“Dialogue is conversation–nothing more, nothing less” (Gloria Kempton).
This is Part 1 in a three-part series I’ll be doing over the next few weeks on dialogue. Before I can get to ways to add variety to your dialogue (Part 2) and handling some of the most common challenges in writing dialogue (Part 3), 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.
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.
“It wasn’t my—”
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!!
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.
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-Action-Dialogue)
Another common mistake is to place your beat after your dialogue. Beats always come before dialogue.
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 don’t remember where I found the acronym FAD, but it’s a helpful way to remember the natural order of items in your writing.
(4) Avoid Creativity In Your Tags
Lisa did an excellent post on why you should stick to basic dialogue tags such as said and asked (and occasionally whispered and shouted), so I won’t repeat it here. In essence though, our minds are trained to skip simple tags. Plus, go ahead and try hissing or growling a word.
(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?
Join us on Thursday for an interview about historical fiction and social media with special guest Jody Hedlund, as well as a giveaway of her newest novel The Doctor’s Lady.