Your voice is no where near as boring as some other shows that I try to listen to. But anyway, I just had a quick comment about the "He said, she said" rule. I specifically wanted to avoid that so I put my story into a play format so I could concentrate directly on the dialogue. And it is coming along really well. By the way, I prefer the longer podcasts to the shorter ones.

Ezzy said...

Thanks for providing this podcast Mr. Occhipinti. I recently discovered it and I am on "writing 003 -- How to write dialogue." Your podcast are very helpful to me because I have a hard time learning the rules of the English language. I am an psychology undergrad. In addition to thanking you I would also like to sadly admit that I am a little like Donna Flarkmore.
Thanks again

BT Jeppesen said...

Strange. After watching your show, I feel the urge to go do your laundry. And pay your bills. What's wrong with me?

Anyway, I just started listening to your show and I think it is great. I'm a creative writing major at UC Riverside and have experienced many situations like the one you describe with Donna. I actually loved the voice.

The one thing I would like to see - and I haven't listened to the rest of the podcasts, so it may have been done - is a show on integrating description and action throughout dialog. I often find I get in dialog mode and just run with it--I end up with a page or more of pure dialog. It looks horrible.

I am hooked on this show and will be introducing it to my classmates in all three of my workshop courses. Thank you very much for all your hard work.