5 Simple Writing Tips From Your Editor: Dialogue

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d start this series to add a bit more to the ‘writer’ part of A Writer Cooks. If you want to see more after November, please let me know you liked it by leaving a comment! Or suggest what topics you’d like to see tips on. 

If you’re writing the average novel (not that your work is in any way average), your characters are probably going to speak once in a while. Knowing how to write dialogue is a great skill. Anyone can write decent dialogue with a few simple tips.

1. Dialogue Tags

I get it. Dialogue is hard. It can be intimidating to give each character a distinctive voice. Plain dialogue is always okay. It’s not amazing, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Focus on everything around it though, and eventually your characters will come into their voices.

‘Said’ is okay. It’s okay to write ‘Joe said’ and ‘she said’ and ‘he said’. This kind of dialogue tag disappears and lets the words speak for themselves. Try to keep yourself from attributing adverbs to every ‘said’. “How dare you!” she said loudly. That’s what the exclamation mark is for. We can guess that she said it loudly, or shouted it. ‘She shouted’ would be a better dialogue tag, if a bit redundant.

It’s okay to not use dialogue tags at all. “How dare you!” Sam’s eyes grew wide and she stamped her foot. We can infer that Sam did the yelling from her body language. Use a mixture of simple dialogue tags and actions and your dialogue will be much better.

Lastly, don’t use actions as dialogue tags. “I love you,” she smiled. You can’t smile words out. If you mean she was smiling as she said it, say so. She smiled. “I love you.” OR “I love you,” she said smiling. Also, please never use the word ‘grated’. “You’re dead to me,” he grated. All I think of is grating cheese, and I lose the effect of the dialogue.

2. Punctuation

This is a major major problem I see when I edit. If you’ve read a few books in your life and paid attention in English class, you probably know the basics of how to punctuate dialogue. Here’s a crash course.

Always use double quotes when your characters are speaking. This is not the time to break out the single quotes. Single quotes go inside double quotes when needed.

Always punctuate dialogue inside the quotation marks, even if it doesn’t come at the end of a sentence. Never put “How dare you” she shouted! OR “How dare you,” she shouted. The dialogue itself is a shout, it needs the exclamation point. “How dare you!” she shouted. Likewise with question marks. “How are you,” he asked. If the actual quotation is a question, finish it with a question mark.

The exception to this rule is periods. Don’t end a quotation with a period if it’s not the end of a sentence, use a comma instead. “She promised me,” I said.

What comes before the quotation is important too. You’ll usually use a comma, such as: I said, “She promised me.” A colon can also be used, but stick to commas most of the time. Don’t leave out punctuation unless the quotation isn’t directly being said. For example: Everyone said she was “the belle of the ball.”

3. Names and Titles

Please don’t have your characters repeat each other’s names over and over. “Joe, you can’t mean it.” “I do mean it, Stella.” “Please don’t go, Joe.” People don’t talk like that. If you want to slip it in now and then for emphasis, that’s okay. Don’t do it several times a scene, for example.

Also, in dialogue or out of it, make sure you have titles down correctly and capitalized or not. For example: The doctor walked into the room. “What’s wrong with me, Doctor?” ‘The doctor’ is not capitalized. When you are speaking to the doctor, it is replacing his name so it should be capitalized. Same with moms. ‘My mom’ is not capitalized. Talking to your mom or using it as her name, it’s Mom.

Titles like Doctor or Mrs. as part of their name can be abbreviated (always with a period!). Dr. Hart. Mrs./Ms. Smith. Never use just the abbreviation in dialogue. “Hey, Dr.” “Excuse me, Ms.” Something like “Paging Dr. Hart” is okay, but it looks better all spelled out.

4. Making It Clear Who Is Speaking

The purpose of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ is, of course, to make it clear to the reader who is currently speaking. While they do disappear into the text, it’s extremely boring to read a conversation where every statement begins or ends with ‘he said’. Mix it up a bit and you’ll elevate your writing without doing much extra work.

Instead of a dialogue tag, preface the dialogue with what the character is doing as or before he speaks. John pulled up a chair and sat in it before looking at me. “What did you want to talk about?” We can infer by his actions and the fact that the dialogue followed the action that John pulled up the chair and then spoke.

Another dialogue trick is to leave the dialogue alone with no action or tag at all. This can create a bit of tension and a faster paced scene. Using the above conversation as an example:

“Joe, you can’t mean it.”

“I do mean it, Stella.”

“Please don’t go, Joe.”

Obviously you want to leave out their names, as we discussed in the last tip, but it’s easy to tell who is speaking when there are only two characters in the scene.

However, don’t let this go on too long with only dialogue and nothing else. It makes it seem like the lines are being spoken in a blank space with nothing to ground them, no character or setting or anything. Let’s mix things up a bit:

“You can’t mean it,” Stella said.

“I do mean it, Stella.”

She blinked back tears and touched his hand. “Please don’t go.”

Joe was silent, looking everywhere but at Stella’s face. “I have to,” he finally said.

See? A couple of saids, a couple of actions, a much more fleshed-out piece of dialogue.

5. Formatting

I just wanted to touch on this quickly because a lot of the authors I edit seem to struggle with it. Every time someone new speaks, you begin a new paragraph. No exceptions.

You can indent or not indent, but keep all paragraphs, description or dialogue, at the same level of indent. No exceptions.

If your character has a monologue, it’s okay to break their speech up into multiple paragraphs. That will make it much easier to read. In that case, don’t put an end quote at the end of any of his paragraphs of speech until the end. Begin every paragraph of speech with a quote though. Here is an example, borrowed from the Emancipation Proclamation:

“…and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States,…”


Want some clarification? Have a specific question? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts about my tips. Please subscribe to be notified of next week’s writing tips.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s