Wednesday, February 7, 2018

How to Dialogue

This should be a shorter blog post, but another useful one to bookmark. I’ve edited many manuscripts, and I’ve read many books. One common error I stumble upon during both activities is the incorrect usage of dialogue punctuation and dialogue tags. The confusion possibly stems from the difference between UK/Canadian English and American English. But the most important thing to remember about dialogue punctuation and tags is to be consistent. A manuscript will instantly appear disorganized if you bounce back and forth between the punctuation methods. Consistency is an author’s best friend in writing. Always.

Sentence Structures:

Let’s start by going over the various sentence structures of dialogues. When your character speaks, you can either have their speech appear first, then the tag, or the tag appear first, then the speech, or you can have the speech first, then the tag, then more speech.

Without a full-stop:
  1.  “What are you doing?” she asked.
  2. He replied, “I’m waiting for you.”
  3. “Oh,” she answered, “Have you been waiting long?”
With a full-stop:
  1.  “What are you doing?” She asked.
  2. He replied. “I’m waiting for you.”
  3. “Oh.” She answered. “Have you been waiting long?”
I have seen both of these methods used within the novels I have edited, and those I have simply read. I generally advise my clients to pick one—using commas is more acceptable, but both are fine—and stick with it. Some prefer the organized feel behind the full-stop quotations, while others enjoy the varying structures provided by the dialogue without the full-stops.

Another point I’ll add, if you break your speech up with a tag, the second half of the quote may or may not require a beginning capital. It all depends on where you broke your sentence up.

Did you break it up in the middle of the sentence:
“I’ve had it,” Mom raised her hand above her head, “up to here with you guys today.”
If you are breaking up the quote in the middle of your sentence, you don’t need to capitalize the beginning of the second quote.

Did you break it up at the end of a sentence but continued speaking:

 “We were just playing, Mom,” Cindy said, “We promise to be quieter now!”

Quoting a character within dialogue:

The rule is: always use double quotation marks for speech, and single quotation marks for quoting a character within speech.
            “Did he just say ‘bring your own typewriter’?” she asked.


These are common in every book. Somewhere along your plot, one of your characters will be speaking before being interrupted by another character. It happens in life, it happens in books, and it’s pretty much inescapable. I’ve seen this done many ways, but the most common and widely accepted is by using the em dash.
            “I think he might be the one, my soul—”
            “Please! You think that about every guy you date,” Emily said.
            “—mate,” Ashley finished with a sigh.
If you pick up where the speech was interrupted, it’s common to use another em dash before continuing.

The speech that just died on the tip of a tongue:

This is another common one. We’ve all had a character ramble on until they just trailed off as they become lost in thought, or too emotional, or for whatever reason. It’s times like these that those dot dot dots (or ellipses) will come in handy.
            “I thought it was a good idea. I mean, it seemed like one…”

Directing speech at someone:

I’ve seen this one messed up more times than I can count. When you are addressing someone—either by using their name, nickname, or term of endearment—you need to hug them with commas. I’ll share a few examples to show what I mean.
            “I love you, Chris,” she whispered.
            “I don’t know what it is about you, Sally, but you really are an odd one.”
            “Jacob, can we talk?”
Remember, addressing someone is different than talking about someone. When you are gossiping about others, you don’t always need those comma hugs.
            “Did you see what Jessica was wearing at the café the other day?”

Multiple Paragraphs:

Perhaps your character is giving a speech and your quotation is covering multiple paragraphs. In that case, follow this example:
            “I already ordered the cake and flowers, and the table cloths and fresh linens will be here at the end of the week. Almost all of the preparations have been made, and I’m positive everything will go off without a hitch.
            “Have you taken care of the caterers? I did tell you that was the only thing you needed to have ready by Friday, right? I handled the decorations, but the food is all on you,” Lea rambled.
So your paragraph ends without a closing quotation, but your new paragraph begins with an opening quotation. You only use one closing quotation mark, but you’ll use an opening quotation mark for every new paragraph you begin where your character is still speaking.

In Conclusion:

Dialogue is a way to spice up your writing and let your characters tell your story with their own unique voices. The three structures, shared above, allow you to change up the narrative. Having different types of sentences throughout each page of your writing will keep the story fresh and stave off boring monotone-type readings. Pick either of the styles above, and be consistent.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term tags, it is what editors and writers call the s/he said after your quotation.

Some writers tend to get more creative with their tags, though from what I’ve read, that’s frowned upon by agents and publishers. They advise you to let the speech and narrative speak for you, rather than telling your reader the emotion of your character. For example:
            “I don’t care!” she screamed.
            “This is heavy,” he grunted.
            “I’m so excited!” she squealed.
They prefer the simple said and asked. They suggest you liven up your dialogue and narrative to get the point across rather than get creative with your tags.
            “Oh my god, Susan. I don’t care!” she said before slamming the door.
            “This. Is. Heavy,” he said between breaths as sweat beaded on his brow.
            “I’m so excited!” she said, jumping up and down while waving the golden ticket in the air.
Of course, grammatically speaking, either method can be correctly written. The choice is yours.
One thing I do suggest: avoid tagging every bit of dialogue you use. You can skip tagging if you make it obvious through the narrative who is speaking. It is a great way of minimizing the repetitive he said/she said bits within your manuscript.
            “Can you hold this for a second?” Elizabeth dangled her purse in front of her boyfriend as they stood outside the public restrooms.
            “I guess.”
            “Thanks!” she replied, dropping the purse into his open palm before dashing into the ladies’ room.

In conclusion:

The tagging of your quotations is a preference thing. You can generally tag how you’d like, as long as you follow basic grammatical rules of sentence structure. Again, some agents and publishers have varying expectations regarding your use of quotations and the tagging, but ultimately, what you do is up to you. Just whatever you do, be consistent. I really do believe that is the number one rule to any great book.

Until next time,

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