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!

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make the setting the antagonist.

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting can work its way into the backstory of a character, but it can also be misused. Here, author Emma Barry discusses gaslighting in romance.

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Brad Taylor: On Real-Life Threats Inspiring Thriller Novels

Author and veteran Brad Taylor discusses the research that led to his new thriller novel, The Devil’s Ransom.

How Roleplaying Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

How Role-Playing Helps Our Writing—and Our Marriage

As co-writing partners who fully embody the stories they tell in their writing process, authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka share how role-playing helps their writing, and their marriage.

How To Get Started in Copywriting

How To Get Started in Copywriting

From writing and reading to majoring outside of journalism, copywriter and author Robert W. Bly shares how to get started in copywriting.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 640

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a pursuit poem.

Writing Light When the World Is Heavy

Writing Light When the World Is Heavy

Author Audrey Burges makes a case for spending time with details when writing light when the world is heavy.

Winter Woes

Winter Woes

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, your character is not happy with the cold weather.

Richard Hurowitz: On Finding Heroism in History

Richard Hurowitz: On Finding Heroism in History

Author Richard Hurowitz discusses the process of writing his new history book, In the Garden of the Righteous.