It Is Said

My sister introduced me to a game called bubble talk, which involves matching dialogue to interesting pictures. I enjoyed playing the game, especially seeing how the different dialogue changes the story of the picture. A reader gets to know a character best by what the character says and how it is said.

Dialogue is an important tool in fictional writing. What a character says and how is an immense portion of the personality of a character, and especially portraying that. But it only works when the reader can understand it. The first step to writing good dialogue is learning the format. Quotation marks distinguish the words of the character from the narration. And the dialogue tag is the part that tells the reader which character is speaking. The mistake I see the most in beginning writers is the paragraph rule.

Paragraph Rule

Each time a new character is speaking, or even making an action, you start a new paragraph. Different character, different paragraph. There are a few reasons for this rule, beyond the fact that it’s how the format goes.

First of all, white space looks good, and it’s easier to read short paragraphs. Textbook, all black blocks kind of paragraphs aren’t enticing. Fun dialogue with lots of interaction (back and forth) looks a lot more inviting.

The second reason, or benefit, is that a new paragraph is a signal to the reader that its the words or actions of a different character. Following the rules helps eliminate confusion. If nothing else, learn this rule: new character — new paragraph. This greatly improves dialogue.

In Quotations

The next rule is the quotation marks. Which should encompass everything a character says, including punctuation, and only what they say. This means that the phrases with actions in-between get their own set of quotation marks.

As far as the punctuation goes, not including exclamation or question marks, there’s a rule for that too. End the phrase with a period if there is a dialogue tag, and if there is not tag at all. A comma marks the end of the first phrase if it is interrupted by an action tag before going on to the next phrase.

Thoughts of a character are treated similarly. I have seen them written the same as dialogue with just the clarifying “he thought” tag, rather than “he said”. I personally prefer using italics for thoughts rather than quotation marks. This way, the reader doesn’t think the phrase is being spoken aloud, up until they get to the dialogue tag. You follow the same rules except omit the quotation marks and put it in italics.

Character’s Dialogue

Since dialogue is one of the biggest tools in revealing character, you should make sure it matches the character. Ideally, dialogue tags aren’t needed because what is actually said perfectly matches the character. Accents and dialects can be portrayed in writing, though it’s difficult.

Other options to distinguish the individuality of a character is through the content of what they say. The little girl who loves pink is more likely to relate things to unicorns. While the high school boy will probably prefer a sports metaphor. Opinions, viewpoints, attitudes, and education levels are all distinguishing characteristics that can come through the dialogue.

Now, it’s your turn to try it out. Try introducing a character through a conversation and see how much you can reveal about them. Mimic an accent you’ve heard, but do it on paper. Write the dialogue for the confrontation in your current story. Comment with other rules or tips you know of. If you need an example of the dialogue format, you can look here.

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