How do you write dialogue? (Ten tips on the mechanics and fundamentals of making characters talk in a book or short story.)

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The number one tip for writing good dialogue has to do with paragraphing. If you look at last week’s post, you’ll see that I have my writing students think of themselves as a camera operator. When the camera angle changes, we need a new paragraph. And that’s why the number one tip is…

Tip #1   New speaker = new paragraph.

Imagine you’re writing about an imaginary cooking show starring Julia Child and Chef Boyardee. When Julia speaks, she gets a paragraph for her words. When Chef Boyardee replies to her, he gets a whole new paragraph for his words. It’s that easy.

Tip #2   All of the words that a character from a story actually says  must be put in quotation marks. So if the words didn’t come out of someone’s mouth, like in this sentence…

He told her to add Noodle-o’s to her tomato sauce, and she looked offended.

…those kinds of statements are part of the narrative; therefore they don’t need quotation marks.

Tip #3   If he said or she said follows the words that a character has said, and that character made a statement ending in a period, the actual quoted sentence must end with a comma, where the period would have gone.  For example:  “You can buy my cookbook,” said Chef Boyardee.

Tip #4   When you interrupt a quoted sentence with he said or she said, surround the interruption with both quotation marks and commas, as follows:  “Hey,” the chef asked, “how do you like my cheese ravioli?”

Tip #5   A question mark should only end the questioning  part of the quote.  Here’s what I mean:  “Would you rather have some spaghetti and meatballs?” asked Chef Boyardee.

Tip #6   An exclamation point should only end the shouted part of a quote.  For example:  “I burned myself!” the chef shouted. My literary agent has also suggested that professional writers should go easy on the exclamation points. They’re kind of like swear words; if you use them too much, they lose their umph.

Tip #7   A comma always follows he said or she said, when he said or she said comes at the beginning of a quoted statement.  Here’s an example of this:  He said, “Use a hot pad when taking food out of the microwave.” Let me caution you though. Nine times out of ten, when I put he said or she said at the beginning of a quoted statement, my agent tells me to move it to the end of the sentence instead. I’m not sure if that’s just Liz’s preference, or if it’s an industry standard.

Those were the seven tips on the mechanics of dialogue. Now for a few added pointers that I reserve for my more advanced students–the talented and gifted seventh graders who want to be writers when they grow up…

Tip #8   If there are only two characters in a room, you only need to add a dialogue tag (a he said or she said) once in a while. The reader should know who’s who because of the paragraph breaks.

Tip #9   Avoid long paragraphs of dialogue. Janet Evanovich suggests in her book, How I Write, that no character should be allowed to say more than about three sentences before another character interrupts them with another sentence of their own.

Tip #10  Make dialogue sound natural on the page, but pay attention to that last bit: ON THE PAGE. Just because it’s what people would say in real life, that doesn’t mean it sounds natural on the page. Next week I’ll post more about making dialogue sound natural.


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