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Board Writing :: Writing Guide :: Dialogue

Dialogue, speaking, and conversations in a story are tricky things. With as many rules as encompass quotations and the punctuations that surround them, it can be very surprising to many that there are pretty much no rules as to what can go between them.

Dialogue is the spoken word, and while writing follows grammatical rules for some universal and uniform clarity, everyday conversation is typically less complex and less bound by this structure. Clarity takes a backseat to ease or personal flair.

The term colloquial refers to common speech patterns outside of formal, professional, or academic settings. While generally viewed as the lack of education or class, the exact opposite can be said for perfectly formed speech: Such speakers are intelligent or arrogant. Whatever a character says can and possibly should break about every bit of grammar to sound like a real conversation -- not a report.

There may be more reasons to butcher a language: accents, impediments, full mouths, bitten tongues, or other vocal modifications. It may not come down to grammar but rather the spelling of individual words. The obvious answer to these scenarios is to spell it how it sounds, but will someone else read what you've written as you imagined it? Even if you spelled it phonetically, will a reader be able to understand what warped words you were trying to pronounce with written letters?

In my experience, there are countless ways through which writers try to formalize the informal. There is no one system, which makes sense as it is informal. I can only present suggestions -- along with the reasoning behind them -- in hopes that effects not explained below can be done responsibly.

The following is a list of suggestions on how to flesh out directly quoted dialogue:

  1. Unless something isn't supposed to be understood, make sure it can be understood. This will probably come up again a few more times on the list, but sometimes, writers get a little too "creative" and render dialogue incomprehensible. If it cannot be read, then why was it written?

    If dialogue is too heavily modified -- and even if you still think it is legible -- consider peeling off a few layers of obfustication. Just give the readers' eyes a taste of how the speaker sounds; they still do having working imaginations, after all. And two other senses that are as of yet unaccounted for. A palpable stench may round up all five senses quite nicely.

  2. The following is a list of common colloquialisms. They can be used to make a speaker seem more informal, less educated, lower class, or just plain dumb:

    • Shortening words by replacing portions with an apostrophe:
      • -ing suffix to -in'
      • old to ol'
      • little to li'l
      • ever to e'er
      • every to ev'ry
      • them to 'em
      • wouldn't to woul'n't
      • couldn't to coul'n't
      • shouldn't to shoul'n't
      • didn't to di'n't
      • because to 'cause (and not cos or 'cos -- seriously, what is that last one even shortening?)
      • though to tho' (not a real contraction in anyone's book -- just something I do on the site commonly and would be remiss not to include it)

      The apostrophe lets the reader know that something is missing and allows them to know which blank needs to be filled in.

    • Replacing combinations of the words "to" or "of" or "have" with a:
      • lot of to lotta
      • kind of to kinda
      • sort of to sorta
      • would have to woulda
      • could have to coulda
      • should have to shoulda
      • must have to musta
      • might have to mighta
      • got to to gotta
      • want to to wanna
      • going to to gonna
      • have to to hafta

      I have never seen an apostrophe used in these cases, mostly because nothing is being shortened or elided, but rather a brand new sound is being created. In fact, including an apostrophe anywhere in these words may (and should) cause the reader to believe that the letters they see are, in fact, partial components of two words which do not exist.

