In part 1 of Dialogue Dilemmas we looked at the ground rules for creating multifunctional, realistic dialogue.
But what about the nitty-gritty, the technical side of creating dialogue? Where do you start a new line of dialogue? What about internal thoughts, how should they be presented? How do you correctly set out dialogue? What about quotation marks?
These questions all relate to the technical side of writing dialogue, the things you have to get right. Unlike a lot of fiction writing, there are no bending rules where dialogue is concerned.
The first thing that all writers should learn is how to correctly format dialogue, i.e. set it out correctly.
It’s important that you clearly denote who is speaking for your reader, so dialogue must always be clear. There are still lots of writers who don’t use this correctly.
Firstly, whenever a character speaks, always start a new paragraph. Don’t make the classic mistake of tagging one character’s dialogue onto the same line as another character’s dialogue. For instance:
‘It’s getting dark. We should make camp soon,’ David said. ‘But we’re not far from the settlement, are we?’ Jane asked.
This is confusing for the reader and grammatically incorrect because Jane’s dialogue should not appear tagged onto the end of David’s. Remember, a new paragraph denotes a new line of dialogue:
‘It’s getting dark. We should make camp soon,’ David said.
‘But we’re not far from the settlement, are we?’ Jane asked.
The same concept applies for multiple characters talking within a scene. Each one still needs a new line. For instance:
‘I knew he was shifty the moment I saw him,’ John said.
‘But you don’t even know him,’ Paul said.
‘He’s just making assumptions, as usual,’ Gran muttered. ‘Like he always does.’
John recoiled. ‘That’s not true!’
You can see that each time a character speaks; there is a new line that shows the reader. There is no confusion which character is speaking and when.
But what if you need the character to perform an action while in conversation? Or perhaps they may have a long section of dialogue. How do you tackle this?
Writers use an action interjection. That means you can insert the action within the same paragraph as the dialogue, because this denotes the character is still speaking while performing the action.
It doesn’t mean you have to start a new paragraph for the character’s action, unless the character has finished speaking completely, nor do you need to make a new line to carry on the character’s dialogue after the action.
This can be a confusing concept, so I will demonstrate with an example of incorrect dialogue structure:
‘I’m ready when you are,’ Jake said.
‘We should sneak into the town at nightfall,’ David said. ‘It will be easier for us, less chance of us being spotted.’
He rubbed frost from his eyes, blinked a few times.
‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’
It’s clear from this example that splitting David’s dialogue and the action has made it confusing for the reader, because it’s not entirely clear who is saying ‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’ Did David say it or did Jake? And it’s not clear who is performing the action, either.
The idea here is to give the reader clarity and avoid ambiguity, so if you keep the character’s action within the same sentence as the dialogue, you avoid confusion:
‘I’m ready when you are,’ Jake said.
‘We should sneak into the town at nightfall,’ David said. ‘It will be easier for us, less chance of us being spotted.’ He rubbed frost from his eyes, blinked a few times. ‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’
This version is grammatically correct and it’s structured properly. It’s clear who is speaking – David – and the narrative shows him performing an action before he continues speaking again. The dialogue has been enhanced by an action interjection.
Punctuation is one of those things that not all writers fully understand. There are some self-published writers who have made some terrible errors when it comes to dialogue punctuation, writers who haven’t taken the time to learn the craft of writing.
It means they often they miss the basics of dialogue punctuation, things like making sure that the first word of a line of dialogue is capitalised. Even if it isn’t the first word of the sentence, the first letter must always be capitalised:
Jon said, ‘Make me a strong black coffee…’
Even fiction non-experts will spot these basic errors. One is one too many and spoils the reading experience.
Place commas correctly
If you are using a tag such as “he said/she said” in order to identify the speaker, then you must insert a comma directly after the last word of dialogue, as this denotes a protraction of the speaker, for example:
‘I need to get a new cell phone,’ she said.
‘I should have known,’ he said.
The commas after ‘phone’ and ‘known’ show the extension of the speaking character. If there are no tags, however, then it’s simply a matter of ending the dialogue with a full stop.
‘I need a new cell phone.’
Sometimes you might see an interjection of a speech tag, or a combination of tag and action, within the dialogue. This pauses the sentence, before the dialogue continues after the speech tag or action. For instance:
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said, ‘and we’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
You’ll notice that the continuation of the dialogue, ‘and we’ll be strolling…’, also begins in lower case rather than beginning with a capital letter. This is because the second part of the dialogue is a protraction of the sentence. The ‘she said’ is an interjection between clauses.
You can do the same with an additional action, for instance:
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said, adjusting her glasses, ‘and we’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
The same sentence can be structured using a full stop instead. But rather than giving a pause in the dialogue, it gives a clear indication of the end of the dialogue. And this time, the second part of the dialogue starts with a capital letter to show a new sentence.
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said. ‘We’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
Again, the same convention applies if you want to add action after the speech tag.
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said. She adjusted her glasses. ‘We’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
Be careful to place commas and full stops correctly. Again, it’s worth reiterating that these will be spotted by agents/publishers, editors and readers.
In Part 3 we’ll continue our look at the technicalities of correctly formatting and punctuating dialogue, so that you avoid any dialogue dilemmas.
Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas Part 3