Someone on Quora asked ‘What are the most common dialogue mistakes writers make that ruin a story?‘, so I generously shared the wisdom of an unpublished wannabe author:
One mistake that I keep encountering among aspiring writers isn’t so much the content of what characters are saying, but how it’s written on the page. It’s a failure to understand the formatting of dialogue, particularly in terms of speech tags.
Single or Double Quotes?
In other words, ‘this’ as opposed to “this”.
There probably is a rule somewhere, written several centuries ago, but in the modern day, it varies from publisher to publisher. Personally, I prefer writing single quotes for dialogue, as it looks nicer on the page. However, since this article has both quoted text and examples of dialogue, I’m going to use double quotes for dialogue here.
The key thing to remember is that this is, in a way, a single sentence:
“Everything I say is rubbish. It’s absolutely awful, just like a Dan Brown novel,” said Max.
Sure, there are several sentences within the speech, but that’s irrelevant. As far as the formatting goes, it’s all one sentence. The entire content of the speech, even if it’s John Galt’s 100-page monologue from Atlas Shrugged, can be compressed down to:
“[whatever Max says],” said Max.
In other words, there’s never a full stop/period at the end of ‘[whatever Max says]’, as it’s the same sentence as the speech tag (‘said Max’). Instead, it’s a comma, as the sentence is continuing outside the speech tags.
Remember that basic foundation, and all the extra variations will fall into place.
Oh yes, and the ending punctuation belongs inside the speech marks, not outside.
Shouting and questions
Question marks and exclamations are the most obvious variation (although it’s a good idea to minimise the presence of exclamation marks/points, saving them for when they really, really matter). When there’s a speech tag present, use these instead of the comma, but pretend it’s a comma.
Don’t stress over this bit; your word processing package knows that it’s not really a new sentence when you put a ? or a ! at the end of speech. How can you tell? Because it doesn’t auto-capitalise the first letter of ‘said Max’ and the grammar checker won’t put a wiggly green line under it.
Also, don’t combine the two ‘?!’ except in the most extreme of circumstances. If you’re shouting a question, use a question mark. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” makes clear that it’s an exclamation. “Do you want fries with that?” is rarely shouted, except at the height of the lunchtime rush (okay, so bad example, but the reader will generally assume).
‘Max said’, or ‘said Max’?
As an aside, is it ‘said Max’ or ‘Max said’? Either works, although the unnamed equivalent ‘said he’ or ‘said she’ sound archaic, and so should be avoided, even when writing something set in the past. Of course, if a 15th Century character is saying, ‘said he’ in conversation, then that’s allowed.
‘He said’, ‘she said’
You don’t always need to use character names in speech tags. So long as it’s clear who is being referenced, use another pronoun in place of the name. Usually, this is ‘he’ or ‘she’, but others are available.
This doesn’t just apply to speech tags, but in general narrative as well, but ‘it’ is for a talking door knocker, artificial intelligence or an animal or supernatural creature whose sex or gender isn’t obvious. As a note, using ‘it’ tends to be extremely offensive when used about humans (it’s dehumanising, basically, and is hate speech when used for trans people), and can feel jarring when used about creatures that are virtually human. (I once wrote a novel where about half the character were angels, and used ‘it’ as their pronoun. Bad idea.)
‘They’ usually works as a gender neutral singular pronoun in English, even if its ‘correct’ form is to refer to a group of people. Apparently, Chaucer used ‘they’ for the singular, so there’s that as well.
If it still doesn’t feel right to use ‘they’, think of it this way: someone walks out of the desert, wrapped in mask, goggles and heavy robes, before sitting down at your protagonist’s campfire. The newcomer speaks with a voice muffled by their mask. Your protagonist has no idea if that person is male or female, and thus nor does your reader. You could assume masculinity and use ‘he’ to refer to this figure, but that says more about your protagonist’s prejudices (or, less charitably, yours) than it does about the character. You could use this to surprise the protagonist when the newcomer removes her mask, but that’s tough to pull off without it seeming a bit cliche. That said, it can be done; Brienne of Tarth removing her helmet for the first time in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire might have been a minor surprise for the reader, but the reveal that she was female was an outrageous breach of propriety for the majority of the witnesses at the tournament. (See Samus is a Girl for examples of this trope in action.)
As an alternative to using names or pronouns, in either speech tags or narrative, you can also describe the person in question. If you have Ned Stark arguing with Robert Baratheon, both parties are male so pronouns have the potential of getting confusing, while ‘Ned’ and ‘Robert’ will get annoying if overused. Instead, refer to Robert as ‘the king’ or similar. If it’s parent and child, use ‘her daughter’ or ‘his mother’.
