Skip to main content

Write Like a Pro! Master The Rules of Dialogue in Writing

Some of this is Grammar 101, but you’ve got to master the rules in this section for an editor to take you seriously. If these rules are elementary to you, skip them. For everyone else, type them up, print them out, and nail them to your computer monitor.

Z0791c_MindofYourStory.gif

Rule #1: When a new speaker speaks, start a new paragraph

Right: “Did you hear what happened to Mary last week?” Joseph asked.

“No. Do tell!” cried the little drummer boy.

Wrong: “Did you hear what happened to Mary last week?” Joseph asked.

“No. Do tell!” cried the little drummer boy.

Rule #2: Keep dialogue brief

I’m a devotee of nineteenth-century Russian literature, and one of my favorite chapters is the Grand Inquisitor section of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The success of such a chapter carries with it an assumption that no longer holds true today: One speaker can tell a long story, without interruptions, and his audience will be rapt throughout the telling.

In the age of television, the Internet, e-mail, and even books (remember them?), the art of oral storytelling has gone nearly extinct. Yes, we all still run across the occasional person who can hold a dinner party spellbound with his telling of a story, but there will nonetheless be interruptions, interjections, and asides. In our twenty-first-century world, in fact, no one gets to go on as long as nineteenth-century characters could, so dialogue in which someone speaks without interruption feels awkward and stilted to us.

If it’s necessary to your narrative for someone to give a long speech, there are a number of possible solutions.

1. Make it a real speech.
2. Have him write a letter.
3. Break it up with interjections that further the narrative and/or develop character or relationships at the same time.
4. Consider why it’s necessary for this information to be imparted this way. If it’s important, perhaps it should be done in a scene. (If doing such a scene presents a point-of-view problem, have someone who’s there write a letter.)

Rule #3: Always put terminal punctuation (commas, periods) inside the quotation marks

This one’s simple. Note where the comma and period appear in each example and then commit the above to memory.
Right: “I wonder,” she said, “if he is going to show up.”
Wrong: “I wonder”, she said, “if he is going to show up”.

*This excerpt is from Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook.

Buy it now!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

As self-publishing continues to become an attractive and popular options for writers, it’s important to know what you’re getting into and to have the right expectations. Here, author and entrepreneur Tom Vaughan shares how to channel your inner “authorpreneur” to help your book find its readers.

Mark Kurlansky: On Coincidences Driving Memoir

Mark Kurlansky: On Coincidences Driving Memoir

Award-winning author, playwright, and journalist Mark Kurlansky discusses the experience of channeling Ernest Hemingway in his new memoir, The Importance of Not Being Ernest.

In-Between: Writer's Digest 2nd Annual Personal Essay Awards Winner

In-Between: Writer's Digest 2nd Annual Personal Essay Awards Winner

Congratulations to Alyssa Rickert, Grand Prize winner of the 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards. Here's her winning essay, "In Between."