High School Writing Tip Sheets - Writing Dialogue

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High School Writing Tip Sheets - Writing Dialogue - A brief tutorial on how to punctuate dialogue correctly and use it wisely in a story.

For the past few years I have been teaching high school writing in our homeschool tutorial co-op. Having seen several groups of students through the courses, I've noticed some issues and questions coming up regularly. I hope these Tip Sheets will be helpful to my students, their parents, and perhaps to other students and parent/teachers as well.

A good story usually needs dialogue of some kind, but writing good dialogue presents some challenges for students. Just figuring out the mechanics and punctuation of dialogue is mystifying and confusing for most students! And then getting it to sound natural and be useful within the story on top of that - well, that's another big challenge! 

First, let's tackle the punctuation and structure. Although there are alternatives to standard punctuation and speaker tags, students should know how to write in the conventional style. I told my students that they could structure dialogue in creative ways, but it should be purposefully done, not done because they didn't know how to do it the correct way. 

New Speaker = New Paragraph

When a new character starts speaking, they get their own paragraph. This also includes a narrative action or indirect dialogue that takes the place of quoted dialogue. So if Character One says something and Character Two responds with a gesture (narrative action) instead of words, that response is a new paragraph. Or if you write that "Character Two told him she would follow the rules" - that's indirect dialogue and a new paragraph. If  the dialogue begins at the end or in the middle of a paragraph, don't separate the speaker tag from the words spoken. There are exceptions, because rules generally have exceptions, but that's a simple guideline to work from. Here's an example:

Punctuation for Dialogue

The part of a sentence that tells you who said something is called a speaker tag (or an attribution, in non-fiction writing). The actual words a character says go inside quotation marks, and so do the end marks to the sentences the character says. When the speaker tag follows a sentence of dialogue that would otherwise end with a period, use a comma instead. 

Speaker tags can come before the quoted dialogue, or can interrupt a sentence of quoted dialogue. If the speaker tag comes first, use a comma after the tag. If the quote is interrupted by the tag, use a comma in the quoted dialogue, even if you would not use one otherwise. When putting a speaker tag in the middle of a quoted sentence, try to place it where there would be a natural pause in speaking.

In dialogue, make sure that your attributives do not awkwardly interrupt a spoken sentence. Place them where the breath would come naturally in speech - that is, where the speaker would pause for emphasis, or take a breath. The best test for locating an attributive is to speak the sentence aloud. ~E.B. White
Once you establish which characters are participating in the dialogue, you do not need to use a speaker tag in every line. Leaving out speaker tags during a quick back-and-forth exchange between characters moves the pace along, which is helpful if it's an argument or a scene with urgency or tension. This generally works when only two characters are speaking. Don't go too many lines without inserting a tag or readers may feel they are losing track of who is speaking.

Visit Writing With Sharon Watson for a tutorial and printable worksheet for punctuation in dialogue. The Author Learning Center shares 8 Essential Rules for Punctuating Dialogue. And here's an article from Grammarly on Quotation Marks and Dialogue.

Use Dialogue to Move the Story

Dialogue must serve a purpose in the context of the story. It should either move the story forward somehow, or it should reveal something about the characters to the reader. Readers should be able to discern character's traits, feelings, and reactions through what they say and how they say it. It's best to let the words the characters speak indicate what they are feeling rather than put it into the verbs or adverbs in the speaker tags. There are definitely situations in which you'll want to specify that a character whispered or nagged or shrieked instead of just said something, but those should be the exception. 
Don't go overboard in avoiding "said." Basically, "said" is the default for dialogue, and a good thing, too; it's an invisible word that doesn't draw attention to itself. ~Diana Gabaldon
Similarly, specifying that the character said something "worriedly" or "jokingly" is less effective than having the character's words or narrative actions indicate their manner. Narrative actions are the actions characters do while speaking or instead of speaking and they are strong indicators of mood and emotion. A character that is slamming cupboard doors and drawers while saying, "I guess we'll have leftovers tonight," is in a different frame of mind than the one saying the same words while collapsing into a chair weeping. The reactions expressed dialogue should make sense for the situation and the character. 

Characters should speak in character. In other words, an energetic preschooler will have a different vocabulary and voice than a distinguished elderly professor. Generally, the dialogue should flow naturally. It should sound like something that kind of person would actually say, and the kind of conversation that might actually take place. For example, in the real world, we seldom address a person by name every time we talk to them. We save the use of their name for when we need to single them out or get their attention somehow. So it may not ring true if the John and Mary in your story have a private conversation in which they keep saying each other's names.

Keep in mind that the natural dialogue in a story is not like a transcript of every word spoken in real life though. Only record the dialogue that advances the story in some way. When a detective character walks into a crowded party looking for information, he'll likely speak with many of the characters, but only the dialogue with the one character that provides a useful clue would be recorded in the story. Small talk is seldom part of a story's dialogue, but only those conversations that add to the conflict or build tension. If you include snippets of small talk or seemingly unrelated dialogue, the reader will expect that something in that exchange is important to the story. If it's not, don't include that dialogue! Characters may not have the luxury of lots of time to think about their response and what to say, but as the author, you do! Choose their words carefully!
Dialogue is the illusion of real conversation. Writers streamline their dialogue and make it do something in the story: reveal character, move the plot, and show argument, tension, and deceit. ~Sharon Watson
To create tension, dialogue needs to be stretched out. That is, characters should not be immediately responsive. ~Sol Stein
For more about creating characters in fiction, see: High School Writing Tip Sheets - Creating Characters in Fiction.

Some of this article is based on information in the wonderful textbook Writing Fiction [In High School] from Writing with Sharon Watson. This textbook is the one I've taught from in the co-op for several years, and I highly recommend it.

A previous version of this article was published on Homeschool Coffee Break in December 2021.

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