Dialogue in fiction stories is a reliable way of bringing characters to life and immersing readers in their lives, but for it to be effective, it needs to be understood. As Michel de Montaigne said in his essay, On the Art of Conversation, “The most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind … is conversation.” It stimulates thinking, engages facial expressions and has the magic to convey complex ideas to others. In fact, we were communicating verbally long before we decided to write down ideas.
Engaging conversations that add value to narration, need to:
Dialogue definition - For the purposes of fiction, it is any words that are spoken aloud by a character, which support what is going on in the plot.
It doesn’t include private thoughts, dreams or narration.
It’s important that readers can easily determine who is speaking, so they can follow the conversation and don’t get the wrong impression of what’s going on in the story. Ambiguity can lead to misinterpretation, but this can be prevented by:
The dialogue (and attached narration) for one character must be put into a separate paragraph.
Dialogue tag definition – The words that frame dialogue (just before, in the middle of or after it), which identify the speaker and provide context for what’s being said.
Here are some tips for using dialogue tags effectively:
“How dare you,” Jane said indignantly. [‘Indignantly’ is the adverb, which is telling readers how this character feels.]
“How dare you!” Jane snapped, a tide of angry red rising up her neck and cheeks. [‘Snapped’ is a stronger verb that tells readers how Jane spoke, and then I’ve added a description of what her physical reaction looks like to the Point of View character.
You can also use thoughts, actions, body language, facial expressions and thoughts by the Point of View character in the surrounding narration, to not only make it clear who is speaking, but how they feel about it and what else they’re doing. For example:
“Um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His face flushed and gaze darted towards the exit.
“Like hell,” Jane said, stalking towards him with clenched fists.
Of course, things become more complicated when there are three or more characters participating in a conversation. When there’s a crowd:
Dialogue should only be joined to a tag with a comma if the tag is something that can actually be said, e.g. he said, she whispered, he yelled, she mumbled.
“Hey, Dan, wait up a minute,” Jenny called as she jogged across the oval. [‘Called’ is something spoken.]
If the tag can’t be said, then you must use a full stop to separate them, e.g. he grunted, she waved, he chewed on his lip, she glanced around the room.
“Gosh, I didn’t expect to see you here.” Dan stopped walking and smiled. [‘Stopping’, ‘walking’ and ‘smiling’ aren’t something that can be spoken.]
The punctuation related to dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, except when em dashes are used like brackets for non-spoken narrative that breaks dialogue (see the example below), or the tag is situated before the dialogue.
Tag before – Sally called across the oval, “Hang on a minute, Dan.”
Tag after – “Hang on a minute, Dan,” Sally called across the oval.
Tag in the middle – “Hang on a minute, Dan,” Sally called across the oval. “I need to talk to you.”
Tag in the middle – “Hang on a minute,” Sally called across the oval, “I need to explain.”
When dialogue commences at the beginning of a sentence, captialise it, even if there was a tag before it.
“A snake just slithered behind the shed.”
Sally said, “A snake just slithered behind the shed.”
Tags that are joined to dialogue with a comma because they can be spoken, are not capitalised unless they are a proper noun; even if the dialogue ends with an exclamatioin or question mark.
“A snake just slithered behind the shed,” said Sally.
“A snake just slithered behind the shed,” Sally said.
“A snake just slithered behind the shed. What do you think we should do?” said Sally.
When quoting someone within dialogue, use a different style of quotation mark, e.g. if you’re using double quote marks, then change to single, or if you’re using single quote marks, change to double.
“Look, I specifically heard Mum say, ‘Don’t go to that party,’ and you still went.”
‘Look, I specifically heard Mum say, “Don’t go to that party,” and you still went.’
“I just can’t believe I forgot to bring it,” Sally said. “I even wrote a note to remind me.”
“I just can’t believe I forgot to bring it,” Sally said, “after writing a note and everything.”
“I just can’t believe I fogot to bring it,” —Sally was flustered as she searched her handbag for the offending envelope— “after writing a note and everything.
“[Paragraph of dialogue that will continue in the next paragraph has no closing quotaion marks.]
“[Each subsequent paragraph of dialogue has opening quotation marks.]
“[The final paragraph of dialogue has closing quotation marks.]”
“Hi Sally, it’s great to see you.”
“You too Jane. How has your week been?”
“Hi Jane. As you know I’m a horse-riding instructor and got my certificate in 2015. What do you do for a living?” [Awkward. People just don’t talk to one another like that.]
But look at the same information revealed using a more conversational tone:
Jane picked up the photo of a younger Emily atop an impressive black horse. “Wow, I didn’t know you rode.”
“For years.” Emily said. “Actually, I’m a riding instructor. Got my certificate just last year. What do you do for a crust?”
I recommend authors use double quotation marks (“) no matter where they are planning to submit their work, because it provides flexibility.
It’s easy to use the Find and Replace function to replace all double quotation marks with singles. However, if you have used single quotation marks, the Find feature will pick up all of the apostrophes too, so you’ll have to manually change each one. Tedious!
Your fiction stories will ultimately benefit from succinct, purposeful, authentic and well-formatted dialogue, because those things enable readers to easily understand what’s being said, by whom. They also bring the narrative to life by immersing readers in characters’ lives and moving the plot forwards.
If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering WITS readers the opportunity to get professional guidance about the next best steps to move their writing forwards, from an industry professional.
What dialog punctuation problems have you encountered? How did you solve it?
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Sandy Vaile is a traditionally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, with more than a decade of experience in the industry, who empowers authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.
Sandy is also a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. Living in the McLaren Vale wine region means lots of prosseco and cheese platters in her down time.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
Dialog Formatting sheets by Sandy Vaile
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