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March 24, 2020

Writing Craft Basics: How to Format Dialogue

Tangle of feet with different shoes and text: Writing by the Rules...of Conversation

If your brain is any amount of scattered like mine, now might be a good time to cover some of the basics of our writing craft. So let’s tackle a subject I haven’t dug into here before: dialogue formatting and a few do’s and don’ts.

I originally started this post intending to dig deeper into a dialogue point-of-view question a reader asked, but the introduction of these formatting basics took up the whole post. Oops! So rather than shortchanging either topic, I’ll cover the basics today and we’ll come back to the more advanced stuff on Thursday. *smile*

Most of us who want to write also love reading, so we might think we already know everything about dialogue formatting, but sometimes a tricky situation can catch us by surprise. So let’s make sure we know all there is to know about dialogue formatting.

Dialogue Attribution

If we’ve read stories before, or even just articles in newspapers or online, we’ve seen the basics of how to format dialogue. We surround the quote of someone else’s (such as a character’s) exact words in quotation marks. Boom. Done, right?

But a big trouble spot of confusion with dialogue formatting occurs when we go to attribute the dialogue. Dialogue attribution is meant to make it clear to readers who is speaking the words and show readers aspects of our story, such as how dialogue is spoken (tone of voice, etc.).

Let’s talk first about the two most common techniques for indicating which character is speaking a line of dialogue and then cover two other less-common methods…

Common Dialogue Attribution Method #1:
Dialogue Tag

“I don’t like it,” she said.

Dialogue tags use a character identifier (name, pronoun, description, etc.) and a verb that describes the method of speaking. The tag is attached to the dialogue words, typically with a comma.

Notice that “she” is not capitalized above because the word is a continuation of the same sentence. On the other hand, if the sentence started with the tag and comma, the first word of the dialogue would still be capitalized, such as you below, because the dialogue itself is treated like a complete sentence for capitalization purposes:

He said, “You think I care?”

The most common tag verb is said. Other common verbs used in tags are asked, whispered, murmured, answered, added, etc.

Do we know everything we need to know about dialogue formatting? Do we really? Click To TweetWe might have heard the advice to use only the common verbs, as many odd verbs can cause problems (ejaculated, anyone?). If readers snicker or question how the character could jeer and speak at the same time, they’re pulled out the story. However, if used sparingly, some other verbs like demanded or growled could work if they fit the dialogue’s situation and won’t call attention to themselves.

That said, our characters’ dialogue itself can make some tag verbs redundant, even the commonly accepted ones. Consider how asked or shouted are often unnecessary when the dialogue itself includes a question mark or exclamation point.

Simple dialogue tags like said are mostly invisible to readers—as long as we’re not being repetitive. We wouldn’t want (or need) to tag every line of dialogue, much less with the same verb or sentence construction.

But dialogue tags also don’t do much for our writing. There’s a limit to how much a basic verb can share about how the words are being spoken, especially as using an adverb (such as: she said angrily) just adds to the problem of weak writing. They tell how the words are spoken rather than show how the character reacts—all of which is why many writers and editors prefer Method #2.

Common Dialogue Attribution Method #2:
Action Beat

“I don’t like it.” She recoiled.

Action beats use any type of verb and a character identifier. The action could be related to the dialogue, showing the character reaction (like with this example), or the action could be just blocking out movements, like pressing a turn signal in the car as the characters are conversing during a drive, or adding setting details, like sitting back in an executive chair at an imposing desk.

Even thoughts and emotions can be treated the same way:

“I don’t like it.” She wouldn’t let him know just how much she hated the idea.

Whatever is happening in the beat, the identification of the character through name, pronoun, or description lets readers know who’s speaking the adjacent dialogue. Also note that action beats are a separate sentence, so punctuation and capitalization rules are followed like normal, and the beat is “attached” to the dialogue—providing attribution—simply by appearing in the same paragraph.

Obviously, action beats have a lot more flexibility than dialogue tags. We can use any sentence structure, any verbs, any purpose, etc. This makes it much easier to avoid a sense of repetition, which can be a problem with endless “saids” all over our pages.

What are the pros and cons of our different options for attributing dialogue? Click To TweetIn addition, action beats are the key to preventing our dialogue from being just talking heads floating in space. They allow us to add setting details, body language, emotional cues (Her voice caught on a sob.), and so on.

Many authors use dialogue tags only when an action beat won’t work, such as when it would interrupt the flow of dialogue too much or when no additional action, thought, or emotion makes sense for adding to the story. (We don’t want to use empty words in an action beat just to avoid a tag.)

Personally, I can count the number of dialogue tags in each of my novels on one hand, as I definitely prefer beats. I’ve found that pushing myself to use beats rather than tags helps me include more body language, setting details, emotional cues, character thoughts, etc. In other words, beats encourage me to dig deeper and add layers to my narrative. But different voices and styles and genres can make different choices that are right for them.

Bonus Dialogue Attribution Method #3:
Dialogue Tag and Action

“I don’t like it,” she said and recoiled.

If we have a dialogue tag and an action, it’s often better to delete the tag and just keep the action as a separate beat sentence. It reads more cleanly and doesn’t bury the action in a tag.

These actions are often tacked onto the dialogue tag with the words and (like above) or as or with a comma and an *ing word:

“I don’t like it,” she said, as a frown stretched her mouth.

“I don’t like it,” she said, stomping her foot.

