Dialog vs Using Proper Grammar

© Can Stock Photo / bradcalkins

One of the things I love the most about writing fiction is the dialog. The dialog is what brings the characters to life. However, like any other kind of writing, there is a technique for writing effective dialog. In fact, there are entire books about how to write dialog. If you’re new to writing fiction I highly recommend reading them. In the meantime, I’m going to cover some of the basics, and the way I go about writing dialog.

What is the purpose of dialog?

As most of you already know, fiction writing is all about the conflict. The conflict is what drives the storyline, and the dialog helps build the tension. For example, the more a character talks about their big plans, and how they made everything foolproof, the more we know something is about to go terribly wrong.

Dialog also defines the character’s personality. A character who has a PhD will undoubtably have a different speech pattern than a character who’s a high school dropout. Here in the United States, different regions of the country have their own dialects. A character from Boston will speak differently than a character from New Orleans. Therefore, it’s a good idea to set your story in a location where you are familiar with the local lingo.

Dialog and Grammar

People don’t use perfect grammar when they are speaking. We tend to shorten words. We’ll say, “gonna,” instead of, “going to.” We speak in incomplete sentences as well as comma spliced sentences. Therefore, none of my characters speak perfect, grammatically correct English. Fortunately, my editor gets this. She’s a fiction writer herself. However, it’s been an issue with some of the proofreaders I’ve worked with.

Gloria, who proofread many of my earlier Marina Martindale romance novels, passed away a few years ago. She was a dear friend who I will always miss, and she also loved my books. While not a writer herself, she had once been a proofreader for a newspaper. Trust me, nothing got past her watchful eye. She also understood the difference between narrative and dialog.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky with the proofreaders for my next two novels. One was a retired English teacher who not only corrected all the grammar in my dialog, she also argued with me when I pointed out, more than once, that real people do not speak perfect, grammatically correct English. My most recent proofreader was someone who had learned English as a second language. To her credit, she was very fluent in English, and she had also written a few nonfiction books. However, when it came to the dialog, she didn’t always understand slang words and common idioms, which caused some confusion.

The Use of Grammar in First and Third Person Narratives

I write in the third person narrative. When my characters aren’t speaking I use proper grammar and punctuation in my narrative as I describe the events from an anonymous and detached point of view. However, the rules may vary when using the first person narrative. Since your character is telling the entire story from start to finish, you need to let the character speak in his or her own voice. The same is true when writing dialog in the third person narrative. Let your characters have their own distinctive voice.

Gayle Martin

Watch Out for Exclamation Points!

Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware the villain is lurking inside. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.

Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!, would look a whole lot better. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

What an exclamation point actually means

An exclamation point in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers.

For example, instead of saying, he heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe, try using, He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer and held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room but he was unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder as they came closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.

By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.

But what about the dialog?

An exclamation point in the dialog indicates someone shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.

For example, someone might shout, “Look out!” if they see someone else about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant

I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.

Gayle Martin

Keeping Readers Engaged

© Can Stock Photo/ sjenner13

We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.

Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis

I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated

Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.

Fine details aren’t always useful information

Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “Her royal blue dress with the lace trim would show off the diamond pendant perfectly. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends Jake had given it to her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.

Gayle Martin

Why I Don’t Recommend Using the F-word

I’ll always remember clicking a link to see a sample chapter from another author’s novel. The title sounded interesting. Unfortunately, in the second sentence of the opening narrative, was the dreaded, F-word. That was it. I was done. The book may have had an intriguing title. However, once I saw that expletive, I was turned off. I had no reason to read any further.

I’m not saying I’m a total prude, and, for some genres, this kind of language may be suitable and expected. However, it’s not appropriate for my work. I write contemporary sensual romance as Marina Martindale. In my genre there simply is no reason for profanity, and most romance authors don’t use it. To me, profanity, especially when used in the narrative, is a sign of a lazy, sloppy writer. A rank amateur. A good storyteller doesn’t need to use profanity. Plain and simple.

But what about the dialog?

There will be times when an, “Oh my goodness gracious me,” simply won’t cut it. That’s when I’ll use an occasional damn or hell, or similar verbiage. However, I never use the F-word, or any other vulgar synonym for human genitalia. And the keyword here is occasional. As in infrequently. My characters aren’t potty mouths. Even my villains have more class than that.

Sometimes there’ll be an occasion when a stronger word may be expected. For example, I had once had a scene in which a characters has just learned her husband had been kidnapped. She’s understandably upset. Her response is, “What the —?” Another character interrupts her before she completes her sentence. Some readers may have interpreted it as, “What the hell?” Perfectly appropriate for the circumstances. Other readers, however, may have interpreted it differently and assumed she was about to say an entirely different word. Either way, I left it to the reader to decide.

It may be the 21st century, but there are still readers out there who find profanity, particularly the F-word, offensive. So why risk alienating someone who would have otherwise loved your book?


Gayle Martin aka Marina Martindale