Writing Tip: Rules of Dialogue

Posted: July 2, 2016 in Writing Tips
Tags: , , , ,

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I read a lot of indie books. A lot. I read more than I review here on the blog. That’s because I read books that I don’t finish and I don’t finish them because of major problems in the writing, storytelling, and technicalities. I also am often reading multiple books at a time these days, because reading is addicting and I love overwhelming myself.

One of the issues I often come across in my reading is that a lot of writers struggle with dialogue. You may think this is a basic topic, and it is for many writers.  For others it is a major problem. That’s why I decided to do a two part series about writing dialogue.

This first part will be about the rules of dialogue and the second part will be about making your dialogue feel realistic instead of forced.

Dialogue Rule #1:

Every Time Someone Speaks, Begin a New Paragraph

This is the most most common issue I see with dialogue on a regular basis. Paragraphs run on and on, containing the dialogue of not only one but also two or three people. This is incorrect. It shows that not only does the author not understand a basic rule for writing, but they also don’t have anyone around them who knows.

Why do we break to a new paragraph for dialogue?

Paragraphs are self-contained ideas. Even when multiple paragraphs are about the same general idea, we break it into paragraphs to punctuate specific pieces of that idea. Take this blog post for example, it’s all about dialogue but it isn’t one long paragraph. Breaking ideas into digestable chunks helps readers process and understand the information.

Dialogue is just like a paragraph. Each speaker has their own ideas. They punctuate a conversation with their own points of view. This also helps the reader keep track of who is speaking to prevent confusion.

Now, the paragraph does not need to start with quotation marks. You can put a dialogue tag at the beginning or end of the paragraph, or even leave them off altogether.

Examples:

Loretta smiled wickedly and said, “I don’t always smile before I speak, but when I do, I use a comma.”

“It makes me nervous when you talk shop with me,” George said.

“That’s because you’re not a writer.”

“Or maybe it’s because you act like a weirdo.” George grinned sheepishly.

In this example you can see that each person gets their own paragraph to speak, even though their lines are only one sentence long. Whether or not you end your paragraph after a person speaks will depend on the dialogue tag.

Dialogue Rule #2

Punctuation is Important and Determined by Speaking vs. Action

Punctuation for dialogue has some pretty specific rules. First and foremost is that dialogue should be indicated with the use of quotation marks. These go around the actual words the character is speaking. Most people understand this from my observation.

 

Now for the tricky part. When it comes to your dialogue tags, you can signify action tags vs. speaking tags with either a period or a comma. What does that mean?

“You can’t laugh and speak at the same time.”

“You can’t sigh and speak at the same time.”

“You can’t speak by waving.”

“You can’t speak by smiling.”

Etc.

Okay, well, people laugh and wave and smile while speaking all the time. There is a way through punctuation to indicate whether the person is speaking or acting while speaking. If the person is speaking, you end the line in quotation marks with a comma. If the person is going to act while speaking you use a period.

Let’s look at our example again.

Loretta smiled wickedly and said, “I don’t always smile before I speak, but when I do, I use a comma.”

“It makes me nervous when you talk shop with me,” George said.

“That’s because you’re not a writer.”

“Or maybe it’s because you act like a weirdo.” George grinned sheepishly.

Note how when I ended with George said, the dialogue ended in a comma. When George grinned, however;  I skipped mentioning the word said and went straight for his action directly after speaking.

Alternately, when Loretta smiled at the beginning, I also used the word said, which means there needs to be a comma. If I had skipped saying the word said, it would look like this:

Loretta smiled wickedly. “I don’t always smile….”

Note that in this instance her action ends with a period before she speaks. This indicates that she acted, and then spoke. She did not speak with her smile.

When it comes to asking a question in dialogue, the proper punctuation is always a question mark within the dialogue tag. What you do after the dialogue tag is the same rule of speaking vs. action.

“Do you want to learn about dialogue or not?” she asked.

“Are you going to punch me if I say no?” He ducked just in case.

Asking is considered speaking, just like said. Therefore, any improper nouns following a question mark within quotation marks is lower case. If the tag following a question mark within quotation marks is an action, the improper noun is then upper case. This does not apply to character names, because they should all be capitalized every single time. (And you knew that, right?)

Dialogue Rule #3

The Hotly Debated Tagging Issue

Dialogue tags are the indicators of who is speaking. Tags can either be of the speaking or action variety as discussed above. There is a hotly debated issue whether or not dialogue tags should extend farther beyond said and asked.

On the one side is the opinion (or rule) that professional writers do not bog their readers down with descriptive dialogue tags. Sighed, groaned, moaned, sobbed, growled, hissed, snarled, laughed, yelled, cursed, demanded, commanded, and on and on are not necessary to the tone of the dialogue. This should be done by the tone of the scene and punctuation. Also, those things are not “speaking,” but actions. You cannot laugh and speak at the same time, as they say.

This side of the argument insists that using these other tags is a sure sign of an amature writer. Said is all you really need. (Asked is even redundant if you have a question mark. Yelled is redundant if you have an exclamation point.)

This is not considered boring because the idea is that said is not a word so much as a form of punctuation. Loretta said indicates the speaker but the reader glazes over the word said, and it’s more like making your dialogue the way it would be in a play.

Loretta: I don’t always smile before I speak.

On the other side of the argument is that people do make noises while they speak. The inflection and tone in your voice can be hissing, growling, and nervous laughter as you’re speaking. Action tags can set the tone of dialogue.

Sarcasm, nervousness, excitement, anger and many other emotions play out. Tagging dialogue with indications of these can help the reader understand the character’s emotions and intentions.

How do I feel about this? Well, I’m kind of in the middle. I get where the “only said” people are coming from. I also get the “emotions should be included” set. I lean more toward including emotions, but also try to use them when I feel it is necessary.

I do not think it’s a sign of being unprofessional to use a tag other than said. I think it’s a style choice, especially for indie authors. I’ve read books from both camps and have never had issue with either type of tagging.

To wrap it up remember:

  1. Dialogue begins a new paragraph and each speaker gets their own paragraph.
  2. Remember to use a period instead of a comma for an action tag.
  3. Some people take offence at tags other than said in dialogue.

That’s all for this week! Next week I’ll talk about making your dialogue sound like people are talking instead of making them sound like robots repeating programmed words.

Until then, have a great week! If you have any other tips feel free to leave them int he comments.

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Comments
  1. giffmacshane says:

    Great article. I’m totally with you on the “said/asked” deal. It’s often not necessary to use any other word, but sometimes another word adds an additional layer to the character’s thoughts. Every time I hear “Never do (whatever)”, I think about the Captain of the Pinafore (Gilbert & Sullivan):

    Captain: Never. No, never!
    Crew: What? Never?
    Captain: Hrmmph. Hardly ever!

    Choosing words judiciously is all that’s necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know exactly what you mean. I write and read eBooks, and there’s nothing worse than faulty dialog, although, improper grammar is right up there. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

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