#amwritng: The #NanoNovel: the mechanics of writing dialogue

jack-kerouac-quote-memeEveryone has read books that inspire them to become writers. But many authors just starting out don’t know how to write the kind of book they envision.

Consider writing conversations: it’s just people talking, right? No big deal.

Wrong. Many authors just starting out don’t know where the periods (full stops) and commas go, inside or outside the quotation marks. They are inconsistent where they put them throughout the manuscript because they are unsure of what way is right.

They send me things with the punctuation inside the quotation marks sometimes, outside sometimes, and with quote marks missing half the time. I always decline those editing jobs, as it would take a year of my time to get that work into shape. But I do tell them why I couldn’t accept it, and how to correct it so an editor could work with them.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.

  • Mary glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Mary, “but I can’t go with you.”

2. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.

  • I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Mary.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas.

Regardless of whether you are a UK or US author, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

3. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue?

Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes. You can do this two ways:

George said, “When I asked her, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”

George said, “When I asked, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.'”

Note that in the second sentence 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

4. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.

  • When asked, George said Mary couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Mary.

Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

5. You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue. Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. Some things to consider:

6. People don’t

  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and does not speak.

Avoid verbal tics like “hmmm…” and “ahhh…” as they just take up space and add fluff to your narrative. When people in real life preface all of their sentences with drawn-out ahs and hmms it can be aggravating to listen to them. Consider how irritating it would be to read it.

writing_conventions_meme_lirf20167. Sometimes we have two ideas in a sentence that we think are one, and we connect them with commas.  But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken regarding his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • “Hello sir,” she said. “We bathed your dog.”

We can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue, and indeed, we should, but adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.

Researched Source:

Section six, Punctuation, pages 306-310: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2010


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4 responses to “#amwritng: The #NanoNovel: the mechanics of writing dialogue

  1. Stephen Swartz

    Collect this and others like it into a book and I’ll sell them to my students.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David P. Cantrell

    Another good post. I agree that physically impossible speech tags are “technically” incorrect, however, they are becoming more common and, if understood by the reader, can streamline the dialog. For example:

    “That sound hurts my ears,” Sally said with a grimaced face.
    Might be shortened to,
    “That sound hurts my ears,” Sally grimaced.
    If the reader understands that words have been omitted it can work. I think most readers get it these days.

    Liked by 1 person