The Basic Rules of Dialogue: Quotation Marks, New Paragraphs & More - Writer's Digest

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

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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.


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.

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