Ask the Editor: How can I spice up my dialogue and make sure it’s properly formatted to boot?

This is a column by Kira McFadden

Kay Weetch asks: When I was in school, it was taught that when someone spoke, you always started a new line in the text. I know this isn’t done now, but why? When is it okay to do this and when isn’t it?

Kira answers:  This is something I encounter quite often in novels and short stories. The truth is, you always want to start a new line of text if the speaker changes. If the speaker remains the same, you don’t need to start a new line of text, and you shouldn’t unless another character’s action interrupts the speaker.

  • Example:

“I never thought I could do it,” Mark rasped, still kneeling beside the corpse.

Gabrielle shook her head. “But you did.”

To keep the speakers straight, starting a new line is key. Some authors use dialogue tags—“he said,” “she gasped,” etc.—to help differentiate, but if you have three characters or less (and even in some cases, more), dialogue tags aren’t necessary because the speaker is implied.

  • Example:

Mark rose from the ground, his kneecap gushing blood as he moved. He said, “How could anyone…?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t…I don’t want to, but I can’t stop thinking about what I’ve done. I’ve taken his life.”

“Just stop. Let’s get out of here before more of them come.”

Because the lines are split, we see the pattern of speaking characters. Defining who is talking is very important, whether it’s near the beginning, as in the above example, in the middle, or at the end. This keeps confusion to a minimum and allows your readers to track characters.

Another point of confusion is action during dialogue. Consider two characters interacting while they speak.

  • Example:

Janine slapped Nicholas, and a red mark appeared on his pale cheek. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she whispered. Nicholas snared her wrist when she tried to hit him again, and he pulled her in. Pale, blue eyes cut to her. “I’ll do whatever I want.”

I see this quite often. Note how confusing it is to tell who is speaking in the last set of quotes. Is it Nicholas or Janine? To clarify, start a new paragraph for each new character who is acting.

  • Example:

Janine slapped Nicholas, and a red mark appeared on his pale cheek. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she whispered.

Nicholas snared her wrist when she tried to hit him again, and he pulled her in. Pale, blue eyes cut to her. “I’ll do whatever I want.”

Just with the break, you can see how much clearer it is to tell who is talking. What if you have a character speaking at the beginning of a paragraph, but no response from another person?

  • Example:

“I’d rather you didn’t do that,” Edmund said. He holstered his blaster. A chuckle emitted from Gordon, who leaned against the brick wall. His dark eyes slipped from Edmund’s face to the window, and his lips jerked into a grim grin.

Here, the speaker acts, then another person interrupts the action of the first. While it’s not as confusing, it’s not correct, either. Make sure to split actions by each new character, so that the paragraphs flow and the reader can tell the difference between the characters and their actions.

  • Example:

“I’d rather you didn’t do that,” Edmund said. He holstered his blaster.

A chuckle emitted from Gordon, who leaned against the brick wall. His dark eyes slipped from Edmund’s face to the window, and his lips jerked into a grim grin.

Since dialogue was brought up, let’s examine saidisms. A saidism is a word that replaces “said” when a character speaks to help give more volume to what’s being said and how it is spoken. A few examples of saidisms are:  whispered, choked, cried, shouted, murmured, uttered, gasped, ordered, commanded, shrieked, stuttered, and spurted.

Writers should note that using saidisms is like adding spices to your finest dish. If you overdo it, then the reader will become annoyed and distracted by the speech tags. Rather, use them at your digression and in cases where it enhances dialogue. Most of the time, dialogue should speak for itself, and dialogue tags won’t be required unless many characters are talking, such as in a discussion, large group, or meeting of some sort. Also note that in certain cases, saidisms become redundant.

  • Example:

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.

In the above example, the character already uses her dialogue to apologize for something; there is no need to add “she apologized” as a tag. On the other hand, maybe she says it while begging for her life.

  • Example:

“I’m sorry,” she shrieked, tears rolling along her dusty, bloody cheeks.

Here, the words are given force by adding the dialogue tag, “she shrieked.” In this case, though, a writer may not even need to add it.

