Let’s Talk Dialogue

Formatting dialogue can be less straightforward than it sounds. There are a lot of considerations to be made when deciding how someone is saying something. First, let’s take a look at some of the basic rules.

 

The part of the sentence that indicates who said what is called the speaker tag. In the following examples, the speaker tag is bolded.

“The seas are rough tonight,” said the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain said, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate said, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

The speaker tag usually gets separated from the dialogue by a comma. If the speaker tag follows dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation marks, as in the first and second examples above. Speaker tags can also be separated by other forms of punctuation.

“I don’t want to walk the plank!” exclaimed the boy.

“Why does he have to walk the plank exactly?” asked the first mate.

In these cases, the first letter of the speaker tag is still lowercase.

 

Okay, I’ll say it. ‘Said’ is old and tired. It drives me crazy to read a manuscript where every speaker tag uses the same word. “Let’s go sailing today!” Laura said. “I don’t think there’s enough wind,” Bob said. “I think there might be,” said Laura. This repetition is tiresome. Let’s take a look back at the first three examples we used and see if we can’t spice them up a little.

“The seas are rough tonight,” asserted the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain growled, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate muttered, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

See how much more meaning we can pack into those sentences? This elevates your writing and removes the need for you to explain in another sentence how the speaker said what they said. (Check out this list to see some ideas for words to use in place of ‘said’.) Make sure, however, that you choose the right word for the verb in your speaker tag. Don’t make a mistake like this:

“I don’t think these are the trade winds,” questioned the lad.

“What other winds would they be?” asserted the deckhand.

The first bit of dialogue wasn’t a question and the second wasn’t an assertion. Be choosy in your word choice!

 

Sometimes a speaker tag is not required, and the person speaking can be implied. Check out this example:

The dockworker was brought up short. “What do you mean there are no more barrels?”

We can assume that the dockworker was the one to ask about the barrels. One of the things that indicates who the speaker is has to do with paragraph construction. Even in complicated situations like the one below, we know who must have said what.

“What is your favorite constellation?” asked the captain.

“Orion, sir,” replied the first mate.

“Aye, it is mine as well.”

“Really?”

“Indeed it is.”

We know that the first mate said “really” because we began a new paragraph when he spoke. Generally, if one person has already spoken within a paragraph, a new paragraph needs to be started when the next person speaks. One person, however, can have dialogue at different points within the same paragraph without a new one being required.

“I don’t like the sound the engine is making,” the engineer whispered. Indeed, the entirety of the boat was vibrating, an ominous thrumming emanating from belowdecks. “I’ll go check it out.”

This also saves us from needing a second speaker tag. We can assume the engineer said he would go check it out because a new paragraph wasn’t started for that line of dialogue.

 

Additionally, if a character is speaking enough to move on from one topic to another within a single section of dialogue, a paragraph break can be used to indicate the change of subject while keeping the two sections of dialogue together.

“I checked on the engine. I don’t think the problem is mechanical.” The engineer heaved in a breath. “There is something living down there. That vibration is the sound of it breathing.

“I tried to reach a hand into the pipes to pull it out, but it nearly tore my arm off. I’m not sure what to do at this point, captain.”

Notice that there are no closing quotation marks on the first paragraph, but there are opening ones on the second. This is the proper formatting for this construction.

 

Now that we understand the basics of putting speech into a sentence, let’s talk getting fancy. Dialogue is special because you can make your characters say whatever you want, often without having to worry about the rules of proper grammar. Characters can have accents:

“I don know watcha mean, laddie.”

They can stutter:

“The-the s-s-sails—they’re going to tear!”

They can sound drunk:

“I thin I fundwere the skippr was ahidn eh rum.”

They can speak in incomplete sentences:

“Ten-four, captain. Whale there, port side. Eyes sharp.”

Or basically speak in gibberish:

“I think, I can’t— I mean, I thought it was a mermaid, but then again, siren—no, wait! Yes! A siren!”

Notice that however strange the speech of a character may get, it doesn’t excuse you from correctly punctuating and formatting it. These special forms of speech are often much harder to write correctly than their more plain counterparts. But if you think you have a handle on how to write dialogue, go ahead and give something fancy a shot.

“Power to yer!”

*Emphasis*

Distinguishing one small section of your wording from the rest is a very powerful tool to add to your writing arsenal. But let me emphasize one thing—doing it incorrectly can really throw a wrench into things for your reader. Let’s look at some ways to get their attention without making them roll their eyes in the process.

 

By far my favorite method of emphasis is employing italics. They can indicate a multitude of nuances, making it important to use them responsibly and consistently throughout your work. If there is, for example, telepathic dialogue at points within your novel, italics might be a good way to distinguish those sections of dialogue from spoken sections. Sarcasm can also be indicated using italics, as in this example.

“Oh, sure, I love sailing in stormy weather.”

Italics are generally good anytime you want to make one word, or even a few words, stand out within a sentence. Changing what gets italicized can vastly alter meaning.

I don’t want to hoist the sails yet.”

This sentence implies that the person speaking doesn’t think the sails should be hoisted yet, but that others might disagree with him.

“I don’t want to hoist the sails yet.”

This sentence makes the speaker sound lazy or whiny.

“I don’t want to hoist the sails yet.”

This makes it sound as if the speaker might want to do something else with the sails.

“I don’t want to hoist the sails yet.”

This one, on the other hand, makes it sound as if the speaker wants to hoist something other than the sails.

 

Italics can even be used to communicate how a character is saying a certain word, as in the below example.

“No, foolish boy. The currents are the real problem, not the waves.”

Italicizing part of a word is totally fair game when used in the context of dialogue.

 

Next let’s talk about using capitalization in the place of italics. Italicizing an entire sentence can make a portion of dialogue seem urgent or like the speaker is shouting.

What do you mean we’re fifty miles from land?

Some writers think they need to resort to capitalization to make it known that their character is yelling.

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN WE’RE FIFTY MILES FROM LAND?”

But this is not a good tactic to employ within professional writing. In addition to the fact that it is not condoned by any rules of grammar, a sentence formatted like this looks bad on the page. Moreover, it makes is seem as if you don’t know how to properly emphasize a sentence. Save the all-caps for the aggressive office emails.

 

While not technically kosher according the rules of proper sentence formation, sentence fragments, when used sparingly, can lend immense power to a piece of writing. Note the key word here: sparingly. Inserting them too often makes it seem as if you don’t know how to construct a sentence. With that being said, let’s examine what a well-thought-out sentence fragment can do for you.

The wind whipped past the boat, making the sea froth and foam. The tiny craft was entirely at the mercy of the elements. The skipper watched nervously as the sails cracked in the gusts of wind, the canvas protesting loudly. Suddenly, on the heaving horizon, a hulking shape appeared. The skipper’s eyes widened in horror as the shape closed in on the boat with terrifying speed. As something sinuous rose up out of the water to tower over the mast, the skipper realized what he had summoned. The kraken.

You can almost hear the “dun dun” in the clipped, decisive sound of the last two words. Herein lies the power of the sentence fragment.

 

Hopefully these tips made understanding how to indicate emphasis within your writing at least a little easier.