Monthly Archives: September 2009

Effective Dialogue – Proper formatting

In this article I’m going to provide four more simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:

  1. Don’t write phonetically
  2. Don’t use italics
  3. Go easy on the exclamation points
  4. Use paragraphs that include actions

Few things are more distracting or more frustrating than trying to read dialogue that is written phonetically.  “Wail, dayud-gum!  I ain’t a gunna let dem young-uns git away wit dat!”  Huh?  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen dialogue this bad in print…and it wasn’t a joke.  This falls back on the most basic premise in writing dialogue: don’t write anything that causes the reader to stop, back up, re-read, or waste time trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.  If you’ve developed your characters well enough, then you don’t need to write their dialogue phonetically.  The reader will hear it as it would be spoken without all the misspelled words, hyphens, apostrophes and other odd characters.

You also want to avoid italics.  About the only times italics are acceptable are when the reader is thinking to himself, having a dialogue in his own head, so to speak.  Sometimes you also see italics used to denote a flashback or departure from the present time.  But even that can be confusing.  Don’t use italics for emphasis.  Simply use the appropriate tag: he shouted, she wailed, etc.  Besides, italicized print is harder to read than regular font.

Too many exclamation points are also a problem.  It’s okay to use a few but too many become annoying.  Use tags and scene settings to provide emphasis, not punctuation.  If you’ve set up the scene properly, the emphasis should be obvious.

The last rule for writing dialogue is to break it up into logical paragraphs.  Each time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.  This is how to let the reader know who is talking without using a lot of tags.  But if the same character is speaking and doing something at the same time, you don’t have to break that into several paragraphs.  You can use the action to create the scene and reduce the use of tags.  For example:

        Mary glanced around the restaurant, then reached into her purse.  “I’ve got something for you.” She placed a plain, white envelope on the table.  She leaned in and lowered her voice.  “This is what you’ve been looking for.  This letter explains everything.  Everything.”  She drew the last word out, making sure he understood the letter would leave no doubt.

See how the combination of dialogue and action set the tone for the scene, provided emphasis, and kept the action going without a lot of stops and starts?  One paragraph with one person talking, but interspersed with actions and descriptions.  No italics or exclamation points or tags.  But the reader knows Mary is the one talking and hears her speaking in a hushed voice, whispering, making her point and emphasizing her words.  The words and actions set the tone, not the punctuation.

From the viewpoint of an agent or editor, nothing screams novice writer!!! more than using italics and too many exclamation points.  Phonetic writing is also distracting and should be avoided.  If you need punctuation to make your point then you haven’t developed your characters well enough or set the scene properly.  Remember that the reader will provide the emphasis and hear the dialects without a lot of coaching.  Don’t distract them with punctuation or odd phrasing or confusing paragraph construction.

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