Shannon Stacey

A question of dialogue structure

When it comes to certain aspects of writing, I can be a bit of a…traditionalist. (Though some might say old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud.) It’s one of the things Maya loves best about me. (Not. *g*)

One of the things driving me batshit crazy I’ve been noticing of late is a change in the structure of dialogue passages. To me, there are three ways to build a paragraph with dialogue.

“I hate when you say something’s against the rules.” Maya slipped off an orange Nike and chucked it at Shannon’s head. “There are no rules.”

Maya slipped off an orange Nike and chucked it at Shannon’s head. “I hate when you say something’s against the rules. There are no rules.”

“I hate when you say something’s against the rules. There are no rules.” Maya slipped off an orange Nike and chucked it at Shannon’s head.

Dialogue/narrative/dialogue. Narrative/dialogue. Dialogue/narrative.

Lately, though, I’ve been seeing a lot of this…

Maya slipped off an orange Nike. “I hate when you say something’s against the rules.” She chucked the shoe at Shannon’s head. “There are no rules.”

“I hate when you say something’s against the rules.” Maya slipped off an orange Nike. “There are no rules.” She chucked the shoe at Shannon’s head.

I’ll admit—because I don’t think Maya could actually throw her shoe from Texas to New Hampshire, no matter how much I annoy her—that I think dialogue construction has rules, and that I’m not the best at dealing with change. As a writer, I can say up front my dialogue-building isn’t going to change. I’ve managed to train myself to put one space after a period instead of two, but my adaptability has limits.

As a reader, is this something I’m going to have to grow accustomed to? Is it a new style that’s here to stay, or is it rule-breaking that’s being ignored?

What do you think?

13 comments to “A question of dialogue structure”

  1. Meljean
      · November 12th, 2009 at 11:58 am · Link

    I tend to agree with you, though I’m not sure if it’s what is right or just what I’m accustomed to reading/writing.

    And I have done the different format … and then struggled against it (but at the time, it worked, so I left it.) So it’s not a rule set in concrete for me, and I barely notice one or two instances of it in a book — but if there’s a lot of it in a single book, it really, really jumps out at me (not always in a good way, because I don’t always like being unable to ignore structure as I’m reading).

  2. Donna
      · November 12th, 2009 at 12:20 pm · Link

    I agree with Meljean. I try to avoid writing this way, but I’m not sure if it’s really a rule so much as… I don’t know. So choppy and (often) unnecessary that it bugs?

    I do know that I avoid doing it, will try to edit it out if I did manage to do it, and will most definitely grit my teeth while reading if an author does it repeatedly.

  3. Rhonda
      · November 12th, 2009 at 12:44 pm · Link

    :shock: maybe it’s a southern thing… and yes Maya is close enough (sort of) to chuck her orange Nike at me, but I’m in the “Lately, though, I’ve been seeing a lot of this…” group. Darn good thing you can’t throw a croc from NH. Of course I’ve never been much of a rule follower :twisted:

  4. Heather Rae Scott
      · November 12th, 2009 at 11:44 am · Link

    At the risk of having Maya chuck an Orange Nike at me. I completely agree with you. It drives me apeshit crazy too, I thought it was just me and maybe *I* was doing it wrong, but when I tried it, I hated it and it was stagnating me because I’d keep redoing the damned sentence. So, I’m interested to see if this is a new rule because like you, as a reader, my brain trips up when I read it.

  5. Emma Wayne Porter
      · November 13th, 2009 at 12:21 am · Link

    Dialogue tags serve one main purpose: to attribute dialogue to its speaker. Why should this require more than one dialogue tag?

    Writing is evolving, though. Multiple breaks in dialogue to deliver stage directions are symptomatic of TV and movie viewing. Actions in film or the small screen often do convey meaning to viewers due to the body language cues given off by the actors.

    Now the visio-aural “scripting” from TV and movies has bled over onto the page, where in the past, writing was confined to graphical representation of ideas, using metaphor and allegory to convey plot, character and emotion, and to illicit emotion from the reader.

