We all know how people speak. It’s messy, more rapid-fire than you realize at the time, and conversations seem to flow in one long string.

This is not how you write dialogue.

There is a lot of flexibility in English, but certain formatting things are very real rules because they make it easy to read. Dialogue is one of the most important because it can be very, very confusing.

Listen to a conversation, laptop/notebook at the ready. Try to transcribe it word for word. (Do this subtly because otherwise even your family will think you’re crazy and strangers…maybe just go to a coffee shop you don’t want to go back to). The result will be a confused tangle.

Thus, formatting.

A sample to work with, which may or may not be based on a (series of) real conversation(s):

He dropped onto the couch and started taking off his boots. “Where do you want to get dinner?”

“What do you feel like?

“I asked you.”

He wanted to roll his eyes, she knew it, but he was smart enough not to do it while she was looking at him. “You do this every night. You have to have an opinion.”

He tossed his boots across the room. “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said, “Life is easier for everyone if you decide where we get dinner.”

Some rules on display:

  • Every time someone speaks, they get their own paragraph. It makes it easier to follow.
  • Actions, internal thoughts, and dialogue can share a paragraph. They don’t have to. This is an art more than a science. For conversations between two or more people, it’s a useful way to indicate who’s speaking if it’s not clear based on what they’re saying.
  • Italics are used for emphasis in serious writing, not bold, underline, asterisks, dashes, etc. Italics.
  • Try not to overdo your use of emphasis. A little goes a long way and your characters’ personality and situation do a lot for communicating how they are saying something.
  • You know how someone, somewhere, with some degree of authority, told you to use more words than said, like, oh, exclaimed, announced, stated, and so forth? Most of the time, they are wrong. Until you are very sure of how to write dialogue, just use said. It’s an “invisible” word. Reader see it but it’s not disruptive. Other tags are jarring.
  • On that note, use dialogue tags sparingly. I had to force myself to do it in that bit up there because it’s not necessary. Your characters should be identifiable without having a dialogue tag.
  • If a spoken sentence is followed by a dialogue tag, the spoken sentence ends in a comma before the quotation mar at the end. If a dialogue tag is followed by a spoken sentence, the dialogue tag is followed by a comma before the quotation mark at the beginning.

The best way to figure out how to write dialogue is by reading. The way you see dialogue written in, say, Harry Potter or Starship Troopers or just about everything? That’s the right way. There isn’t really another right way because people need to be able to read what you’re writing without having to fight their way through it.

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