Writing Dialogue

English grammar is hard. It is exceedingly rare for a person to have a “perfect” grasp of the English language, especially when there are so many exceptions and so much encouragement to bend its already pliable rules. Even native speakers often struggle with writing.

This post would be immense if I tried to cover all the most common grammatical issues I encounter when critiquing, so I think I’ll start with dialogue. If you struggle with punctuation in dialogue, you are not alone. Tons of people do. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’ve been doing it totally wrong since birth.

I’ll also go over some style stuff.

I should also add: the style of dialogue writing I use is American English. I want to differentiate because I once completely embarrassed myself by telling an English English-speaker he needed to be using the double quotation mark rather than the single. I was politely informed by another English person that the single quotation mark is fine to denote dialogue across the pond.

“When using dialogue tags,” said Alice, “periods become commas.”

Let’s break that down.

Notice the ending punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks.

Notice “said” is not capitalized.

Nor is “periods.”

“How about when the punctuation mark isn’t a period?” she asked.

“Then you still don’t need to capitalize the dialogue tag, you silly fucker!” he answered.

Of course, not every piece of dialogue needs a dialogue tag. For example:

“I love ice cream,” Sally said.

“I don’t,” said Paul.

“But why not?”

“Because I’m a freak of nature with poor taste who hates fun.”

Once the two people talking have been established (one likes ice cream and the other doesn’t), dialogue tags aren’t needed for the reader to easily understand who is saying what.

Of course, if the conversation goes on this way for a long while, it’ll sound more like reading a script than a novel. The occasional action beat helps the reader to see Sally and Paul as more than two yapping heads floating in an abyss.

“That’s okay,” said Sally, licking her chops. “More for me.”

Note in this example, the sentenced ended after the action beat, which is underlined. Therefore, a new sentence began when Sally’s dialogue continued, and “more” is capitalized despite not being a proper noun. It is the beginning of a sentence.

You may have noticed a lot of “saids” in these dialogue tags. If you did, that was unusual of you, because most people barely notice “said” at all. This is a good thing. You can use “said” a shit ton of times and the reader (probably) won’t care.

Keep anything that isn’t said to a minimum. You’ll find many people condemning the use of anything other than said, but I, as usual, think there’s a time and place for everything.

“I am in unimaginable physical agony!” said Bill, gesturing to the bloody stump that was once his leg.

V.S.

“I am in unimaginable physical agony!” Bill howled.

There are other applications outside showing intensity. For example:

“What did I tell you?” Sally said.

V.S.

“What did I tell you?” clucked Sally.

In this instance, the alternative gives the reader something to imagine. Beware, however, of writing like this:

“Mmm,” purred Bill, fingering the bun of his cheeseburger.

“Are you going to eat your fries?” ejaculated Sally.

“Yes,” growled Bill. “Don’t touch them.”

Do you feel uncomfortable? Good. You should. Don’t do that to your readers.

13 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue

    1. That may be the best approach of all –to go ahead and use it while writing, then go back and simply delete what’s unnecessary after the fact. You’ll be able to discern more easily where it should be once the conversation is completely written out, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m all about “said” 99% of the time. It’s invisible. Once in a blue moon, “asked” and once in a while someone might “sigh” something. I’ve read admonishments that people don’t “sigh” words but I do it all the time in real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never understood all the advice that says not to have characters sigh words. It’s not something I personally use, but when I read it, I can hear it. It just means they exhale while speaking. I’d say take what the admonishers say with a grain of salt. 😊

      Like

  2. This is great advice, Hanna. I have seen more and more authors adopt a different and more confusing style of including dialog within ordinary paragraphs. Some write paragraphs that run on for pages. My hunch is that they do this as a matter of individual style. Many times it just garbles the meaning and interrupts the flow of the prose that the reader is trying to follow.

    My best, Rich

    Liked by 1 person

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