What are the two most important tools any author can use to make a scene in a novel or short story come alive? Action and dialogue. But whereas many writers find that developing action in their stories comes quite naturally to them, a surprising number are intimidated when they have to put words into their characters' mouths.
Here are 10 tips that will help you write dialogue that's both interesting and correctly formatted. Once you master these basics, you'll enjoy the exhilaration of writing crisp conversations between your characters that your fans will love reading.
- Place quotation marks only around spoken words.
(Example: "I'm leaving for the store now," Mary said.
Or: "I'm leaving for the store," Mary said, "but I'll be back soon."
- Use a simple dialogue tag to identify the speaker. The word "said" is ideal because
it becomes almost invisible to the reader. Occasionally an alternative tag can be used, but avoid getting too creative; this distracts from the actual spoken words.
(Good: "Don't touch that!" he warned (or said). "It's dangerous."
Not so good: "Don't touch that!" he implored. "It's dangerous.")
- Place the end-of-dialogue punctuation inside the closing quotes. The ending punctuation mark should be a period, question mark, or exclamation point if the dialogue is not followed by a tag. Notice, you only need one mark at a time.
(Ex.: "That man looks suspicious." Or: "Doesn't he look suspicious?"
However, the ending punctuation mark for dialogue that is followed by a tag needs to be either a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point, because the sentence isn't really complete until after the tag.
(Ex.: "That man looks suspicious," she said. Or: "Doesn't he look suspicious?" she asked.)
- You don't need a tag for every sentence of dialogue. If the identity of the speaker is clear, you don't have to add anything. This works well in a conversation between just two people, once you've established the initial speakers. Or you may identify the speaker by placing a bit of action from that character in the same paragraph.
(Ex.: "One more word from you and I'm out of here!" Marsha slammed her hand on the kitchen counter and glared at me.)
- Avoid repeating characters' names as part of the spoken words. This creates an unnatural, sing-song pattern. An initial greeting is fine; after that, use a tag if needed.
(Never do this: "Hi, Alex. What are you doing here?"
"Well, Frank, I just felt like a walk in the park."
"Me too, Alex."
"Beautiful day, isn't it, Frank?"
"I'd say so, Alex."
"Well, gotta go, Frank!")
- Choose dialogue that moves the plot forward or further develops your characters. Chit-chat like the rather pitiful example in Tip #5 is stagnant and accomplishes nothing. Let's face it, it's just plain boring.
(Better: Frank stared at Alex. "You see anyone pass this way?
A guy in a gray athletic suit?"
"Haven't seen a soul," Alex said.
"You sure? It's a beautiful clear day. You'd think a huge
park like this would be crowded with runners."
Alex shrugged. "Listen, I gotta go."
- Each speaker should get his/her own paragraph. This is the accepted convention, and it makes perfect sense. If you lump the dialogue of several characters in a single paragraph, your reader will have a tough time sorting out who is saying what. Readers have learned to look for paragraph breaks as clues to when one character has finished speaking and another has started.
- Characters' thoughts are not dialogue and shouldn't be framed in quotation marks. You can handle unspoken thoughts in one of two ways, with or without italics:
If I don't get a cup of coffee soon I'll scream, Marsha thought.
Or: If I don't get a cup of coffee soon I'll scream, Marsha thought.
- Use single quotes inside the standard doubles if a character is repeating something he/she overheard:
"Listen." Amanda beckoned to her friend. "Maria just left. 'I'm not giving Greg another chance,' she told me. 'He's out of my life!' I think she's serious this time."
- Have fun with your dialogue, but keep your characters "in character". A poor boy from the slums shouldn't sound like a Harvard professor, and a lady-in-waiting from Queen Elizabeth's 16th-century court is unlikely to use modern slang. And as to dialect or regional accents, less is usually better…but that's fodder for another blog.
Enjoy playing with dialogue in your stories. It's not only fun to write, it will keep your readers happily turning pages and feeling involved in your characters' lives! Happy writing, Kathryn