  • Example:

Tears rolled along her dusty, bloody cheeks. “I’m sorry!”

When put into context, the dialogue is so strong that is has no need for, “she shrieked,” “cried,” or “gasped.”

Note:  Make sure to mix up the structure of the dialogue when multiple characters are speaking. Rather than starting every new line with quotations, try having the dialogue tag or an action at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the sentence.

  • Example:

“She told me to do it!” Mark pointed at Gabrielle.

“I did not!”

“Did so!”

“Everyone, be quiet,” snapped Bren. He strode forth and smacked the butt of his staff into the dirt.

Above, note how boring and unappealing the multiple lines of quotations are. It’s the same when starting four or five paragraphs with “he,” “she,” or a character’s name. Instead, try:

Mark pointed at Gabrielle. “She told me to do it!”

“I did not!”

“Did so!”

Bren strode forth and smacked the butt of his staff into the dirt. “Everyone, be quiet!”

This breaks the block of quotes and diversifies the pattern of speech. In addition, when a writer has a long segment of dialogue, make sure the characters are doing something—either scrubbing dishes, walking, jumping, running, cleaning off horses, or repairing machines—because action helps dialogue pop from the page.

  • Example:

“I never said we should go to the city,” murmured Alex as he leaned against the rough bark of a tree.

Sarah shook her head. “I didn’t want to, but what choice do we have?”

“What choice? We could have stayed home, with our families and friends.”

“Adventure beckoned.”

“No, insanity beckoned. You brought me out here to die, not to survive, not to have an adventure.”

Sarah rolled one shoulder. “Oh? And who came with me, then? It wasn’t you, was it? Oh, wait! It was you. You said you’d come. No, not to the city, but out here. You left your town to come with me, out to this place. I didn’t force you. Not once.”

“Sure,” he grunted. “Whatever you say.”

“Look at me and tell me you didn’t want to come.”

Alex never met her eyes. Instead, he said, “It’s late. Better get some rest.”

Maybe the dialogue sounds interesting, but it feels flat. The characters do very little. People are animated. We rarely remain still, even when sitting. We use gestures and facial expressions to engage one another. Other than a few motions, such as Alex leaning against the tree and Sarah rolling her shoulder, there’s very little to give the situation a sense of reality.

  • Try:

“I never said we should go to the city,” murmured Alex as he leaned against the rough bark of a tree. With a rasp of metal against leather, he unsheathed his blade.

Sarah shook her head. “I didn’t want to, but what choice do we have?” She squatted beside him and combed her fingers through the mulch. Pine, ginger, and sage wafted from the ground, mixing with the scent of a recent rainstorm.

“What choice? We could have stayed home, with our families and friends.” Shink. Shink. Shink. The whetstone scraped along the edge of the blade in time with his words.

“Adventure beckoned.”

Shink. “No, insanity beckoned. You brought me out here to die, not to survive, not to have an adventure.” Shink.

Sarah rolled one shoulder and dropped the dirt from her fingers. Mud coated her nails and hands. “Oh? And who came with me, then? It wasn’t you, was it? Oh, wait! It was you. You said you’d come. No, not to the city, but out here. You left your town to come with me, out to this place. I didn’t force you. Not once.” When she wiped her forehead, a trail of soil clung to her sweaty skin.

Shink, shink, shink.

“Sure,” he grunted. “Whatever you say.”

“Look at me and tell me you didn’t want to come.”

Shink. The noise stopped as he lowered the whetstone and eased his grip on the worn, leather hilt. Alex never met her eyes. Instead, while easing the blade into its scabbard, he said, “It’s late. Better get some rest.”

He rolled away from her and pulled his fur cloak over his head. She would never understand, he realized. Sarah was of the wild.

It sounds fuller, has more life, and the dialogue has real meaning because the characters’ actions reinforce their words.

Correctly formatted dialogue, when given just the right amount of saidisms and action, will jump from the page. Words are the form writers choose to express their stories, so characters need to reflect the author’s diction and sense of depth. Use your arsenal of knowledge and your observation of human behavior to bring even the most mundane conversation to life.

 

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 


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