Tag Archives: punctuation

The Basics of Writing Good Dialogue

balloon-898682_1280In my time critiquing, I’ve found that a common issue is dialogue. There are three main elements to consider when writing dialogue:

  1. How to punctuate dialogue correctly.
  2. Effective choice of dialogue tags.
  3. Avoidance of ‘talking heads’.

To start, I just want to be clear on what I mean when I use the term ‘dialogue tag’.

Dialogue tag = said, asked, cried, stuttered, exclaimed, etc.

How to Punctuate Dialogue Correctly

The Problem: A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, can be unsure exactly how to punctuate dialogue. Do I use a comma or period? Does it go inside or outside the talking marks? What about dialogue after the tag; do I capitalise or not? What about the dialogue tag; does that need a capital letter? A period or comma?

What to do: Here are the rules you need to remember…

  • Always end dialogue with a comma inside the speech marks if it is followed by a dialogue tag. eg:

“I love pasta,” said Sarah.

  • Even if there is a long piece of dialogue with several sentences. eg:

“Hi, Kate. How are you? I just got back from Hawaii,” said Ben.

  • The only exception is if the sentence is a question or exclamation, in which case you would use a question mark or exclamation mark. eg:

“Can I borrow your pen?” asked Nathan.

  • Notice you always start the dialogue tag with a lower case letter, even when using a question/exclamation mark. Unless of course you use the person’s name first. eg: Nathan asked.
  • If you want to switch it around and have the dialogue tag first, you put a comma after the tag, start the dialogue with a capital letter and end the dialogue with a period. eg:

Olivia said, “Don’t forget the milk.”

  • Always end dialogue with a period if it is NOT followed by a dialogue tag (if it is a stand alone piece of dialogue without a dialogue tag or it is followed by the character completing an action) eg:

“This class is boring.” Penny leaned back on her chair and rolled her eyes.

  • For dialogue broken up by a dialogue tag, the above rules apply for the dialogue preceding the tag; for the dialogue following the tag you should use a period after the tag and begin the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter on the same line (only make a new line if a new character is speaking). eg:

“I saw him over there,” Tom said, pointing. “He was standing by that tree.”

  • There is an exception to this, but if you’re feeling confused, don’t worry about this one for now. If you are breaking up dialogue in the middle of a sentence (and this is not something you want to do often as it is better used for effect), you will use a comma following the dialogue tag and begin the dialogue following the tag with a lowercase letter. eg:

“I think,” said Kylie, “we should go to the disco.”

Does all that make sense?

Effective Choice of Dialogue Tags

The Problem: Remember back in school when your teachers taught you all the different ways you could say said? Remember how they encouraged you to use a variety of different dialogue tags and avoid the boring word ‘said’ to make your writing more descriptive? The problem is effective writers use said more than any other dialogue tag and avoid those other flowery dialogue tags as much as possible; the complete opposite of what we were taught in school.

What to do: Forget what you learned in school. From now on ‘said’ is your best friend when it comes to dialogue tags. The reason for this is ‘said’ is unobtrusive, which helps make your dialogue flow more naturally. Your second most used dialogue tag will be ‘asked’. That’s not to say you can’t use other tags here and there for effect, but make sure they are realistic (eg: a person can stutter dialogue, but how exactly does one smirk dialogue? It can be said with a smirk, but it can’t be smirked.) If you are unsure, say the dialogue out loud the way you’ve written it.

The same goes for using lots of adverbs, eg: she said, happily. or he said, lamely. Try to find ways to describe the way your characters are talking through use of actions, facial expressions, body language and even the dialogue itself. It’s a good way to include character quirks/traits. eg: Jessica might react in different way to John.

So instead of:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica said, excitedly.

You could have:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica jumped up and down, a grin like a Cheshire cat stretched across her face.

John’s character would interpret excitement in a different way:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” John said, fist bumping Pete.

exchange-of-ideas-222786_1280

Avoidance of Talking Heads

The Problem: There is a lot of back and forth dialogue happening between characters, with no visual description in the scene to ground readers.

What to do: This is a good opportunity to show your characters’ personalities or disperse descriptions of the scene naturally. By interspersing little descriptions of what your characters are doing as the dialogue takes place, you avoid big blocks of back and forth dialogue which can cause readers to get lost or envision talking heads with no scenery to ground them.

So rather than:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona.

“What do you mean?” asked Gary. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

“I mean really see each other.”

You could write:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona. A tear ran down her cheek and dropped onto the shirt she had been ironing. 

“What do you mean?” asked Gary, his eyes never leaving the TV. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

Fiona ran the iron over the shirt, not realising she had been ironing the same sleeve for the last five minutes. “I mean really see each other.”

In the second version we can see more of the characters’ personalities and mood. It also grounds the readers to where they are: at home.

 And never forget the golden rule for dialogue:

Always start a new line when a new character starts speaking. (If the same character is still speaking, even if there are a few sentences of action in between, you don’t need a new line.)

Any questions? Leave them in the comments!

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Helpful Writing Sites & Blog Posts February 2011 Edition

Before I do this month’s roundup of helpful writing sites and blog posts, I just want to send out my thoughts and prayers to those in New Zealand affected by the earthquake. If you wish to donate to the New Zealand Red Cross to help out those affected, here is a link: New Zealand Red Cross

Onto the most helpful sites and posts I’ve come across this month:

Writing

Punctuation Made Easy

This is by far the best site on punctuation I’ve found. It covers colons, semicolons, commas, dashes and apostrophes. It is very straightforward and clear and makes understanding how to use punctuation very easy. I always thought I was good at punctuation, but reading so many complicated posts on punctuation on the internet has often left me confused on whether I’m doing it right. This site is now my go to site when I need clarity.

The Very Basics: Ten Things All Writers Need To Do

Ten things writers should do if they want a shot at getting published.

Opening No Nos

Killzone author James Scott Bell outlines opening chapter no nos based on statements by literary agents.

Five Tips for Your First Five Pages

From things you shouldn’t do in your opening to things you should do.

Back to Basics – Dialog

This post explains the difference between a conversation and dialogue.

8 Ways to Pile on the Fear in Your Horror Fiction

Great post for horror writers looking for ways to amp up the fear factor in their writing.

The Power of Touch

A look at the way J.K. Rowling uses touch in the Harry Potter series as a way of showing emotion, rather than telling.

Creating a Magic System

A great post for fantasy writers on creating a magic system that fits best with the world in your novel.

Lovable and Admirable Characters

We all want to create characters our readers will want to read more about. Author Denise Jaden shares some advice she received about qualities your main character should have to ensure he/she is engaging and lovable.

How to Get the Biggest Bang for Your Plot Point

This post outlines where your main plot points occur in your manuscript and what you should be doing at these points to create a deeper connection with your reader.

Tightening Your (Manuscript’s) Belt

A checklist for eliminating unnecessary prose.

7 Ways Glee Can Improve Your Fiction Writing

Joanna Penn uses the popular TV show ‘Glee’ as a metaphor for ways to improve your writing.

Queries

How to Write a Bio for Your Query

Dot point list of what to include and also includes an example of what to do if you have no writing credentials.

What Your Query Says About Your Book

Your query letter is your first impression of your manuscript. This post tells you how much an agent can tell about your manuscript just by reading your query letter.

Query Me Crazy

Corinne Jackson shares an original query letter she wrote that kept getting rejected, tips she received from a literary agent to improve the query and a revised query she wrote using the tips from the agent that resulted in requests for  partials and fulls.

Just for Fun

The 46 Stages of Twitter

For anyone on Twitter, you’ll be able to relate to these ‘stages’.