Saturday, 20 March 2021

Writers’ Questions: “How should I format dialogue?” the writer asked.

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been sharing answers to burning questions about writing and publishing on this blog (as well as my usual posts on all things Victorian literature and culture). Today, I’m tackling formatting dialogue—one of the things I see beginner writers struggle with the most.

First up, some caveats. I’m half British, half Irish, and live in New York City. Although I use British spelling on this blog, my novel was published first in the US, so I’m most familiar with standard dialogue formatting in North America. Additionally, as with any writing “rule,” there will always be exceptions. There are writers who are experimental with dialogue, but this post is about the standard approach.

So let’s get into it. 

The words that your characters say aloud should be between double quotation marks (“   ”). E.g. “It’s raining.” Sentence-ending punctuation (. or ? or !) goes inside the quotation marks to form a grammatically complete sentence.

To indicate which of your characters is speaking, you’ll need a dialogue tag, unless this is already clear from context. A dialogue tag contains a verb denoting speech and a character name or pronoun. It can precede or (more commonly) follow dialogue. 

Example of preceding dialogue tag:

He said, “It’s raining.” 

Example of following dialogue tag:

“It’s raining,” he said.

Tags and dialogue should be divided from each other by a comma (,), which comes before the quotation marks in a preceding dialogue tag and inside the quotation marks if the dialogue is followed by a tag. While the comma is standard, it can also be replaced within a line of dialogue by a question mark or exclamation point as appropriate. 

Example with a question mark:

“Is it raining?” he asked.

Example with an exclamation point:

“It’s raining!” he said.

This, however, is incorrect:

“It’s raining.” he said.

As is this:

"It's raining." He said.

A common mistake I see writers making is treating sentences like dialogue tags when they aren’t telling us speech happened. It can be a great idea to include action and body language within a section of dialogue, but just because a sentence follows dialogue it does not make it a tag!

This is incorrect:

“It’s raining,” he pointed at the window. 

This is correct:

“It’s raining.” He pointed at the window.

And this could work too:

“It’s raining,” he said, pointing at the window.

Verbs that writers do this with a lot include “to laugh” and “to smile”. Neither of these should be used as dialogue tags!

Every time a different speaker starts talking, the dialogue should begin a new paragraph.

Example:

“It’s raining,” he said.

“Really?” she asked.

Because of this, if your section of dialogue involves only two characters, after you’ve established the order of speaking, you can dispense with dialogue tags as the speaker is implied.

Example:

“It’s raining,” Jack said.

“Really?” Jane asked.

“Yes—look!”

“I have to see this for myself!” Jane hurried to the window.

The verbs “to say” and “to ask” are the most commonly used in dialogue tags and are almost invisible to readers on the page, so don’t worry about overusing them! Occasionally, you may want to use a verb that tells readers how a character speaks, such as “to whisper” or “to shout”, but these should be used sparingly. Unusual dialogue tag verbs (think: “he ejaculated”) should be avoided as they sound ridiculous and detract from the dialogue itself.

If one of your characters speaks at length in a monologue, you may want to include paragraphs. When these occur within dialogue the rule is that you shouldn’t close your quotation marks at the end of a paragraph, but you should open them again at the start of the next.

Example:

“I’m going to talk at length now,” Jack said. “I warn you I may go on for several paragraphs for the purposes of this example. I might have mentioned it was raining. Well, it rained yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

“In fact, I can’t remember the last day it didn’t rain, making for thrilling dialogue examples in this blog post.”

You won’t want to write entirely natural dialogue in your novel, as in real life people talk in fragments, are ungrammatical, and, um, say “um” a lot. But you will want your dialogue to feel natural. This means that occasionally, you may want your characters to speak in grammatically incomplete sentences. 

If your character is interrupted by another character, use an em-dash (—). Ideally your readers should be able to guess how the sentence would have ended had the speaker had a chance to finish.

Example:

“It’s rain—”

“I saw,” Jane said.

If your character’s speech trails off (e.g. they’re deep in thought or wistful), use ellipses (...).

Example:

“I haven’t seen rain like this since…”

“I know,” said Jane. “I’m sorry.”

Still with me? If so, let’s make things even more confusing, by talking about dialogue within dialogue i.e. when one character quotes another. In this instance, the quoted speech should appear in single quotation marks (‘  ’).

Example:

“What did Jim say?” Jack asked.

“He said, ‘It’s raining,’” Jane said, putting down the phone. 

I hope this post has been helpful in running over the basics of how dialogue should appear in your novel manuscript. Still have questions? Feel free to contact me via Facebook or Instagram, or to tweet me @SVictorianist

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now. For writing tips and more, sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.

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