Dialogue and Narrative
Robert Harris wrote a trilogy about the great legal orator Cicero: Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator. In these stories, whether speaking in private or conducting a public oration, Cicero does not speak with semicolons in the dialogue.
Natural speech is a key element in creating an empathic character. Your editor may get stuck with the fine points of grammar within dialogue, but your readers want a character to speak in flow, just the way real people do.
An editor sparked the idea for this post with a comment about the lack of semicolons in a character’s speech. My reply was the title of this post: Characters don’t speak in semicolons.
Simple tricks to dialogue
- Break up bits of dialogue with periods.
- The one place sentence fragments work as thought fragments as the character speaks.
- If the character is speaking short sentences as one piece of thought, use commas, not semicolons, to indicate a long thought even if they are “grammatically” separate thoughts which would require semicolons while writing narrative.
Your readers will understand. They don’t speak in semicolons either.
A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?
An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation:
“What I meant is… I don’t know how to begin…”
or a trailing off:
“She came with you? But I thought…” She paused.
“You thought what? Come on, spit it out.”
(Also, usually in nonfiction, indicates the omission of words in a quoted text.)
A dash (—), also called em dash, is used to show an interruption in speech:
“But nothing! I don’t want to hear your excuses!”
or a sudden break in thought or sentence structure:
“Will he—can he—find out the truth?”
The dash is also used for amplifying or explaining, for setting off information within a sentence, kind of like parentheses or commas can do:
“My friends—I mean, my former friends—ganged up on me.”
Note: To use dashes this way, make sure that if the information between the dashes is taken out, the rest of the sentence still makes sense and flows properly. Also, avoid three dashes in a sentence. Rewrite the sentence to avoid that.
Dialogue is the Spice of Character Building
When I wrote the introductory scene for Cassiodorus in Ravenna: A Mosaic where he speaks in long, convoluted sentences and does not get to the point, one of my fellow writers said, “Tell me he dies before the book ends.” Now that’s an emotional response. He was sorry to hear that Cassiodorus lived on into his nineties, well outside the time frame of the story.
Your character may speak in monosyllabic words or long phrases. Either way, make the dialogue reflect your character and how he or she interacts with the other personae in your story.