DIALOGUE

  1. Read a book-not other fans' on-line attempts, which will only lead you astray. If you cannot actually read a book, at least open a book of fiction (from the library, perhaps) and look for pieces of dialogue. (HINT: they are the words that come between quotation marks.) These may give you clues as to how to punctuate dialogue.

  2. If there are only two characters in the scene, and one has just spoken, don't keep telling us the other character replied or answered or said or stated the dialogue we see sitting between the next quotes. Unless this is a ghost story, the ONLY person who could have said or stated or somehow made that reply is the other person in the room or scene. Every now and then, in case we get confused, you may identify the speaker, but not at every single piece of dialogue.

  3. "Said" and "stated" and "spoke" are hugely unnecessary most of the time, even in a crowded scene. If you mastered the vocabulary/dialect/thinking of your characters, it will be OBVIOUS which one said those words that way. You may need to add that he laughed, or spoke harshly, or shrugged, or seemed confused, if it's important and isn't clear from the actual dialogue, but not simply that he spoke.

    "...grabbed his chin tightly and began to speak" is a worthless bit of prose. If there are quote marks around the next words, then we KNOW he began to speak, don't we? Just say, "Kronos grabbed his chin tightly." Follow that with the words he actually spoke.

    If you must tell us something was said, avoid "he spoke." It is awkward. Use "said."

  4. Abbreviations like "tv" or "ok" or "am" or "pm" are capitalized. This is wrong:
    That SOB chopped off my hair...
    "SOB" really needs periods; otherwise, it appears that you're saying "sob," as in "cry." Further, "ok" in lower-case is completely unacceptable. Use "okay." For t-shirts," use "tee-shirts." There's no such word as "Cos" unless you're referring to Bill Cosby: the abbreviation for "because" would be 'cause. Nor may you use 'cuz, which is typically used--in dialogue only--for 'cousin.'

  5. Names are capitalized. Names are not limited to "Christian" or "first" names such as Jane or Mohammed, nor to surnames.
    A detective and a police station are not capitalized; they are generic. However, if your character is a cop returning to "the Station," he is probably using it as a name--short for Police Station #69, perhaps--and you may want to capitalize.
    At the police station, when Captain Simon Banks barks, "Get somebody from Forensics," he's giving the name of a specific department; it is not the general science of forensics. Names, of course, should be capitalized.
    At the police station, Captain Banks sits in the captain's office. Note that it is not capitalized. When people look at the captain, it's a job title and a person but not a specific name, and therefore it isn't capitalized. They say, "Yes, sir," and the 'sir' is not capitalized, unless Captain Banks happens to be British and a knight of the realm.
    A doctor is working on your partner, and neither the doctor nor the partner are capitalized, but you address him as Doc or Doctor--as in, "Thanks, Doc"--with capital letters, because you are using it as his name, since you were too dumb to read his nametag. The detective from the police station, if addressed as "Detective," gets capitalized, too. (Not all textbooks agree with Ms. Nitpicker, but it is the only polite thing to do, and Ms. Nitpicker is almost always polite.)
    Similarly, if your hero refers to his sidekick as "Chief" or "Dummy" as a name, it should probably be capitalized; if he's spitting, "You re a dummy!" it shouldn't be.
    Furthermore, "Oh, God" is referring to a specific deity and should be capitalized. You wouldn't write "Oh, allah" would you? "Gods" are a bunch and not a specific name, and therefore can usually be lower-case, as in "Oh, gods, I hope I make it." The fact that the character is cursing or exclaiming in horror does not excuse the author's failure to show honor and respect to a deity by capitalizing His/Her/Its name.
    Traditionally, we capitalize the name of countries, so our characters drink Scotch and eat a Danish and open French doors, although probably not all at the same time. This is a rule seldom observed, but if you were French, wouldn't you resent being reduced to a lower-case word?
    Although there are exceptions, since English is a very strange language, we usually put an apostrophe in to indicate that we've removed a letter and made a contraction, as in changing "it is" to "it's." If you are making a plural from a name, you will have guessed wrong if you write, "The Brown's have family visiting from L.S. Cousins. One of them was sixteen." You've just said, "The Brown is have family visiting." It should be "Browns."
    "Boy Scout" is not a generic descriptive term; it is a registered name like Walkman or Kleenex, and they may decide to sue if you keep referring to your character as "a real boy scout." Spelling it correctly may appease them. Worse yet, some of you think "boyscout" is a single word. You are wrong.
    For God's sake, it's not Ensign Checov. At least spell your main characters' names right!
    There should be one or more commas setting the name off from the rest of the sentence--one before, if the name is in the middle of the sentence, and one after. Commas are places where we pause, however briefly. We don't say, "Jane you are a nitpicker" all in a single breath; we hesitate very briefly after the name, having used the name to get someone's attention. "Oh God please let me live" would have a comma before and after God. (Let us be respectful here.) In moments of hysterical babble, Ms. Nitpicker will allow you to gasp, "Oh God oh God oh God," but do honor the comma most of the time, won't you? (In fact, if you substitute Garak or Avon or Arturo for God, you should still use Our Friend, the Comma.)