    Only very rarely do I find any real meaning derived from these stage direction dialogue tags. Is this writing evolution a bad thing? Who knows. But I do know one thing:

    Unexpected interruptions in dialogue = print convention ignored = visual noise = reader has to work harder to derive meaning from text = broken immersion = reader has an excuse to put the book down and never pick it up (or open the file) again.

  6. Annmarie
      · November 13th, 2009 at 12:37 am · Link

    Shut UP! We aren’t supposed to have two spaces after a period? When did this change and why are the rules being changed? DAMMIT! I NEED RULES!

    As to the other, I can’t address that until we resolve this one space after a period thing.

  7. Lisa J
      · November 13th, 2009 at 12:09 pm · Link

    It is physically impossible for me to type something without two spaces after a period. It is WRONG to use one space! Ask my typing teacher in school. As an admin, I cannot be forced to use one space.

    I’m with Annmarie, we cannot deal with the dialogue issue until the world goes back to two spaces.

  8. Annmarie
      · November 13th, 2009 at 2:14 pm · Link

    Right on, Lisa!

  9. Karen Templeton
      · November 13th, 2009 at 2:59 pm · Link

    Okay…had no idea there were dialogue “rules.” (Other than the obvious punctuation stuff, I mean.) But then, I write it as I hear it — i.e, what feels right at that moment in that scene.

    Because dialogue tags aren’t only about speaker attribution, they’re also about incorporating action into the dialogue. Why couldn’t Maya say something, take off her shoe, then hang onto it for a moment while she said something else before chucking it at Shan? I mean, people alternate speech with action all the time, right?

    Or is what’s bugging you the staccato feel to the passage? In which case, I’d probably merge the last three sentences to indicate she was talking and chucking at the same time. Or something. :)

    Hey, I’m all about variety. Using the same dialogue structure — no matter what it is — throughout a book is eventually going to annoy the reader.

    But then, I also will — horror of horrors — sometimes let two characters share one dialogue exchange in a single paragraph, if that suits the flow of the moment. It’s all about the rhythm of the passage, both in how it looks on the page and how it sounds in my ear as I read it back. If it works, it works. Period.

    Speaking of which — Annemarie and Lisa J, I learned how to type in 1964. So you might say the two period thing was pretty ingrained. Retrained myself to the one period method IN ONE MANUSCRIPT a year or so ago. So it can be done. ;-)

  10. Jill Sorenson
      · November 13th, 2009 at 5:14 pm · Link

    I’m with Maya.

    What rule? I’ve never heard of such a thing. I like the fourth example. As long as we understand who’s saying/doing what, and there aren’t two speakers in the same paragraph, I don’t see a problem.

  11. Shannon
      · November 13th, 2009 at 10:51 pm · Link

    But then, I also will — horror of horrors — sometimes let two characters share one dialogue exchange in a single paragraph, if that suits the flow of the moment.

    :::clutches heart:::

    Such a no-no! :lol:

    I guess, since I haven’t noticed that, is that it’s okay if it’s DONE WELL. Maybe the passages have been sticking out to me because they weren’t done as well.

    And I learned to type with 2 spaces after a period, too. Took me a couple of books, but it’s doable.

    I still try to remember to check before I submit, though, because when I’m tired or really in the zone, I’ll regress.

  12. Jewell
      · November 14th, 2009 at 2:41 pm · Link

    I’m with Karen on this. Well, except for maybe the two dialogues in one paragraph thing. That gave me pause. :smile:

    But I once read a book where this is how the author dealt with dialogue tags. Drove me apeshit.

    “I hate when you say something’s against the rules,” Maya slipped off an orange Nike. “There are no rules,” she chucked the shoe at Shannon’s head.

  13. Natalie J. Damschroder
      · November 17th, 2009 at 8:44 pm · Link

    Holy cr**, thank you, Karen and Jill, because in the 16 years I’ve been in this business, I’ve NEVER been told I have to structure a paragraph like that. Nor have I ever noticed either way in any book I’ve read.

    Jewell…I just line edited a 160,000-word novel that was punctuated like that. Yes, it drove me insane. :twisted: I couldn’t read a book like that for pleasure!

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