07 Dialogue


Here’s an ugly truth: the way dialogue is
written sometimes looks kind of dumb. As a writer, I’ve struggled with this for years;
there’s what I know is grammatically correct and what I think looks or feels better. The problem is, what might look for feel better
to me probably won’t to other English-language readers. In this video, we’ll be covering the correct
way to write dialogue, featuring helpful examples on the screen. Commas and Periods in Dialogue The single most common mistake we see with
dialogue on Wattpad relates to the placement of commas and periods. Here is the correct
version: “I’m here,” he said. The incorrect version is: “I’m here.” He said. If you’re like me, the fact that in the
correct version the h in ‘he’ is lowercase is annoying, and the comma at the end of the
dialogue line just doesn’t make sense (coming from an acting background, trust me, I’m
with you.) But let’s consider the flow of the sentence
from a reader’s perspective: If we drop a period into the middle of a line
of text, as in the first example, we’re telling readers’ brains to stop…then start
again, on ‘He said.’ While this makes sense to someone reading the dialogue out
loud, in a sentence it completely breaks the flow and confuses the reader. As a writer, the second example looks ugly
to me, but as a reader, it helps guide my brain through the intent of the line: I hear
the line of dialogue, then gain the necessary context to understand who said it and why.
As a reader, I need all of that information, presented that way, to understand fully what
is happening. If we were to build it out, a full line would
read: “I’m here,” he said, “can someone
help me with my luggage?” Note that we’re using commas instead of
periods until the entire line and context are complete.
Dialogue Tags The term ‘he said’ is what’s known as
a dialogue tag: a dialogue tag is used to help a reader understand who is speaking.
You don’t have to use a dialogue tag for every line of dialogue, but as soon as there
are multiple speakers, it really helps to clarify who is saying what. Whenever it is unclear who is speaking, use
a dialogue tag. They can go before a line of dialogue… Patrice said, “Let’s go, before it rains.” During a line of dialogue… “Let’s go,” Patrice said, “before
it rains.” Or after a line of dialogue… “Let’s go, before it rains,” Patrice
said. However, if the first part of a line of dialogue
is a full sentence followed by a dialogue tag rather than another new sentence, you
should use a period after the dialogue tag like this: “Let’s get out of here,” Patrice said.
“I think it’s going to rain.” This may seem like a lot of technical grammar
info, but what it all boils down to is this: make sure that your dialogue and dialogue
tags form a complete sentence for the reader’s eye to follow. In our most recent example,
the information the reader needs to complete the full thought is ‘Let’s get out of
here,’ Patrice said. ‘I think it’s going to rain’ is a new sentence and is separated
by a period as a result. Action Tags or Action Beats
These can be anything from a description such as ‘Ali walked over to the window,’ to
a thought, such as ‘Ali had been worrying about the clouds all day.’ You can use action
tags to help convey how a line of dialogue is spoken, to ground a reader in the scene,
or to describe the action around or throughout dialogue. For example: Tom took a sip of his
coffee. “Yuck!” He spat it out all over his desk, “This is awful!” Action tags are always complete sentences
and should begin with a capital letter and end with a period, even if dialogue follows. For example.. Ali walked over to the window. “I think
it’s going to rain.” Or, in the middle of a sentence… “We should get indoors.” Ali had been
concerned about rain all day, he’d seen dark clouds rolling in over the lake. “I
think it’s going to rain.” Where dialogue tags help us to understand
who is speaking (and how they’re speaking, whispering, yelling, etc), action tags or
beats help us to understand what’s going on in the scene where the dialogue is being
spoken. Messing these up here or there certainly won’t
ruin your story, but mastering the use of these techniques will save your editors a
tonne of time, allowing them instead to focus on making your story the best it can be, rather
than where a comma is supposed to be, and will create a better experience for your readers. No one wants to get pulled out of a story
because they don’t know who is speaking or what’s going on! Disfluencies and Accents
Sometimes when writing dialogue, it is easy to want to include all the details that you
would find in realistic speech: ums, uhs, and of course, pauses. While a few of these,
here and there, can add flavor to a story, they need to be used very, very carefully.
In the same way that a painter chooses what part of a sunset to include, as a writer,
it is up to you to choose how many realistic speech patterns and disfluencies to use when
writing dialogue. While multiple ums and uhs might be more true-to-life,
they also stall a reader’s momentum: consider how few of these you hear on TV or in movies,
even the ones celebrated for having realistic dialogue. As we talked about in video number
four ‘Key Issues,’ too many ellipses can really break up the flow of a reader’s experience.
This is also true of dialogue. While you may want readers to imagine your character’s
hesitation, let that intent come out through your words and dialogue tags, not just your
ellipses – if you do want to use one, and there are definitely places to do so! – make
sure it’s only one. Too many make the sentence hard to read. Similarly, if your character has a stutter
or an accent, we’d recommend describing those in the dialogue tags and prose rather
than trying to approximate the accent in text. While those familiar with the accent might
know exactly what you’re trying to convey, for those that aren’t it can make those
characters’ dialogue confusing or culturally insensitive, or in absolute worst cases: racist. This is, however, just a recommendation: it’s
up to you to decide what kind of style you want to approach accents with. Realism vs Necessity
Finally, let’s talk about the idea of realism versus necessity: in real life, we often say
many things that are boring (consider the last time you ordered food at a fast food
restaurant or coffee shop). While these are true-to-life, they often don’t have any
impact on our characters or advance our stories. In cases like this, we recommend you summarize
the action, rather than write out the dialogue. Using my coffee shop example, it would look
like this: I walked into the coffee shop and ordered
my usual, a double-double. Only caffeine and sugar would get me through my next meeting. As opposed to… I approached the counter.
“Hi, what can I get you?” “A double double, please.”
“Okay, and how would you like to pay?” “Credit, please.”
“Okay, go ahead and insert your card when you’re ready.”
“Thanks.” “Great, do you want a receipt?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks. Goodbye.” I took my coffee, whose caffeine and sugar
would get me through my next meeting, and left. Both examples tell the same story, but the
realistic dialogue does not convey anything that is necessary to the story. Another solid example are phone calls in movies.
You know, how characters answer the phone saying their name and just hang up the call
when the other person is done talking with no goodbye. Keep an eye out for places where you can summarize
instead of writing out unnecessary dialogue. In Conclusion
Great dialogue should increase our understanding of the character, follow the rules of grammar,
and advance the plot. By making sure your dialogue follows these
rules and by using these tips and tricks, you’ll be creating a stronger experience
for your readers and an easier job for your editors. Make sure those commas and periods
are in the right place and you’ll be well on your way to a stronger manuscript.

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