5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

dialogue in fiction

“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.
Example:
“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!!

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.

Marcy

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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25 comments on “5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

  1. Any jelly bean is a good jelly bean! My biggest struggle with dialogue is with how much should a character say. I tend to worry about letting a character talk for too long, as if the reader will become aware that this person is talking for a long time without anyone else talking/responding. I read it out loud to gauge where the natural break points should be but I still worry about it!

    Great post! I didn’t know that about the “beat” and I often wondered if it should “said John” or “John said” as well. Is this down to personal writing style or preference or in order to be taken seriously should it definitely be “John said” ?

    • Haha. I actually don’t much care for java or buttered popcorn jelly beans either. Most other flavors are in my good books. I have strong opinions when it comes to jelly beans 🙂

      To be taken seriously, it should be “John said.” A lot of things are more personal preference, but these ones are rules you shouldn’t break.

      Marcy

  2. I also hadn’t heard of the FAD rule before, so naturally I immediately went back to some of my work to see whether or not I follow this. In general, I do, but there is one case where I don’t think this needs be followed – when you’re showing order. For example:

    “You’re still not sharp enough, and you forgot to raise your arm. You haven’t gotten that right yet. I can’t believe it happened while you were sitting down. That kind of positioning takes years to master.” She walked around behind him and pulled his arm up awkwardly behind him. “Like this. And your left arm should be down here.”

    I don’t really consider that a beat. She speaks the first two sentences, then walks behind him, then speaks the second sentence.

    What do you think?

    • That’s a beat, but it’s exempt from the FAD guideline because it’s technically being used in place of a “she said” tag. FAD doesn’t apply to beats within dialogue the way this one is. (I’ll be talking about this a bit more in the remaining parts of the dialogue series.)

      Hope that helps clear it up.

      Marcy

  3. Thank you for clarifying how to write “John said,” as opposed to “said John.”
    Marcy, when you critiqued my short story at Write Canada you pointed out that a beat should come before dialogue. I have been doing this in all of my writing and I can’t tell you how much better it reads.
    FAD – Feelings-Action-Dialogue – Perfect!
    I can’t wait to read Part II and III.

  4. Marcy, this a great post. It’s always subconsciously at the back of my mind, but to see it here laid out in simple terms with examples is just great. My main problem with dialogue is if it is a bit too long and wordy; I go back and edit it like a million times until I am happy with it.

  5. Excellent advice! I’ve recently become a fan of using speech tags sparingly and using beats instead (I’d always called it action though…nice to know the terminology). I disagree slightly with the idea that the beat must always come before the dialogue. I can’t think of any specific examples right now, but I know I’ve used the beat after dialog or at a pause. It seemed right that way and didn’t flow as well with the beat first. Though, perhaps I just didn’t know enough about how dialogue should flow. Or maybe it’s one of those things where it’s okay to break the rules as long as it works and as long as the rules are understood. I’m going to have to go through my old work and see.

    • There are exceptions to the FAD rule (it is one of the ones that you can break as long as you know why you’re breaking it and it works better), but 95% of the time you’ll find that your work reads more smoothly and naturally if you follow that order.

      A beat could come after dialogue if, for example, there was a compelling, logical reason the dialogue had to come first. Usually when that happens though the action ends up starting a whole new paragraph rather than following after the dialogue in the same paragraph.

      It’s perfectly acceptable to place a beat at a pause. That’s one of the ways to add variety (and is part of what I’ll be covering later in this series 🙂 )

      As a rule, FAD is meant more for when you’re going to have a straightforward passage including two or three of the FAD elements.

      Marcy

  6. Very handy post, there were some new tips in there that I hadn’t heard before, like FAD! I can’t wait to see the rest of this series!

    Also, I just wanted to let you ladies know that I’ve left a little award for you on my blog here.

  7. Great advice, but I don’t think it’s always wrong to use a beat and a tag. It’s true that it shouldn’t be overused, but it’s still a good writing technique for providing variety in sentence structure.

    • Thanks for offering a differing view 🙂

      You make a good point about the necessity of providing variety in sentence structure, but I’d suggest that combining a beat and a tag isn’t the best way to do it. When we’re adding variety in our sentences, we need to make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice tight writing.

      Marcy

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