    • Second Person Pronoun:
      • you to ya
      • your to yer
      • you're to yer (use with discretion as, without the apostrophe, this has the same confusing potential as someone mistaking you're for your)
      • you're to y'are (less common as it implies a longer vowel sound than the above)
      • you followed by a word starting with a- can be contracted y'a- (e.g. "y'all")
      • words ending in -t followed by you can be replaced with -tcha (e.g. "ain'tcha" or "betcha" or "gotcha")
      • words ending in -d followed by you can be replaced with -dja (e.g. "didja")
      • Some speakers (possible different than ones who would make use of the above substitutions) will pluralize you as youse, yous, or y'all.
    • Contracting Short Words:
      • Words such as to, it, and my are so short that reduction to a single letter may be in no one's best interest.
      • All hard consonants must be accompanied vowel sounds.
        • Hard consonants include the likes of T, K, and B.
        • Unless blended with another consonant, every hard consonant has a vowel vocalization either before or after it -- even if you think nothing is there (reduced vowel).
        • Something should still be written to indicate this vocalization, and it should probably just be the correct spelling to avoid confusion.
      • Non-words (such as shhh) or sounds consisting only of soft consonants like M or S (such as hissing) can be written without vowels.
      • My can be reduced to just an m' (as in "m'lord" or "m'lady") when followed by a consonant sound. Placing it before a vowel reduces the word to hazardous pronunciation (e.g. "m'own" pronounced as "moan").
      • It can be reduced to just a 't and combined with the following word only if the following word starts with a vowel, as with 'tis, or a consonant that can be blended with T, such as 'twould.
      • Of is often reduced to o' and is not contracted to the following word (which is the opposite of what is seen in Irish family names).
    • Reducing vowel length:
      • for to fer
      • to could be accurately replaced with ta in many cases, but it may not be worth the resulting confusion for a word that is already so short.
      • Note that these vowels are being replaced with reduced vowel sounds, most commonly the schwa (ə). A shortened for would be pronounced differently than if no vowel sound appeared between the F and the R, such as the start of the word freak.
    • Other uncategorized replacements:
      • give me to gimme
      • what are you to whatcha or what'cha (as all of are is being elided)
  3. A Non-Rhotic accent is used by certain languages and regions, including many English speakers.

    • The R is only pronounced when followed by a vowel.
    • Terminal -er's can be replaced with -ah (e.g. "hunter" to "huntah").
      • The terminal H implies breathiness in the R's place.
      • A lone E or -e' is not used as terminal E's are often silent.
      • A terminal -eh is not used as that combination is often attributed to a long A sound (Durn Canadians).
      • A terminal -uh is not used as that combination is often attributed to both the short and long double-O sound (e.g. "look" and "loot").
    • Words ending in -ture may be rewritten -tcha (e.g. "capture" to "captcha")
    • Words ending in an -er sound may have multiple possible replacements (e.g. "warrior" to "warryah" or even "woiyyah" instead of "warriah").
    • Replacing unpronounced R's with H's or apostrophes (e.g. "solar" to "solah" or "sola'")
    • Some words, while possible to be rendered non-rhotically, may not be worth it (e.g. "here" to "he'e" or "heah").
    • Many writers write this accent incorrectly by removing all terminal R's, but most non-rhotic speakers would pronounce water ice with the R!
  4. Some speakers insert too many R's in words, at places they are not written, known as an Intrusive R.

    • Extra R's are inserted after certain vowel sounds when followed immediately by another vowel sound.
    • Strangely enough, non-rhotic accents often possess the intrusive R.
    • Conditional Example: idea to idear when following by a vowel
    • Automatic Example: drawing to drawring as the word is a self-contained double vowel sound.
    • Since there is no real consistency, it is very easy to get carried away and add too many R's, making a mess of your writing.
  5. Some dialects replaced the Voiced Th with the letter D.

    • The voiced th (ð) is that which is pronounced in words like then.
    • The unvoiced th (þ or θ) is pronounced in words like thin.
    • Example substitutions:
      • that to dat
      • this to dis
      • the to da (since the "e" in "the" is usually pronounced as a schwa)
      • they to dey (to avoid confusion with the word day, whose pronunciation would most likely be easier to recognize)
  6. In times long gone -- from Caesar's Rome to the gentry society of England -- there was a considerable concern with the inclusion or omission of the H on words. In fact, many of the words we have today with H did not correctly feature the sound, but the spelling evolved to reflect this fact.

    This is such a non-concern nowadays that I fret its use may go overlook or misunderstood by the casual (or about any) reader.

