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  • “Say What?” (A Guide to Damn Fine Dialogue)

    by Emma LaSaine, Columnist

    “So, I wrote this story. . . .” you mutter with trepidation.

    “Great! Let’s have a look,” I reply, snatching the manuscript from your hands. “Hmm, let’s see, there’s a few grammatical errors.”

    I hear a thumping sound and look up.

    “Oh, don’t bash your head against the wall!” I chide. “They just repainted that and you’ll get it all bloody.”

    You roll your eyes and wipe a trail of red from your forehead.

    “I promise, it’ll be okay,” I tell you. “I’ll be gentle and I won’t even pull out the red pen. We’ll use blue or something. How about pink? Who could be intimidated by a pink glitter pen?”

    “Okay,” you sigh, “but don’t expect me to like it.”

    “You never do.”

    Quotation Marks

    By and large, the easiest way to tell if a character is speaking on the page is by looking for quotation marks. That said, it has become trendy to let dialogue blend into the rest of the manuscript by either using italics in place of quotation marks even for spoken dialogue or by leaving it entirely without any kind of distinguishing punctuation or formatting. However, I am of the mind that just because you can make such a choice doesn’t mean you should. The key idea is that clarity is important (if people can’t understand your writing they may rage-quit the piece rather than reading it past the first page).

    Furthermore, stylistic choices must be just that, stylistic. There should be a compelling reason why you chose to do what you did with words. Don’t just decide to never use commas or end all questions in a period and all statements in a question mark simply because you want to be edgy; readers (particularly editors) are looking for the why behind your choices. You are saying something with words not just in their literal meaning, but also by the way you string together and punctuate those words.

    So, to return to the central topic, if you are using quotation marks, how do you know when to use them? The simple answer is, whenever a character verbalizes words. If two characters are having a conversation, everything they say aloud should be inside quotation marks:

    “Hey bro-dawg, what’s new?” Marty asked.“Not much, Bro-seph Gordon Levitt,” Todd replied. “Just looking for my pants.”

    What’s more, if a character says something aloud in isolation, quotation marks are still appropriate:

    “Ouch!” he exclaimed when he stubbed his toe.

    It’s also important to note that “double quotation marks” should go around all dialogue unless you have quotation marks within quotation marks, in which case ‘single quotation marks’ are appropriate:

    “Guess what I read yesterday,” Amy said to their cousin.“What?” Shannon asked. “‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor,” Amy replied.

    While the short story “Good Country People” would ordinarily appear within double quotation marks, as it is printed inside a piece of dialogue, the writer uses single quotation marks to signify that the short story’s name is part of the rest of the dialogue.

    Commas, Question Marks, Periods, and Exclamation Points

    Think of quotation marks as that one friend of yours who gives really good hugs. Everything gets squeezed in, and nobody gets left out. All ending punctuation should be inside the quotation marks:

    “Hey there,” she said.

    “What?” the man in purple overalls asked.

    “Hey there!” Irina shouted.

    “Oh,” he said, “hello.”

    Even when there are quotations within quotations, the punctuation that belongs with a set of quotation marks goes inside of it:

    “And that’s when she said, ‘I’ve never met him in my life!’” Francis shook his head, “Can you imagine lying like that in front of so many people?”

    So, now that we’ve settled where the punctuation goes, when ending a piece of dialogue which punctuation do you use? The rules are in fact similar to those for regular sentences with one small exception: If the dialogue ends in a period before a dialogue tag, substitute a comma:

    “Greetings, earthling,” Zorg intoned, extending his maroon and lime green tentacle. “I am here to eat your flesh.”

    “No, no, no!” exclaimed his manager. “That’s not proper customer service at all.”

    If the sentence before a dialogue tag (“Zorg intoned” for example) is a question (“Who do you think you are?” Hubert demanded.)  or exclamation (“Heads up!” Tara screamed as she whipped the softball at Kelly’s face.), the question mark or exclamation mark remains. Only statements (“Greetings, earthling.”) have their ending punctuation replaced with a comma before a dialogue tag (“Greetings, earthling,” Zorg intoned.) And don’t forget to have your quotation marks hug whatever punctuation you’re using.

    Dialogue Tags

    How do you know who said what? Dialogue tags.

    Dialogue tags are the “Jimmy said” or “she mumbled” or “they asked, pushing their hair out of their eyes.” Think of dialogue tags like labels that give the reader enough information to stay in the loop about who’s talking while not detracting from the conversation itself.

    Dialogue tags customarily follow a piece of dialogue, just after the closing quotation mark:

    “Here’s an example of how it looks,” I said.

    However, they can also appear mid-dialogue stream or, as is increasingly acceptable, preface the dialogue:

    “This can be done,” I said and paused for a deep breath, “for pacing or dramatic effect.”

    I leaned in closer and whispered, “This may also be done every now and then.”

