5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

“Dialogue is conversation–nothing more, nothing less” (Gloria Kempton).

A couple months back when I took a survey on what you wanted me to write about, one of the topics you asked me to cover was dialogue. So today I’m kicking off a new craft series.

Through the series, I’ll cover ways to add variety to your dialogue, handling some of the most common challenges in writing dialogue (like dialect), the purpose dialogue needs to serve in a scene to make the cut, and how to write dialogue unique to your characters. But first we need to tackle the basics of beats, tags, and punctuation. Get them wrong and you can ruin an otherwise well-written scene (and mark yourself as an amateur).

(1) Choose the Correct Form of Punctuation

Improper punctuation of dialogue is one of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts I edit and critique.

Use a comma at the end of a segment of dialogue (even a complete sentence) when followed by a tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said.

Use a question mark without a comma for a question. (This applies to exclamation marks too.)
Example: “Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy asked.
I could have replaced “asked” with “said” here and the punctuation would remain the same.

If a tag is dividing a sentence, use a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue (even if the comma wouldn’t normally go there in the same sentence if it wasn’t dialogue) and use a comma after the tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said, “because they burn my tongue.”

Use a period after a tag when the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said. “I refuse to eat them.”

Use a dash when dialogue is cut off or interrupted. Do not add any other punctuation.
“It wasn’t my—”
“Enough excuses.”

Use an ellipsis for dialogue that fades away.
Example: “I just . . .” She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I thought he loved me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly! They’re usually a sign that you’re trying to bolster weak dialogue. They’re also distracting!! (I’m wagging a finger at myself right now. I know they’re bad, but I do so love to use them.)

Don’t use colons or semi-colons in your dialogue at all. While this might seem like an arbitrary rule, colons and semi-colons just look unnatural in dialogue. For the most part, you should avoid them in your fiction entirely. The old joke is that you’re allowed one semi-colon per career, so use it wisely.

Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks in North America. If you’re not in North America, check some of the traditionally published books on your shelf to see where they place punctuation.

(2) Use a Tag or a Beat, But Not Both

A tag is a word such as “said” or “asked.” A beat is a piece of action used in place of a tag.

The point of a tag is to let the reader know who’s saying what. If you’ve shown them who’s talking through a beat, you don’t need to also tell them through a tag. It’s awkward and wordy to use both. (About one time out of 100 you can break this rule for effect.)

Wrong: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said, patting Luna on the head.

Right: My brother patted Luna on the head. “Your dog looks like an alien.”

Right: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

(3) F-A-D (Feelings/Thoughts-Action-Dialogue)

Another common mistake is to place your beat (the action) after your dialogue. Beats almost always come before dialogue. (I’ll talk about the exception next week.)

I can feel you rebelling already against the idea that you need to follow a particular order of feeling/thoughts, then action, then dialogue when you write. If you don’t follow this pattern though, your writing will feel off to your readers because you’ll unintentionally violate the law of cause coming before effect (or action coming before reaction). In life, which fiction imitates, there’s a natural order to things.

In life, we either have an emotional reaction or a mental reaction to an event first. It happens quickly. We see a gun, fear shoots through our body, and we think I don’t want to die. These emotions or thoughts cause us to act. Sometimes an action can be almost unconscious, a knee jerk reaction to your feelings or thoughts. Finally we speak because speech is externalizing what’s going on inside.  Speech, even when you’re angry, generally takes longer and requires more mental engagement. It’s a rational reaction.

Wrong: “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.” Emily shrugged.

Right: Emily shrugged. “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.”

I learned the acronym F-A-D from agent Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.

(4) Avoid Creativity In Your Tags

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) a sentence, you’re violating the “show don’t tell” principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. If you feel like you need to use a tag other than said, asked, and occasionally, whispered or shouted for the reader to understand your meaning, you need to rewrite your dialogue and the beats around it to make it stronger and clearer.

Trying to get creative with your tags also comes with other consequences. Said and asked are nearly invisible to readers. Our minds skip over them. More creative tags aren’t, so they can quickly become distracting and annoying.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead. Try to hiss or growl a word. I dare you.

(5) Place Your Tags/Beats Strategically

Always write John said, never said John. You’ll often find the latter in classic literature, but it went out of style decades ago. And this is one style that won’t be coming back.

When you have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat so readers know who’s talking before they start, or place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.

Example: “We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” Penthesilea said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less. Six stand ready today. We need only three.”

What’s your greatest struggle when it comes to writing dialogue? And, the real question, do you like cinnamon jelly beans?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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Photo Credit: Ilker from www.sxc.hu

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