In other words, watch out for dialogue with a tag that includes anything other than the character identifier and tag verb. See if it makes sense to turn the other words attached to the dialogue tag into its own sentence and then delete the tag:

“I don’t like it.” A frown stretched her mouth.

“I don’t like it.” She stomped her foot.

Usually, having the action stand on its own carries more weight so it doesn’t come across as weak or an afterthought. Also, separating out dialogue from actions can make each sentence easier to read. But of course, for certain styles or situations we might choose to keep the tag and action together.

Bonus Dialogue Attribution Method #4:
Interruption

“I don’t like it”—she recoiled—”but you don’t care.”

If our interruption includes a verb about anything other than the method of speaking, then it’s an action beat. A pair of em-dashes outside the quote marks set off the beat like a separate sentence.

On the other hand, if our interruption includes a dialogue tag verb, it’s part of the dialogue sentence, so the words can be placed anywhere (even in the middle) and connect to the rest of the dialogue sentence with a comma (or two, if in the middle):

“I don’t like it,” she said, “but you don’t care.”

Either way, we should use this method sparingly, as it literally interrupts the flow of dialogue and can make the whole sentence harder to read. It’s best to save the technique for when we actively want to create an interruption, such as to add tension, indicate a literal hitch in their speech, or emphasize an emotion.

Dialogue Formatting

The standard way of formatting dialogue for different speakers is to use a new paragraph for each speaker:

Susan’s mouth gaped and she shook her head. “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand, emphasizing his dismissive tone.

Notice that Susan’s actions are in the paragraph with her words, and George’s actions are in the paragraph with his words. The same formatting of giving each speaker their own paragraph applies if we use tags instead:

“Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?” she whispered.

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all,” he said.

Note here that the “she” of the tag is still lowercase, even without a preceding comma. That’s because dialogue tags that attach to dialogue ending in question marks or exclamation points (rather than periods) don’t need a comma. They just attach to the dialogue through sheer determination. *grin*

Dialogue Attribution with Formatting

I lied. *smile* There’s actually a fifth method of attributing dialogue that I didn’t mention above, and that’s by using standard dialogue formatting.

As we covered above, standard formatting for dialogue means that we give each speaker their own paragraph. With that type of formatting, we don’t have to use dialogue tags or action beats with every change of speaker (at least not in a two-person conversation).

Some paragraphs can skip attribution entirely, and readers will assume the speaker because we all understand how conversation typically works as a back-and-forth:

Susan’s mouth gaped and she shook her head. “Did you really think I wouldn’t catch on to your little scam?”

“I just didn’t think it was a big deal is all.” George flicked his hand, emphasizing his dismissive tone.

“Oh, it’s a big deal all right. You’re going to pay for this.”

“You’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“And you’re breaking the law.” She stormed toward the door but stopped to add a low-pitched threat over her shoulder. “I’ll see you in court.”

As shown above, we usually wouldn’t want to go more than three paragraphs without attribution because readers can lose track, especially if the dialogue itself doesn’t make the speaker super obvious (such as a parent speaking to their toddler).

Stick around to dig into more complicated point-of-view and dialogue issues on Thursday. Until then, let me know if you have any dialogue questions!

Have you ever struggled with deciding how to format or punctuate your dialogue? Do you have any rules or tips to add to these I listed? Do you have any questions about dialogue or dialogue formatting?

P.S. In the interest of helping us all through this stressful time, check my Twitter feed for fun and/or relaxing resources I’ve found since my last post, such as the video of a cat “saving” a Rube Goldberg setup, how to practice “mental hygiene,”  NaNoWriMo’s new StayHomeWriMo, processing grief in a pandemic, and commenting on sports that aren’t sports.

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Ken Hughes

Good discussion.

Two things I’d like to add.

One, for the great debate about which to use and whether to use anything besides Said, I like to think there are four main methods, organized in increasing detail:

1) No tag at all, once you’ve set up the pattern. Assume the speaker is the same as from two paragraphs ago.
2) Said or Asked.
3) Tags that Tell something, like all those “shouteds” and “said gently”
4) Action beats.

The key is seeing how much detail the moment needs (and if #1 will be clear enough or if you nee #2), and having some variety. Plus, #3 isn’t wrong, but there’s a narrower range of descriptiveness that really calls for it than what fits the others, so it should be rarer. When in doubt, cut back to #1 or #2, or fill out to #4.

The other is one of the weirdest rules in English punctuation, that not everyone remembers. The rule is that you always replace period-endquote-lowercase with comma-endquote-lowercase, and you do a similar replacement if the speaker’s name is there but if their pronoun was there instead it would be lowercase.

For instance:

“This period is wrong.” Jane said.
“It’s still wrong with my pronoun.” she continued.
“This is how it should work,” she added.
“But it’s different with separate sentences.” She said that with a smile.
“And it’s for periods only!” she finished.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I use descriptive tags sparingly – typically only if how something is said a) makes a difference and b) isn’t obvious. There’s a difference between something said in anger and something said sarcastically, and without adding something to the tag to let the reader in on the “secret”, a whole scene can take on a different meaning.

Donovan Quesenberry III
Donovan Quesenberry III

Greetings Jami,

Excellent post. I actually shared this with our critique group because I thought it was so good.

Images you used at the top are, again, quite good.

Stay Well and Healthy,
Donovan

Dawn

I never thought of using the interruption with the em-dash. I like it better than the tag interruption, used sparingly of course. Thanks!

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