Dialogue tags come in many forms:
He/she said angrily
He/she whispered – shouted – screamed – mumbled
‘Said’ is one of those words that readers don’t even really see. A good rule of thumb is when in doubt, go with simple.
Some people also use the reverse, rather than ‘she said’, authors will write ‘said she’. This reverse is becoming less common and sounds, or ‘reads’ unusual to many readers.
Rather than writing “I didn’t know,” she said, an author can use movements.
“But,” she ran her hands through her hair, “what about Joe?”
She ran her hands through her hair. “But what about Joe?”
“But what about Joe?” She ran her hands through her hair.
Movement tags not only act as attributes (letting the reader know who’s doing the speaking), but also convey character emotion and act as ‘Beats’.
Which is more interesting to read: (Gets into Show Don’t Tell)
“You wouldn’t dare,” she said angrily.
“You wouldn’t dare.” She slammed her fist on the table, making the fine china and silverware rattle.
Sometimes, you want the reader to stop at certain points emphasizing different words or to draw out suspense.
“There was just so much…” Sally took a deep, shaky breath. “So much blood.”
Breaking up dialogue can also control pace:
“Will you marry me,” Tom asked, bending down on one knee.
Sally’s eyes burned as tears welled. “Tom,” she whispered. “I…”
Sally took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, I will.”
“Then?” Tom asked.
“Well, then I…” Sally shook her head. “Then I decided I had to do it.”
“You did it?”
“Yes. I took his old shotgun and raced outside.”
“And the dog?”
“That mean ol’ mangy mutt never knew what hit him.”
Back in the 60’s, a comic book artist wrote about a boy named Tom Swift, and his many adventures. The author commonly used adverbs as dialogue tags.
“Yes, Joe,” Tom said happily.
“The sun’s too hot,” Tom complained hotly.
“Well, that makes me mad,” Tom said angrily.
Tom ran and ran. “I’m tired,” Tom said with exhaustion.
Now, adverbs and adjectives are not the enemy, but they can distract from the dialogue itself. They can also become a bit silly.
It’s always better to use ‘said’ than a string of -ly words.
Dialogue Part 3
As You Know Bobs
One common problem with dialogue is the ‘As You Know Bob’ syndrome. Beginning (and sometimes not-so-beginning) writers have all this knowledge of the story in their head. And this information needs to be given to the reader so things make sense.
Unfortunately, sometimes this trap jumps right up and captures us.
“Hey Bob, how’s it going?” Joe asked, sitting at the table.
Bob nodded as he continued to endlessly stir his coffee.
“So Bob, you know Jesse, your cousin who got married last year? She’s coming to town with her new husband who’s a tax accountant. They have their two kids, Billy and Sally. And they might even be bringing that dog you gave them, Old Blue.”
Now, if you knew Bob, would you ever sit down and start telling him details like this about people he already knows? Bob would be looking at you like you’re crazy. In fact, his response my go like this:
Bob glanced up. “Joe, what’s wrong with you? I already know all that about my cousin and her family. Why are you telling me?”
Another common problem with dialogue is repetition. If something is said in dialogue, it doesn’t then have to be shown in exposition (and visa-versa)
Tony nodded sharply. “We’ll go around the rocks, check for any traps.”
Sally patted her horse’s neck. “And after the bridge?”
“We’ll just have to see.”
Tony and Sally spurred their horses into a gallop, racing down the trail. They reached the boulders and checked for any traps. There were none. The two riders continued down the trail to the river, and the bridge. Then they crossed.
“Now what?” Sally asked.
Tony scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well, let’s head to the town. Dr. Evans might be in. Then we can take him back to the farm to look old Joe over.”
Tony and Sally rode on, over the bridge and reached the town. They dismounted in front of Dr. Evan’s house, tied the reins to the post and went in to see if the doctor was available.
Sally stopped inside the door. “Doctor? Are you here? We need some help back at the farm.”
Readers are smart. They can figure out what’s going on with just subtle hints. If they are reading a story, and the author keeps repeating the same information again and again, most readers are going to get bored and stop reading.
For information on Boring Dialogue, see Part 1
Not only does Dialogue need to serve multiple purposes, it has specific punctuation rules.
All spoken dialogue has double quotes around it.
“She never told me,” he whispered.
Because we are using a dialogue tag (he said), a comma goes inside the quote and the tag is NOT capitalized.
“Why didn’t she tell me?” he asked.
We’re still using a dialogue tag, even though it’s a question. The tag remains lower case.
“She never told me.” He waved towards the balcony doors.
By using a movement tag, the exchange becomes two different sentences. The dialogue ends with a period inside the quotes, and the movement tag IS capitalized.
“But,” he said, “she never told me.”
Using a beat to break up the dialogue is punctuated by a comma inside the first set of quotes, the beat is NOT capitalized and also ends with a comma, and then the continuation of dialogue is NOT capitalized.
“But she never told me.” John spun from the others, staring blankly out the open balcony door. “How could she not have told me?”
By using a movement tag between sentences of dialogue, the same rules of any movement tag are followed. Each sentence is its own, and punctuated with periods and capitals.
A Quote within a Quote
“So, then Sally said, ‘Those Garrison’s are too tall.’ We all laughed at her surprise,” Billy said.
When quoting inside dialogue, single quotation marks are used.
The last part of punctuation is paragraphing. When a new person speaks, they always do so in a new paragraph.
“And then, the dam broke.” Jesse’s eyes grew wider. “The water, frothy white with trees and boulders tumbling down the ridge right along with it, seemed like it would never stop.”
“Whoa. What did the town do?” Sally asked.
“We ran. What else?” Joe said, his voice deep and booming.
“How far did you run?” Sally spread her hands wide as if she could measure the distance of the town’s flight between her fingers.
“Far,” Jesse stated. “As far as we could.”
It’s important to any story — short, long, novel, you name it.
In fiction, the purpose of dialogue serves multiple purposes.
It should convey information to the reader.
It should reveal character.
It should move the story forward.
The key is to make dialogue sound natural, convey information subtly, and not be boring.
Would you like to open a book, or read a short story, and see the following?
“Hi, Mary,” Joe said.
“Hi, Joe,” Mary replied.
“How is your day?” Joe asked.
“Oh, okay, I guess.”
“Nice weather we’re having.” Joe glanced up at the crystalline blue sky.
Mary nodded. “Yeah. But it might be nice if it rained.”
“So, Joe. How’s your mom?” Mary scuffled her toe in the dry dirt.
“She’s feeling better,” Joe replied. “And your parents?”
I could go on, but my eyes are already glazed over. While the conversation above is something you might hear in real life, it doesn’t exactly make for good reading. ‘Real Life’ doesn’t always readily apply to fiction.
Remember, it’s okay to skip the boring parts. And remember, the purpose of dialogue is to move the story forward. If two characters are talking about mundane things, does it push the story, or does it make the reader’s eyes glaze over?
And as with any writing, the #1 way to find out if your writing flows naturally is to Read it Out Loud.
Come back for Dialogue Part 2 – Punctuation