When I switched from writing non-fiction to fiction, dialogue was the hardest thing to get my head around.
You just don’t write dialogue unless you’re writing fiction of some kind, and it’s still the aspect of writing I find the most difficult. Today, Alythia Brown provides her tips for this crucial aspect of writing fiction.
Dialogue tags can present problems for some writers. When we refer to published novels and see varying styles for denoting dialogue, it can become confusing as to which format is correct. Understanding some basics will help clean up your work.
He Said, She Said…
On your never-ending quest to find a new way to say he said or she said, please don’t go overboard with substitutes. If you pepper every speaking phrase with a fun-filled synonym for said, it can become distracting and, well, annoying. It takes the reader’s attention away from what the characters are saying. Said can somewhat pass for an invisible word. Readers are accustomed to and skim right over said. However, you should still be mindful of its word count in your manuscript and try to find creative ways to keep it down. Chortled, gurgled, spluttered, and guffawed (while okay sparingly) should not be stuffed behind every quotation. In general, I’m personally not a fan of using a verb as a dialogue tag when it doesn’t make sense to describe someone speaking.
Not a fan: “Why did you do that?” she giggled.
I opt for this: “Why did you do that?” she asked, giggling.
She couldn’t physically giggle the words. She would speak the words and giggle in between them.
Let Actions Speak for Your Characters
Before you use spluttered for the fifth time in chapter seven, consider this: leaving out the dialogue tag when it’s unnecessary would be better. You can convey which character is speaking by use of action. Sentences before or after the dialogue work en lieu of said or replied (or whatever replacement you’ve found in an online thesaurus).
In the front: Sarah frowned as she studied Marlene. “You’re angry. I can tell.”
In the back: “Where are you going, all dressed up?” Natalie tore away her sunglasses to study her mother’s attire.
Avoid Long Sentences with Hard Returns
Many writers seem to have the habit of beginning a sentence with a hard return to dialogue at the end. This would be a run-on. Instead of one long sentence, make it two crisp sentences.
Incorrect: We stared at the ground for a long time before she finally looked up at me and said, “Would you like to go to the dance?”
Correct: We stared at the ground for a long time before she finally looked up at me and spoke. “Would you like to go to the dance?”
Using Periods and Commas Appropriately
Understanding when you should use a period or a comma is important. If you’re using an action or descriptive sentence to help your readers understand which character is speaking, make sure you use a period. It may “feel” right to use a comma, but that would be incorrect.
Incorrect: “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow,” Annabelle’s nose crinkled as she smiled at me.
Correct: a) “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow.” Annabelle’s nose crinkled as she smiled at me.
b) “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow,” she said, her nose crinkling as she smiled at me.
When your dialogue tag crops up in the midst of a sentence:
Incorrect: “Wait,” she said, “Are you coming over today?”
Correct: a) “Wait,” she said. “Are you coming over today?”
b) “Wait”—she said—“are you coming over today?”
The period after said in option ‘a’ separates the sentences. Setting off she said with dashes, as shown in option ‘b,’ allows the phrase to remain one sentence.
One More Reminder…
When you are using question marks and exclamation marks, you still need to keep the pronoun lowercase because it is all considered one sentence. You wouldn’t randomly capitalize he in the middle of a sentence.
Incorrect: “Can you help me?” He asked.
Correct: “Can you help me?” he asked.
If you’re afraid you’ve been inconsistent throughout your manuscript with dialogue punctuation, simply use the search tool and plug in a quotation mark. You can then go through, one by one, to make any necessary edits. This seemingly tedious task will pay off in the end!
Do you have any comments on dialogue tips? Or questions about dialogue? Please add them below.
She blogs about writing, publishing, and literary agents at Publishing Tips for the Restless Writer.
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons quotation marks by quinn.anna