Dialogue is talk. Just thought I’d clarify. Some writers don’t seem to get that. So unless the character you’re writing dialogue for is some English professor – and even then – chances are, the character won’t speak all in whole sentences. Because it’s not how we talk. We speak in fragments. Sometimes just one word sentences. Really. We also often start sentences with words like ‘and.’
And depending on your character, some words might not be technically or grammatically correct, but I ain’t gonna expand on that one too much.
People don’t talk in semicolons. Don’t use them in dialogue. If the English professor in you is itching to put a semicolon inside those quotes, substitute em dashes or just separate the sentences with a period. Period.
Try to avoid having too many times when your character rambles on forever without a break. This is called monologuing and, as any villain will tell you, monologuing is Bad. Many times it’s a sign of infodump, unless you have a character who just likes to lecture – and if that’s the case, do your best to rein him or her in.
If your character must talk on and on, break it up with interjections or questions from other characters, or separate the dialogue with tags or better yet, beats.
You can also use new paragraphs to break up the dialogue when appropriate. I say ‘when appropriate’ because I’ve seen writers who feel that after every sentence or two they must start a new paragraph. It’s not necessary. Real speech often rambles or changes subjects abruptly. Using a beat is a much better way to indicate a topic change than having five paragraph breaks in seven sentences for one character’s speech. Much easier on your readers, too.
But don’t forget, if you do start a new paragraph in the middle of a monologue, you must follow the proper quotation rule. Don’t use an end quote at the end of the old paragraph, and do use a beginning quote at the start of a new one.
originally published in The Sword Review 2006-10-05