Tag Archives: Writing Conventions

About Dialogue #amwriting #nanowrimo

We who write must be able to visualize and describe conversations. We must do it in such a way that the reader forgets they’re reading a book and becomes engrossed in the discussion.

However, we don’t want to be completely accurate. How many people have mannerisms that impede their speech, uhhhhmming and aaahhhhing their way through each thought? And yet others may have a lisp or stutter that makes you have to listen more closely to them. These are normal parts of our lives but are things we don’t include in our written descriptions of conversations.

So how do we get the conversation down so the reader will enjoy it?

First of all, there are certain fundamental rules of the road that readers will expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers put the book down, unfinished. The rules are clearly listed in the Chicago Manual of Style but can also be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. These are two books authors should own and refer back to whenever they have questions about grammar.

On a side note, I was lurking in a writers’ forum when a new member boldly commented, “Why are you so concerned about this? Who the hell cares about grammar? We write what we want and to hell with rules.”

Wisely, I stayed out of that poo-storm. It is good for us to remember that “grammar-nazis” are not the only people who care about sentence construction and the mechanics of good writing.

Readers care. Words have intersections, and punctuation acts as a traffic signal, preventing jam-ups and wrecks. Authors who care take the time to learn a few basic rules, things that signal stop, go, slow down, and “someone is talking.”

Much of what follows has been written here before. So, if you have already seen this, thank you for stopping by!

Here are the rules of how to write readable dialogue:

  1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.
  • Gemma 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 Gemma, “but I can’t go with you.”
  1. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Gemma.

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.

  1. 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 in two ways:

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

  1. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.
  • When asked, Jason said Gemma 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 Gemma.

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.

  1. 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 shifting in their chair, 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.

When we add gestures and actions to the conversation, we want them to be meaningful.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t get 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:

  1. People don’t
  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, a frown, a smirk, or a snort, but while facial expressions convey emotion, they do not speak. Simple attributions in combination with lean, descriptive narrative are all you need.

  • “Oh, that looks nice.” Jenny snorted. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Sometimes we have two ideas 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.”

To wind this up, authors can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue but must use common sense. Adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post have previously appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue, posted December 14, 2016

Traffic Light, © Free Clip Art Now https://www.freeclipartnow.com/transportation/traffic-lights/

Researched Source: Section 13.13, Quotations and Punctuation, page 719: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2017

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#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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