If you look for advice on how to write good dialogue, you will find all kinds of articles with a variety of suggestions, rules, or tips for writing dialogue. Many of these articles contain great suggestions about how long your dialogue should be, what kind of content it should include, or what function it should serve in your writing. Today, I would like to focus on the technical side of dialogue: how to structure it within your story, how to punctuate it properly, and how to use dialogue tags.
If there is only one thing you learn here today, then let this be it. When you decide to use dialogue in your writing, you should always start a new paragraph each time a new speaker says something. Always. It eliminates reader confusion, especially when things are moving quickly. Let’s look at some examples:
Example 1: No formatting
“Did you remember to pack the silver bullets?” Dean asked. “Yes. Wait, which silver bullets?” “Seriously, Sam?” Dean shook his head. “The ones that were on the table.” “In the blue box?” “Yeah, those are the ones.” “Ah. Then no, I didn’t remember to pack them.” Dean punched Sam.
Example 2: Formatted
“Did you remember to pack the silver bullets?” Dean asked.
“Yes. Wait, which silver bullets?”
“Seriously, Sam?” Dean shook his head. “The ones that were on the table.”
“In the blue box?”
“Yeah, those are the ones.”
“Ah. Then no, I didn’t remember to pack them.”
Dean punched Sam.
Starting a new paragraph each time a different speaker says something makes your dialogue much easier to understand.
The other important thing to remember when writing dialogue is that you must punctuate it properly. So if your speaker asks a question, a question mark must appear within the quotation marks, not outside them. Same goes for periods, commas, and exclamation marks. And if you interrupt the speaker with a dialogue tag, that should be punctuated properly too. Here are some examples:
- “Grr,” said the werewolf.
- “Dean!” Sam yelled. “Look out!”
- “Crap,” said Dean as he fumbled for his wolfsbane. “Got it! Okay, bring it on, you oversized puppy.”
These are the words we use to indicate who is speaking. And the general consensus is that dialogue tags should be “invisible”—which means that readers should absorb them as part of the dialogue, rather than getting hung up on the tags themselves. Said and asked are the two most common dialogue tags.
Sometimes, we add an adjective or an adverb to a dialogue tag (he said noisily; she asked coldly). Or we use a verb instead of said or asked (he screamed; she whimpered). While this can add context or emotion, you should be careful about overusing them (and about using words that don’t physically make sense). Instead, you should use action to describe the context or a character’s emotion. Compare the following examples:
- “I’m so hungry,” the werewolf said despondently.
- The werewolf lay on the ground and clutched his growling stomach. “I’m so hungry.”
Using this type of “action beat” instead of a dialogue tag allows you to demonstrate behaviour or motivation that is unique to the character.
If you’d like to read more about writing dialogue, here are a couple of good articles to get you started:
- LitReactor – Talk It Out: How To Punctuate Dialogue In Your Prose
- Ylva Publishing – Eight tips on using dialogue tags
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