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General Rules of Dialogue Usage

Fundamentals of Fiction Writing from Writer's Online Workshops

Here are some essential rules for dialogue mechanics:

  • Start a new paragraph with each new speaker.
  • Don't put thoughts in quotes, it confuses the reader as to which lines are being spoken and which are being thought. Use underlining or italics to indicate a character's thoughts without attribution (Like that's really going to happen) or simply include a tag that indicates thought (Like that's really going to happen, he thought).
  • Terminal punctuation (commas, periods, question marks) goes inside the quotation marks.
  • Beginning writers sometimes wait until the end of a long speech to add the tag line. If you are going to use a tag line, do so as soon as stylistically possible. If you wait too long, the reader won't know who the speaker is until the end, and not knowing distracts the reader from what is being said.
  • Avoid using too many tags. This includes padding with a lot of description or gestures. Sometimes the dialogue must flow without interruption, with minimal tags. If only two characters are speaking, you can let several lines go without any tags.
  • Avoid adverbs in the tag lines (i.e., "Stop!" she shouted urgently.) The characters urgency is implied in the dialogue and by the fact that she shouted. The adverb distracts the reader.
  • Keep your tags simple. The longer and more elaborate the tag line, the more the actual dialogue becomes smothered.
  • Don't overuse names when characters address each other: "Hi, Jim, how are you?" "Fine, Sam." "Say, Jim, is that a new watch?" "No, Sam, same old one." This constant use of their names makes the dialogue stiff and robotic-sounding.
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