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Writing Dialogue: The Nuts & Bolts

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

WHY USE DIALOGUE? If you’re a fiction writer, you already know that dialogue is key to a good story. But non-fiction writers — you’re not off the hook! Narrative non-fiction writing like memoir and personal experience stories uses fiction techniques to tell true stories, so dialogue is your friend. Dialogue should be clear, realistic, and properly punctuated. Reading dialogue should be effortless for the reader; they shouldn’t have to work to keep track of who is speaking or what the character means.

DIALOGUE TAGS Dialogue tags are used to attribute the dialogue to the person speaking it. Only use tags as necessary. Too many dialogue tags makes for clunky reading.

“That’s the new horse,” said Terry.

STICK TO “SPEAKING” TAGS One cannot smile, blush, grunt, moan, sigh, or chime dialogue. But you can ask, greet, reply, shout, whisper, exclaim, command, proclaim, explain, declare, etc. Or you can smile, blush, etc. after the dialogue has been spoken and ended with a period (or question mark or exclamation mark). Dialogue tags should describe the act of speaking.

Incorrect: “I can’t wait to ride a horse,” she smiled. Correct: “I can’t wait to ride a horse.” She smiled.

In many cases, it is best to stick with the tag “said” rather than get too creative. Said is an “invisible” tag — the reader mentally skips over it. USE PARAGRAPH BREAKS

If two characters are having a conversation, use a paragraph break to alternate between speakers. Not every line requires a tag, so long as the dialogue goes back and forth.

Terry, my riding instructor and the barn owner, appeared from the doorway of the barn, smashing her worn hat down over short white hair. I waved.

“Who is the new horse?” “That’s Stormy. Somebody just gave him to me. He’s been sitting in a pasture for six years.” “What are you going to do with him?” “He’s your new project horse. I want you to work with him. He’s yours for a year.”

Be cautious not to overuse this technique. If you continue alternating too long, the reader may lose track of the pattern and have to count lines to keep track of who is speaking. It also creates a repetitive “ping-pong” pattern. People usually do things while they’re speaking, so break it up with some action to keep the conversation interesting.

PUNCTUATE CORRECTLY Punctuation should go inside of quotations marks.

Incorrect: “Who is the new horse”? Correct: “Who is the new horse?”

Use single quote marks for quotes within dialogue. An extra space may be added between the single and double quote marks at the end for ease of reading.

“My riding instructor always used to say, 'whatever the horse was doing when you release the pressure is what you've taught him to do.’ ”

Use ellipses for dialogue that trails off when a character gets distracted or forgets what they were saying.

“I think I left the brushes in the barn…”

Use an em dash when dialogue is interrupted.

“Remember that trail ride—” “The one where you rode the gray horse?”

Look for more tips on writing dialogue in the next blog post - coming soon!

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