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Dialogue Rules

Structure

1. Every time you switch to a different speaker, start a new paragraph.

2. Each speakerís actual words and any actions and attribution associated with those words form a single paragraph.

3. Even if the speaker says only one word, with no accompanying attribution or action, it is a separate paragraph.

4. Start a new paragraph when you wish to draw the readerís attention to a different character, even if that character doesnít actually speak.

5. Donít change paragraphs while one character is speaking. (If the paragraph is getting lengthy or the character changes the subject, you can shift the focus momentarily to the other characterĖ- putting in a paragraph showing that characterís reactionĖ- in order to add a break.)

DO THIS:

    Jane said, "What makes you think you can get by with treating me like this?"

    "IĖ"

    "Donít interrupt me, John. Iím not finished." She flung a plate at the wall. "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

    "Youíve made it perfectly clear that youíre upset."

    She glared at him.

    "Now can we talk about this?" John asked.

NOT THIS:

    Jane said, "What makes you think you can get by with treating me like this?" "IĖ" "Donít interrupt me, John."

    "Iím not finished." She flung a plate at the wall.

    "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

    "Youíve made it perfectly clear that youíre upset." She glared at him. "Now can we talk about this?" John asked.

 

Attribution choices

Attribution is the way you tell your reader who is speaking. If youíve paragraphed properly and started a new paragraph with each new speaker, then you wonít need to tell the reader whoís speaking in every single paragraph. Every third or fourth paragraph will be often enough.

There are several ways to tell the reader whoís speaking.

Said: The simple verb "said" (he said, she said) has the advantage of almost disappearing from the narrative. It accomplishes the purpose without being intrusive.

Other verbs: Some verbs (whispered, shouted) help to clarify how the words are said. Others are overblown (he gritted) or silly (she orated) or impossible (He grinned, "Watch this." -- You can grin and then speak, but you can't "grin" words.)

Adverbs: Some adverbs (she said slowly, he said wryly) help to clarify how the words are said and can illustrate non-literal meanings which may not be apparent from the words themselves, as when a character is being sarcastic. Others are redundant ("I hate you!" she said angrily) or silly (she muttered hastily) or trite (she said sensuously).

Explanations: Telling how the words are spoken can sometimes be useful, but phrases to interpret speeches can easily slide into cliche or purple prose. (His words were as cool and clear as ice water. His deep voice simmered with barely-controlled passion.) Generally itís better to make the speakerís actual words show the mood, rather than to explain it.

Actions: Adding a characterís action to a paragraph containing his speech can help the reader picture the scene as well as showing whoís speaking.

Using characterís names: Occasionally, one character may call the other by name, but itís better not to overuse this technique.

1. Use a combination of attribution methods, so no one method becomes rhythmic and repetitive.

2. Donít attribute more than once in a paragraph.

DO THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John. Iím not finished." She flung a plate at the wall. "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

NOT THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John," she said. "Iím not finished." She flung a plate at the wall. "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss," she continued.

3. If youíre introducing a speaker whoís new to the conversation, begin with the attribution.

DO THIS: John suddenly spoke up. "I think youíre both full of hot air."

NOT THIS: "I think youíre both full of hot air." John suddenly spoke up.

 

Punctuation

1. The exact words of the speaker are enclosed in quotation marks. Double quotes are standard in the United States, single quotes in the United Kingdom.

2. If the speaker didnít say those exact words, then there will be no quotation marks. A direct thought will be marked in italics or underlined in the manuscript. An indirect thought will be part of the narrative. A paraphrased or summarized comment substituted for the exact words will be part of the dialogue.

DIRECT THOUGHT: She thought, I wonder if heís looking at me.

INDIRECT THOUGHT: She wondered if he was looking at her.

DIRECT QUOTE: He said, "Damn it."

INDIRECT QUOTE: He swore.

3. Use quotation marks only at the beginning and end of the quoted material. Do not use quotation marks around each sentence unless the sentence is separated from other quoted material by attribution or action.

DO THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John. Iím not finished. You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

DO THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John. Iím not finished." She flung a plate at the wall. "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

NOT THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John." "Iím not finished." "You canít do this and expect me not to make a fuss."

4. Separate the speech from the attribution using commas.

DO THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John," she said.

DO THIS: She said, "Donít interrupt me, John."

NOT THIS: She said "Donít interrupt me, John."

NOT THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John" she said.

5. If the attribution falls in the middle of the characterís sentence, separate both pieces of the sentence from the attribution by commas:

DO THIS: "You canít do this," she said, "and expect me not to make a fuss."

NOT THIS: "You canít do this," she said. "And expect me not to make a fuss."

6. If the attribution is a complete sentence, separate it from the quoted words with periods.

DO THIS: Jane stamped her foot. "Donít interrupt me, John."

DO THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John." Jane stamped her foot.

NOT THIS: Jane stamped her foot, "Donít interrupt me, John."

NOT THIS: "Donít interrupt me, John," Jane stamped her foot.

This exercise is copyrighted material and is offered for the individual's own use. Further distribution or sale is not permitted without permission of the copyright holder. Copyright 2013 Leigh Michaels.

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