    As always, think about what you are trying to accomplish on the page. What form of dialogue tag best serves the tone, voice, pacing, etc. of the story? Also remember that dialogue tags are a great way to give the reader more information about the characters, setting, etc. of your story. That said, dialogue tags should not detract from the flow of the story. Don’t get too crazy with dialogue tags. If you have a lot to say, consider moving to a paragraph between dialogue to share more information:

    “I have to tell you something important here,” I whispered.

    Looking over my shoulder, I pushed myself closer to the reader’s ear, leaning down so my long hair hung around my face, shielding my lips in a curtain.

    “This is also an acceptable way to write dialogue.”

    “Oh,” the audience breathed, “I think I understand.”

    As in that last example, you can omit dialogue tags when it is clear who said what. But remember that cutting back on dialogue tags, like most stylistic choices, is a delicate balance and should only be done very intentionally to create a certain effect.

    Indenting and Paragraph Breaks

    Switching between speakers or between the overall storyteller/narrator character and spoken dialogue can be a bit tricky. The same basic rule that all spoken dialogue should be inside quotation marks remains; however, there are a few other components in the mix.

    Unless expressly for stylistic effect, all new paragraphs should be indented, including dialogue. But how do you know when to start a new paragraph when dealing with dialogue?

    The answer is a bit complex.

    First and foremost, if a new speaker says something, start a new paragraph:

    “What’s that in the sky?” the bystander asked. “A bird? A plane?”

    “Don’t be stupid,” Jimmy Olsen said and rolled his eyes. “It’s my boy Superman.”

    However, if a character performs action following dialogue but doesn’t immediately say something else, you should also begin a new paragraph as soon as the dialogue tag is over:

    “So, do you like dogs?” the blond woman asked, clearly bored.

    “I like snakes,” Joe told her.

    He opened his wallet to reveal a long string of photographs cut from National Geographic encased lovingly in plastic to preserve the images of diamond back rattle snakes, yellow corn snakes the size of alligators, and, of course, the poisonous snakes Joe loved so much.

    “How . . . unique,” the woman replied.

    It is important not to stuff dialogue into lengthy paragraphs where it will get lost and the reader may lose track of who is speaking. Perspective is also another indicator of when to create new paragraphs. If the “camera lens” sifts from one character to another during a dialogue exchange, use paragraph breaks to ensure clarity:

    Erma carefully rolled her knitting around the wooden needles and slid it into the large pocket of her leather jacket.

    “Don’t miss me too much,” she told Willie. “I’ll be back by Friday.”

    Then she slipped her prescription motorcycle goggles on over her thinning white hair.

    Willie crossed his arms defiantly, despite the grumble of joint pains, and watched Erma mount her Harley-Davidson. He did his best not to smile when he saw her long pink socks peeking out from underneath her patchwork skirt, and kept a stony face as Erma blew him a kiss before kicking off from the curb in a rusty engine roar.

    “Love you!” she called over her shoulder.

    As always, clarity should be the governing force in your paragraph break decisions. Trust your writerly intuition; if you sense a perspective shift, there’s a good chance you need a paragraph break.

    Characteristic Dialogue and Dialect

    Dialogue is a great way to give your reader information about the characters speaking. You can show a lot with dialogue. For example, if a character looks up from scrolling through Facebook on their iPhone to say, “Gina, do you remember that summer when we walked all the way from The Cheesecake Factory to the Sears Tower with Mom?” you can make a pretty good guess about the date of the story, as well as the age and hometown of the character in question. What’s more, you’ve just learned that Gina is that character’s sister.

    Using dialect, slang, colloquialisms, certain spellings (for example American English vs. British English spellings of color/colour), etc. can help you express the character’s voice and give the reader information about their background and personality. Remember, if it’s in quotation marks, it’s in the character’s unique voice. Just because you know that “it’s goin’ good” is less grammatically correct than “it’s going well” doesn’t mean a character would make that distinction when answering how their day has been. If you are using a dialect or communicating an accent, remember that clarity is incredibly important. Make sure your spelling and punctuation are consistent throughout the entire manuscript and don’t be afraid to do a little research beforehand to ensure you’re getting everything right.

    Internal Dialogue

    Sometimes I think to myself, Internal dialogue is a tricky business.

    You see, most people have their own ideas when it comes to how they ought to get thoughts onto the page. However, I often think that it can be boiled down into a few basic rules.

    The key is to think of internal dialogue and internal voice as simply an extension of spoken dialogue. While I can’t be sure, I’d bet most of us have our own patterns of thinking, just the way we have our patterns of speaking. From a stylistic perspective, think first about your character’s voice, then get their thoughts onto the page. Once it’s all down there, you can clean it up and make sure it’s clear what is or isn’t an internal thought.

    The easiest and most commonly accepted way of denoting internal dialogue is using italics. To determine when to use italics, think of internal dialogue the way you would spoken dialogue. Anything that (if it were spoken aloud) would require quotation marks should be italicized. Anything else is left untouched.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.