    (Check REDUNDANCY AND REPETITION for another problem with names.)

  6. "Yes, Anya, are you quite finished up there?" Anya was about to tell Giles she had no idea why she was even in the loft, when she registered that Willow was helping Giles and the familiar sense of anxiety about her place took hold. *I can't let Giles know I don't remember, he might lose confidence in me.* Instead she smiled brightly and nodded.

    "Yes, all done! Did you need anything while I'm here?" Giles shook his head bemusedly, amazed as always at her mercurial moods.

    After Giles speaks, the description of Anya's reaction is a separate paragraph, one which includes her reply. Giles shaking his head is done by him, not her; even though he's reacting to her statement, he's part of a separate paragraph. The words spoken by a character belong with the character's actions and thoughts, not with whatever they're responding to.

  7. Try reading the dialogue aloud. If it sounds ponderous, or is too hard to say with the proper emotion, you've done some awkward writing and need to fix it. Listen to the words. Is that how that particular character would phrase it? Can you easily picture the actor spouting those words in character?

  8. If you're British, and writing about an American TV show, please study the dialect very carefully. You may use British spellings, but you may not use British slang, ever. For instance, look at this quote from a story about the HIGHLANDER:
    He stood and walked toward the bathroom. "I just need to spend a penny."
    The character was an American, and generally the only money we spend in bathrooms is in exchange for illegal drugs. Our cubicles are not coin-operated, and most of us won't know exactly what the character is about to do, since drugs here cost considerably more than a penny.

    Remember, Richie Ryan of HIGHLANDER does not announce, "I'm for the long jump here," he yelps, "Oh, shit, I'm gonna die!"

  9. Local idiom from local idiots isn't the only problem here; Joe Dawson, the bartender/Watcher in HIGHLANDER, is a gorgeous fellow, but he doesn't speak in five-syllable professorial terms. Write the dialogue the way the character would speak it, not with fancy terms that would get you a good grade on a local report. In real life, we stammer and hesitate and make mistakes; we don't deliver lengthy lectures that sound like they were cut out of an encyclopedia article. (Americans, please don't have British characters such as Dr. Who thinking, "You be dissin' me, bro.")

    Speaking of thinking, we proceed to CHARACTER THOUGHTS.

IMPORTANT SECTIONS for those who like to pick and choose


GENERALITIES
Dialogue I'm telling you, don't bother to click this one here.
CHARACTER THOUGHTS
PUNCTUATION (NOT JUST IN DIALOGUE
VOCABULARY
REDUNDANCY & REPETITION
MS. NITPICKER'S CONTINUING HALL OF SHAME
CHEAT SHEET INDEX
MS. NITPICKER'S FANFIC GLOSSARY

I'm thoroughly chastened, and want to return to the main page and perhaps yell at Ms. Nitpicker.

I think I need more guidance. Send me to HOLY MOTHER GRAMMATICA'S GUIDE TO GOOD WRITING. Maybe I should visit BAD FANFIC! NO BISCUIT!.

I feel I have learned all I need to learn, and want to take MS. NITPICKER'S FAN FICTION TEST--DO YOU KNOW YOUR GRAMMAR?

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.