Making your characters speak: part 1

30 Aug

“An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff.”

– Adlai Stevenson

I’ve posted a lot about finding and creating characters. But they need to speak. There is an art to creating dialogue and some writers seem to have the gift for getting the dialogue rolling. Others need a little nudge and practice.

However, before we get into creating dialogue, I’m going to put on my editor’s hat and talk about setting up the dialogue. When I edit books, dialogue setup is one of the three top ways authors mess up. And no wonder. If you check out published books, the authors and editors seem to be all over the map with dialogue setup. I admit that some of the traditional rules have loosened up. But some still stand. So, here goes with the rules of thumb for setting up dialogue.

  1. Generally, you start a new paragraph with the dialogue and start a new paragraph when you go back into narrative. EXCEPTIONS: You can insert some action by the character speaking as they speak or as they finish speaking.
  2. The setup for dialogue is: “Dialogue,” Michael said. OR less common: Michael said, “Dialogue.” OR “Dialogue.” Michael smiled and stepped back. (In the latter Michael is doing something as he speaks, so it’s not necessary to put “Michael said.”
  3. Notice where the punctuation and quotation marks go. NO to “Dialogue”, he said. Instead, it is “Dialogue,” he said. And it is double quotation marks for Canadian and US style, with single quotation marks for British style. For US and Canadian style, if the speaker is quoting someone else, the quote uses single quotation marks as in “Shelly said, ‘Don’t you dare,’ which startled me,” Mark said. British style is reversed.
  4. Don’t be creative with speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he barked. Dogs, not people, bark. I’ve had my knuckles wrapped (figuratively) for being creative with my speaker attributes. Stick to the standard he/she said/replied/asked.
  5. Keep the …ly adverbs out of the speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he said sharply. Instead show the reader the speaker’s emotions in either what he says or what he is doing when speaking. We’ll cover this more in next’s week’s post.
  6. When you have two, even three speakers yakking for some time, you don’t need to have a broken record of he/she saids. Use each character’s name the first time he or she speaks and after that just use their dialogue. If the dialogue goes on for awhile, have your characters do something (and you can use their name here) to differentiate. For example, in my story “Saving Grace” from Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, fall 2012), when Detective Sergeant Fielding is speaking to Dana Bowman, it is obvious when he speaks, because he stutters. Again, we’ll get into these intricacies of dialogue next week.
  7. If one character speaks a lot at once, for example if recounting a story, don’t shove it all into one paragraph. You can divide it up into paragraphs. But the quotation marks setup changes – here you put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but no closing quotation marks until the character shuts up.
  8. Just for fun (and confusion) – when you are reading a book (e-book or print), see how the dialogue setup is handled. You’ll be surprised at the variation – some of which actually confuses the reader.

Or is that the editor in me speaking here?


Sharon A. Crawford


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