Workshop on Dialogue Format I

As my novel makes the rounds of trusted “beta” readers, I am getting a lot of feedback on how to format dialogue. You think it would be the easiest thing in the world but when do you capitalize? When do you use a comma versus a period? Is a single space appropriate now, or should I still use two? All of these things are coming back with conflicting opinions.

A quick flip through some of Gail Simone’s issues of “Birds of Prey” tells me that a character’s name should always be preceded by a comma when they are being addressed, but this is fantasy. What about titles like sir, your lordship, my liege, and so forth? It’s time to hit the books.

Here is a dialogue-heavy passage from R.A. Salvatore’s Sea of Swords, which I’ve broken into six parts for analysis.

1 “You did this to me,” Wulfgar remarked.

2 “Did what?”

3 “Your words put me here, not those of Captain Deudermont,” Wulfgar
clarified. “You did this.”

4 “No, dear Wulfgar,” Robillard said venomously. “You did.”

5 Wulfgar lifted his chin, his stare defiant.

6 “In the face of a potentially difficult battle, Captain Deudermont had no choice but to relegate you to this place,” the wizard was happy to explain. “Your own insolence and independence demanded nothing less of him. Do you think we would risk losing crewmen to satisfy your unbridled rage and high opinion of yourself?” (Salvatore, R.A. Sea of Swords. Wizards of the Coast, 2001, 112-113)

Let’s look at the style first. Salvatore doesn’t use a lot of “he said/she said.” He’s big on alternate words like “clarified” or “remarked.” Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, suggests steering away from these alternates. I prefer a mix but try to not overdo it. Wulfgar is a character of action, so Salvatore makes him a man of fewer words than the intellectual wizard, Robillard. The characters’ sentence patterns well-reflect their characterization. The characters’ word choices are also appropriate to their personality. Wulfgar doesn’t use Robillard’s fancy adjectives, “unbridled” or “high.” Wulfgar is more to the point. These are subtle tricks and Salvatore employs them to great effect. I’ve always admired his combat choreography and pacing, but I’ve never noticed how good he was at this technique before now.

Now let’s look at the punctuation, the real reason why we’re here. Part one is easy. Wulfgar makes a single line remark. It’s a complete thought, but it still ends with a comma:

1 “You did this to me,” Wulfgar remarked.

This is pretty simple. You open the quote, end the remark with a comma and end the quote. Wulfgar is a name so of course it gets capitalized.

In part two, we know Wulfgar is talking to Robillard, so Salvatore just lets the responding question stand alone:

2 “Did what?”

No “the wizard” or “Robillard said.” Leaving this out creates more white space and speeds the flow of the passage. There are only two characters present so Salvatore doesn’t have to worry about confusing us about which is speaking. In a longer dialogue I’d be careful to not confuse the reader, but Salvatore gives us another pointer in part three.

Part three contains an insertion:

3 “Your words put me here, not those of Captain Deudermont,” Wulfgar clarified. “You did this.”
It’s not much more complicated than part one. Wulfgar speaks, ending on a comma. Salvatore closes the quote and gives us a pointer to indicate who is speaking “Wulfgar clarified.” The pointer ends on a period and Salvatore opens a fresh quote so Wulfgar can finish his accusation.

Part four deals with a character’s name being spoken. This is the part I’ve been waiting for:

4 “No, dear Wulfgar,” Robillard said venomously. “You did.”

Salvatore opens a quote. He puts a comma before “dear Wulfgar,” as “dear” is modifying “Wulfgar.” Instead of saying “Yep dear, Lady,” the pause of the comma goes before the dear: “Yep, dear Lady.” I’ll still have to thumb through some books to see a concrete example for a title, but I suspect I’ll find it says “As you wish, my lord,” the knight said. King would drop the “venomously,” but I think the adjective here it appropriate. Salvatore is aiming for sarcasm and the “dear” might give the wrong impression without the “venomously” in the pointer. We should also note that we’re still ending on a comma in the first part of the dialogue.

Part five has no dialogue, but Salvatore opens a new paragraph since the action shifts entirely to Wulfgar:

5 Wulfgar lifted his chin, his stare defiant.

Part six opens a new paragraph and I’m anxious to see how Salvatore handles the pronoun. Does it get capitalized? No:

6 “In the face of a potentially difficult battle, Captain Deudermont had no choice but to relegate you to this place,” the wizard was happy to explain. “Your own insolence and independence demanded nothing less of him. Do you think we would risk losing crewmen to satisfy your unbridled rage and high opinion of yourself?” (Salvatore, R.A. Sea of Swords. Wizards of the Coast, 2001, 112-113)

It’s a much longer ending than the insertion style we saw in part three, but the punctuation is very similar. The important thing is that “the wizard” isn’t capitalized.

2 thoughts on “Workshop on Dialogue Format I

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting…I will be back again to read more on this topic.

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