  7. Old age or prestige may be indicated by making speech Archaic -- the correct and accepted form of yesteryear.

    • Second Person Singular Nominative: you to thou
    • Second Person Singular Objective: you to thee
    • Second Person Singular Possessive: your to thy, yours to thine
    • Second Person Plural Nominative: you or ye
    • Second Person Plural (The Rest): Unchanged from modern English
    • The -st or -est verb ending is used with the second person singular (thou).
    • The -th or -eth verb ending is used with the third person singular instead of the -s used today.
    • There are a lot of other irregular verb forms you should check out if you want to use archaic dialogue.
  8. Occasionally, a speaker's rate of speech may be quantified with more than just surrounding description.

    • Fast Speech:
      • Italics could be used on rushed speech, as some view slanted text as being in a sort of motion.
      • Hurried or rushed speech can be better represented and should be represented by hyphenating all words.
      • A hyphen (-) implies that the two words between which it appears are more closely related than such words separated by a space. For example, certain compound words use a hyphen.
      • As such, a hyphen should never represent slow speech; essentially forming one giant word out of a sentence does not imply it is spoken more slowly in any way.
      • Utilizing run-on sentences and dropping occasional punctuation in the middle of a quotation can also be used to eliminate pauses, thus imply speed. These flaws should never appear in regular writing, but dialogue's correctness is concerned with best capturing a quotation -- not grammatical rules.
    • Slow Talk:
      • There is no simple punctuation to place between words to make speech slow as there is to make it fast. Since the hyphen is never used in the structure of a sentence (the dash is, but not the shorter hyphen), there is no resulting confusion from its over-use.
        • Some place a period after every word, essentially making words their own stunted sentences. A problem arises when an actual new sentence must begin, and there is no way to signify the transition.
        • The comma, while it does represent a pause, is often necessary to represent the correct structure of a sentence.
        • An ellipsis (...) does represent a drifting silence and rarely appears in a standard sentence, but it is a longer punctuation symbol which can bloat text considerably.
      • It could be possible to shift all marks by one step in pause length (spaces to commas, commas to periods, and periods to ellipses), but the result would most likely appear heinous and readable only to those who knew the exact encryption used.
      • Occassional ellipses seem to work the best. Either replace all periods with them, or insert them sparingly mid-speech for especially dragged-out conversations.
        • Remember that an ellipsis does not necessarily signify the end of a sentence; it is supposed to represent an omission, which means a sentence can continue afterwards without a capital letter.
      • Use as many commas as possible -- especially those which may be deemed unnecessary -- whenever writing slowed or stunted dialogue so long as the meaning is not affected.
  9. The volume at which someone speaks can be indicated, to a certain extent, by the way it is written.

    • Screaming:
      • Increased volume can be shown with bold faced or larger sized text, with a preference towards bold letters as they do not alter the line's height.
      • When such textual formatting is not available, the typeset standard is to surround text by asterisks (*) to show that it has strong emphasis.
      • Try very hard not to write screaming or loud noise as all caps. Whatever effect is being attempted with capital letters can be more accurately and friendlily done with other formatting options.
    • Whispering:
      • Typically, a smaller font size is used to indicate quiet speech when description alone is not used or not sufficient.
      • Smaller font will rarely alter the height of a line as some normally sized text is likely to appear somewhere else on that line.
      • All lower case letters is not ideal for low volumes as it not only affects a very small portion of the dialogue -- typically just the first letter of a sentence -- but is can also just appear to be a typo.
  10. As with every to-do list, the to-don'ts are just as important. And an atrocity against language, but not as bad as what's in this list.

    • Words should probably never be spelled differently if the pronunciation is not being changed; this only serves to confuse the reader, and unless that is what you are trying to do, don't.

    • Do not combine too many different, alternate speech patterns -- and two may be too many. Will a reader know that "e'ah" is supposed to be "ever"?

    • Remember that few lingual patterns are simple matters of global replacement; sound it out first because, if it is more difficult to say, it is not likely to be the result of informal, relaxed speech.



Read about grammatical rules for quotations.
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