The ABC’s of Writing Dialogue

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Writing dialogue is already difficult enough. Make sure you’re not making these basic mistakes so you can focus on what really matters–the words your characters speak.

Punctuation Placement

First let’s walk through how to write dialogue correctly. This will save your editor and you from having to spend valuable time fixing punctuation. Here’s an example of correct dialogue format:

“How do you do?” asked Prince Havreshire. “You may call me Timmy.”

“Nice to meet you, Timmy,” said the cashier.

Prince Havreshire placed the box of pudding on the counter. “Just this, kind sir.”

If you look through this tantalizing interaction, you may notice a couple of patterns. The dialogue sentence’s punctuation always goes before the quotation mark. Always.

Quotation Marks

Dialogue is opened and closed by quotation marks. Whether or not you use the double mark (“) or the single mark (‘) is up to you and where you’re publishing. Americans utilize the double quotation mark and Europeans often use the single.

If you have a long piece of dialogue that will take up two or more paragraphs, use an opening quotation at the beginning of every paragraph and only use the closing quotation at the very end.

Properly Ending a Sentence

If the end of a sentence is an exclamation point or a question mark, then go ahead and write it. That’s easy enough.

But when do you use the comma and period? Look at these examples:

“I don’t know where I parked my car,” Delilah said.

Thomas pointed northeast. “You don’t have a car.”

Look at the dialogue tag (he said, she said). If the dialogue is before the tag, it’s generally a comma. If it’s after, it’s a period.

But, check this out:

“I know I don’t have a car. I was just trying to impress you.” Delilah sighed and sat down at the bus stop.

If the dialogue tag doesn’t affect the dialogue, the speech ends with a period. Look for words like said, exclaimed, stated, and so forth. If it modifies what is being said, use a comma. Here are more examples if this is confusing:

“Hey, don’t be embarrassed.” Thomas sat down beside her.

“I don’t know why I do that,” Delilah said. “We’ve been married for three years.”

Thomas laughed and said, “Oh, that’s classic Delilah.”

New Speaker, New Paragraph

In order to help the reader distinguish who is talking, start a new paragraph for each person’s dialogue. This lets the reader know that someone new is speaking. It also creates some white space on your page that will break up long pieces of prose.

Throw Away Your Thesaurus

This is not necessarily a rule of dialogue more than a piece of advice.

Don’t be afraid of ‘said.’

School teachers seem to give a lot of advice about using words instead of ‘said.’ Get rid of that habit. It won’t help you. ‘Said’ is perfectly acceptable in your dialogue tags. In fact, it’s preferable. The more you use your thesaurus, the more you distract the reader from what’s happening in the dialogue and story.

“I can’t believe you!” Delilah exclaimed.

“What are you talking about?” Thomas yelled questioningly.

“That … that was my last yogurt,” Delilah bemoaned. “And you ate it!”

See? It takes more work for the reader to take in these dialogue tags when the writer could have just let the readers speak for themselves. Use ‘said’ and give your readers a break.

Take these four rules and look over your dialogue to make sure you’re following them. Odds are, if you break one of these once or twice, there are probably more in your story. Make them a part of your daily writing practice.

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About Author

John Paul Schmidt is a former news journalist. Now he's a freelancer by day and bartender by night while he works on his novel.

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