Pronouns get easier in first person narrative, of course, as ‘I’ cannot be mistaken for any other character. The same applies to the second person ‘you’, although you rarely see that except in Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories or the novelisation of the Space Truckers film. (Although, if I recall, that shifted perspective between chapters, while still keeping a ‘story in a trucker bar’ feel to the narrative by using ‘you’. Quite bold, for a tie-in of a film scoring 5.2 on IMDB.)
Paragraphs and Speech
Every new speaker in a conversation starts a new paragraph. This is entirely non-negotiable. Every single time, without fail. Even if you break every other rule of writing (and writing often involves breaking the rules to achieve a desired effect), this is one that shouldn’t be disregarded. Well, okay, you can disregard it, but make sure you’ve got a damn good reason to confuse your reader and annoy your agent/publisher.
Said, said, said, said, said, said…
Firstly, ‘Said’ is, 90% of the time, invisible to the reader. Don’t worry if it seems to be there too much.
Don’t go through the thesaurus and have a conversation in which characters ‘interject’, ‘argue’, ‘exclaim’, ‘blurt’, ‘sigh’ or even ‘ejaculate’. Sure, sometimes a different speech tag (particularly ‘asked’) is more illustrative of how something is being said, but the reader doesn’t usually notice. As per breaking rules, one of Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero novels manages to do a conversation that lasts for several pages, consisting only of dialogue and a different and more absurd speech tag for every utterance. This was, of course, for comedy effect, ridiculing the thesaurus approach.
Helping with avoiding ‘said’ repetition, don’t overuse speech tags. Go without.
Speech tags are only needed when it’s not clear to the reader who is speaking. Ideally, strong characterisation and context should make that clear.
Max raised a hand.
Jordan paused. “Go on.”
“You mean I should just let my dialogue fly naked?”
“Something like that, though I would never phrase it that way myself.”
You should be able to tell who is speaking in that exchange. There was a slight cheat in that the first utterance was in a paragraph about what Jordan was doing (in this case, pausing), but it sets the context up so that the only other speaker is Max, and the only person able to reply is .
This is, of course, harder when there are more than two people involved in the conversation. If Jules was also in the scene, and added, “I often fly naked. I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me,” I’d likely name-check them and then make sure it was clear who was speaking later in the conversation before I decided to drop speech tags again.
Putting Speech Tags in the Middle of an Utterance
Jules’ comment above is pretty long. You could start it with a speech tag (see below for the rules on that), but I’m quite fond of breaking up long dialogue with speech tags instead.
“I often fly naked,” Jules said. “I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me.”
In that version, the speech tag ends the first sentence of the dialogue, and so adopts its full stop/period. The trick is to insert the speech tag early enough that it serves its purpose of telling the reader who is speaking and how – after the first phrase is usually the best spot.
Jordan’s comment earlier could have had a speech tag inserted as well:
“Something like that,” Jordan said, cautiously, “though I would never phrase it that way myself.”
In this example, the speech tag is interjected into the middle of a sentence of dialogue, so it has a comma at the end before the speech resumes.
Putting a Speech Tag at the Start of an Utterance
Going back to that weird grammar lesson example above, if Jules hadn’t paused to give context, but instead there was a speech tag, it gets complicated. There’s two schools of thought on this. The first is that ‘Jules said’ should be followed by a colon (one of these: : ) because the speech is what’s being presented by the speech tag.
Jules said: “Go on.”
The second is that the speech tag is just a part of the sentence and so it should be treated like any other speech tag:
Jules said, “Go on.”
One way or another is probably correct in some grammar book or other, but I’ve seen both used in professionally published works.
I’ve seen it argued that colons should be used for longer utterances, and commas for shorter ones, so the first example wouldn’t be favoured by that camp, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter.
Language changes, so this kind of oddity arises.
The Best Advice Anyone Will Ever Give to an Aspiring Author
Read a novel.
Not a self- or vanity-published one (no guarantee of quality control) and not a literary novel (more likely to break the rules for effect), but something published for the mass market by a reputable publishing house.
Take a look at how that author uses dialogue. The words said, the speech tags, the accompanying descriptions, the presence or lack of fillers like ‘uh’ or ‘well’. The best way to becoming a good writer, slightly ahead in my mind to actually writing stuff, is to read stuff.