Articles / On Dialogue

Paragraphing Dialogue

~oOo~

“It’s not fair,” Brittany whined, stomping her foot and throwing her backpack on the floor. “You never let me do anything.” Her mother lifted her head and stopped sewing. “You’re right. I never let you do anything.” She rolled her eyes before continuing, “I make you slave around here day and night, and you never have any fun. It’s sheer luck the cops don’t take me away.” Huffing, Brittany slumped into a chair. “That’s not what I mean,” she said. “And you know it. I just want to meet Christina at the mall for an hour, tops.” Her mother sighed and stared at the piles of laundry at her feet. “If you’d spend less time complaining and more time getting your chores done, you’d be able to go to the mall.”

Wow, that’s something else, isn’t it? It’s not quite clear who’s speaking when, and each character’s actions are mixed up with the other’s words. So let’s back up a minute and look at some rules for writing dialogue.

  • Each new speaker gets a new paragraph. Even if it’s only a word. This is to clearly identify who is speaking at all times.
  • Keep each speaker’s actions with his words.
  • Random action that doesn’t belong with the speaker belongs in a new paragraph.

Using our example, let’s separate Brittany’s words and actions from her mother’s words and actions.

“It’s not fair,” Brittany whined, stomping her foot and throwing her backpack on the floor. “You never let me do anything.”

Her mother lifted her head and stopped sewing. “You’re right. I never let you do anything.” She rolled her eyes before continuing, “I make you slave around here day and night, and you never have any fun. It’s sheer luck the cops don’t take me away.”

Now that we’ve separated the characters, let’s see what other rules we should follow for clarity.

  • All punctuation related to said dialogue belongs inside the quotation marks.
  • Dialogue need not be broken into paragraphs unless it becomes excessively long, in which case an opening quotation mark goes at the beginning of each paragraph but only at the end of the quoted dialogue.
  • Dialogue tags are separated from the dialogue most often with a comma, but also with question marks, exclamation points, ellipses, and em dashes.
  • If there is no dialogue tag, but action instead, the action should be separated from the dialogue with a period.

Now let’s take Brittany’s mother’s actions and determine that they are not, in fact, dialogue tags. There are arguments that the verb continuing can be a dialogue tag; however, I disagree and punctuate it with a period instead of a comma.

Her mother lifted her head from the hem she was sewing. “You’re right. I never let you do anything.” She rolled her eyes before continuing. “I make you slave around here day and night, and you never have any fun. It’s sheer luck the cops don’t take me away.”

  • Don’t over-dialogue-tag your dialogue.
  • Don’t constantly interrupt your dialogue.
  • Build descriptive narrative around your dialogue to keep from unnecessary uses of “he said/she said” throughout your manuscript.

At this point, things become a little more subjective. Use of descriptive narrative versus dialogue tags is personal choice; however, most readers agree that being shown what’s happening is far more interesting than reading ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ a thousand times. If it’s clear who’s speaking, you can leave the tag out.

Huffing, Brittany slumped into a chair. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I just want to meet Christina at the mall for an hour, tops.”

Her mother sighed and stared at the piles of laundry at her feet. “If you’d spend less time complaining and more time getting your chores done, you’d be able to go to the mall.”

For more information on writing dialogue, see Diva Lauren’s article on Dialogue Punctuation and Diva Shay’s article on Dynamic Dialogue.

Go forth and write some dialogue!

~oOo~


Comments

  1. Again, super helpful post! I always wonder if I am doing too much paragraphing – but I think I’m on the right track. I actually can’t wait to go back and edit something now.

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