Tag Archives: how to write dialogue

Four rules for writing conversations #amwriting

In my last post, we talked about internal dialogues, or thoughts our characters may have. But what about that which is spoken aloud?

How to punctuate dialogue can be confusing for those who are just starting out. I will warn you—from the reader’s perspective, punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.

We obey traffic signals when driving, so we don’t cause wrecks. In the same way, our written work must abide by specific fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable—a wreck.

What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative. Therefore, punctuation is for the reader’s benefit. While we can take some liberties with grammar and dialect when writing conversations, following the established rules of punctuation is essential.

Many people are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not that complicated. Here are four rules to remember:

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m here,” she said.

Begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are called closed quotes. All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else as part of a conversation, you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

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

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation.

  • When asked, John said Grace couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Grace.

Rule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” she said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the comma is separating two clauses, so it is placed after the tag and is not inside the quotation marks: She said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue that is split with the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story but happens sometimes in essays and when quoting speeches.

In the following example, I tried to include all four of the rules:

    “We’ve forgotten one important thing,” Jan said, “barbarian or southerner, we’re all descended from the Remnant. We are all Aeos’s people, barbarian, southerner, or midlands farmer.

    “During my vision quest,  she told me two important things I didn’t understand until now. ‘Build my clergy’ and ‘lead my people back to the path of righteousness.’ I thought she only meant that I should guide the tribes, but now I know her true plan.”

The things readers won’t forgive are what I think of as the seven deadly sins of dialogue, often committed when writing the first draft:

  1. The info dump: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  2. Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  3. Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
  4. Long, drawn out thoughts and ruminations that are a wall of italics.
  5. Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
  6. Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
  7. Erratic and amateurish punctuation.

Something else I’ve mentioned before: Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

These are the fundamental rules of the road that readers expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers leave comments on Amazon like, “one star, could not finish.” Those are reviews of the worst kind.

If you have more questions about punctuation, good answers can be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. This is a handy book I regularly refer back to whenever I have questions about grammar.


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Ten-dollar words #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances they can become repetitive. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. I have found it saves time to use the hard copy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

But this leads me to the problem of using words that are jarring and obscure.

The important thing is to remember the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a YA (Young Adult) audience, remember their reading level. They are just embarking on the reading journey, so don’t use words that my editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.”

Quote from Blogging.com: What is a Ten-Dollar Word? A ten-dollar word is a longer word that is used in place of a smaller and more well-known word. The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use highfalutin words to inflate their appearance and seem smarter than the more average man. Words like these serve a very important purpose; they make you seem smarter than you actually are. One profession that’s very intelligent with their use of these words is the legal profession.

These words will stop the eye of the newer reader, who must set the book down, get the dictionary, and then look the word up. Or they will simply set the book down and not return to it.

The reason new readers often don’t like Literary Fiction is that they don’t understand many of the words and feel “talked down to.” Literary Fiction is work written for the experienced reader with a wide vocabulary. Children’s books and Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are the training grounds for readers, enabling them to gradually widen their vocabulary without their realizing it.

One of the worst places to get creative word-wise is with dialogue tags because it becomes telling rather than showing. Your punctuation and the physical action should convey the emotions. Some tags that are jarring and unnecessary are:

  • Ejaculated
  • Exclaimed
  • Moaned

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.

Something authors must consider: 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 cannot speak.

This means that we add gestures and actions to the conversation to show the emotions, making it meaningful.  Otherwise, stick with a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Conversely, 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.

Where you place the speech tags in a sentence is important. Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue 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.

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.

Authors must create a balanced narrative.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what, and don’t like being confused. They like being challenged, but don’t want to have stop and look more than one or two words up. They don’t want to be jarred out of the book by ten-dollar words. And finally, they don’t want to be told a story. They want to see it happen.

Credits and Attributions:

Ten Dollar Words for Copywriters, Copyright © 2007 – 2018 Blogging.com WordPress Blogs https://blogging.com/ten-dollar-copy-words


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