Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writing Fiction: Session 9 - The Mechanics of Dialogue

The Mechanics of Dialogue

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. There is a definite format to writing dialogue and if you, as the writer, adhere to this format, you’ll impress editors and agents everywhere. I don’t know how many times I’ve edited first novels and found that the person has no idea of how to write dialogue. We’ll address voice later, because that has a lot to do with dialogue, but today we’ll just talk about the mechanics of formatting dialogue.

Rule #1: Paragraphs

First of all, to make it easy on your reader, please adhere to the rule of one speaker per paragraph. This means that every time someone speaks, you give that person a new paragraph. You start that paragraph with their dialogue or with any statements that change the attention to him/her. For example:

Don’t write:

“Hi Mary,” Sarah said. Mary turned at the sound of her name. “Hi Sarah. Good to see you,” Mary responded.

Instead, it would be written:

“Hi Mary,” Sarah said.

Mary turned at the sound of her name. “Hi Sarah. Good to see you,” Mary responded.


Easy enough, right? So are you gritting your teeth because you have lots of dialogue to re-format? I know it’s a lot of work, but once you grasp these few formatting rules you’ll make your life in writing dialogue much easier.

Rule #2: Quotation Marks

Spoken dialogue is put within quotation marks. The rule for quotation marks is that dialogue and punctuation of the dialogue go within quotation marks. Easy enough, eh? Then why do I find so many commas outside the quotation marks? Okay… here’s an example.

“I like the color of your car,” Sam said.

Notice the quotation mark begins the dialogue, then we have what Sam said followed by a comma and the quotation mark to end what Sam said. Notice that what Sam said does not end in a period because the tag line follows it (a tag line tells the reader who is talking).

However, if you turn it around, it would end with a period and then the quotation mark. For example,

Sam said, “I like the color of your car.”

Instead of a comma, it ends with a period before the final quotation mark because that is the last word of the only sentence that Sam said.

If Sam says more than one thing in that paragraph, you don’t put quotation marks around each sentence. Rather you put the quotation marks around all the continuous words coming out of Sam’s mouth within that paragraph. For example:

“I like the color of your car, Jim. You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida, who wants a black car. Too hot,” Sam said.

So what happens if Sam switches topics? In normal writing without conversation, you would just start a new paragraph when you switch to a new topic. If Sam is talking on and on and switches topics before someone else speaks, you would have to handle your quotation marks accordingly. If you have used a tag to indicate that Sam is talking as a way to end the first paragraph, it would be like this:

“I like the color of your car, Jim. You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida who wants a black car? Too hot,” Sam said.

“You must try the new cookies my wife made,” Sam continued. “You’ll love them.”


If however, you don’t put a tag at the end of the paragraph because it’s obvious who is talking, you omit the quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph but put one at the beginning of the second paragraph. This signifies to your reader that Sam is still talking. For example:

“I like the color of your car, Jim,” Sam said. “You seem to always pick the right color for the part of the country. I mean, in Florida who wants a black car? Too hot.

“You must try the new cookies my wife made. You’ll love them.”

Got it? Good. Practice that with some of your dialogue and we’ll go on with the use of tags next time.

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