I want to talk about something that I’ve picked up on recently, both in the fiction workshop I took this past summer and in several manuscripts I’ve beta read for friends. At first, I was reluctant to address this because I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m singling them out. Because I’m not. Like I said, this is something that’s come up over and over again, so I thought it might be best to put it all out there.
We all struggle with some aspect of writing. We have strengths and weaknesses — at least, I do. I have a really, really hard time writing descriptive passages–my fist drafts tend to read like screenplays, mostly dialogue and action with big red letters in places that say [DESCRIBE HOUSE HERE] or [WHAT IS SHE WEARING?]. I’m getting better at it, and it’s something that improves with every book I write, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. On the flip side, one of the most regular comments I get during feedback is that I write strong dialogue. I’m not saying this to brag–I’m saying this to tell you guys that it’s okay if dialogue isn’t really your thing. It’s something that can be fixed. It’s something that you can improve, the same way that I’m improving with my descriptions. I want to help you with that, as long as you promise that you’ll help me learn how to describe a setting without sounding silly. Deal?
In order to hold up my end of the bargain, we have to go back to basics and talk about dialogue rules. I’m not going to get any more in-depth or complicated than that today–baby steps, guys. Baby steps.
1. Quotation marks
We use quotation marks to separate the words our characters speak from the rest of the prose. Unless you’re writing experimental fiction, this is a hard and fast rule, not a stylistic choice. (If you *are* writing experimental fiction…do your thing.) I’ve read manuscripts where the author hasn’t used a single quotation mark, and the end result is messy, confusing, and downright exhausting. Use them.
2. Dialogue tags
This one’s a doozy. To start, dialogue tags aren’t always necessary. They’re used to show the reader who is speaking — in order to do that, we use verbs like said (or, in certain cases words like shouted or whispered or snapped can be used. But 99% of the time, said is your best bet). These tags are separated from the dialogue by a comma. Dialogue tags can come before or after a sentence:
“She loves him,” Mary said.
Mary said, “She loves him.”
You can change up the order of the words in the tag, like so:
“She loves him,” said Mary.
It can even come in the middle of someone speaking, if you want to indicate a pause or something DRAMATIC:
“She loves him,” Mary said. “So I have to kill him.”
If you’ve already established a conversation is occurring between two characters, you don’t have to include a tag at all:
“What about him?” Susie asked.
“She loves him,” Mary said, “So I have to kill him.”
“Is that wise?”
“It’s the only option.”
If you don’t use a tag, make sure to close the dialogue tag with the appropriate punctuation instead of a comma (or a question mark if it’s a question). You can even use an emdash to indicate that sentence is interrupted, or an ellipses to indicate the speaker didn’t finish her sentence.
Now that we’ve got the basics, let’s get a little more complicated. Have you ever read a sentence like the following? Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?
“Absolutely,” he nodded, “I’ll tell you right away.”
Did you spot the error?
It’s that pesky little comma after Absolutely.
Let’s rewrite that sentence:
“Absolutely.” He nodded. “I’ll tell you right away.”
Now that we’ve fixed it, I want to talk about why it was wrong. Think for a moment — is it physically possible to nod a sentence? The answer is no. It isn’t. Actions like nodded or sighed or danced aren’t dialogue tags. Your character may be nodding or sighing or dancing while speaking, but it isn’t part of the speaking itself, so you have to separate it from the dialogue and start a new sentence.
3. Paragraph Rules
This is an easy one: every time someone new begins speaking, start a new paragraph. No exceptions.
There you have it. Three simple, basic rules for dialogue. Sometime in the future I’ll get more in depth and talk about what makes good dialogue, but we have to walk before we can run, right?