Mastering the ability to craft strong, readable dialogue takes both time and practice. It is also the key to creating an engrossing fiction manuscript, helping the story move along while lending realism, presenting background information, and smoothing transitions.
The best dialogue increases the tension of the story, advances the plot, and sounds realistic. To that end, Dog Ear Publishing believes that authors should write the way they speak, carefully constructing conversations that reveal how characters interact with one another while avoiding irrelevant text or rehashing events previously explained in the narrative.
To offer clues about a character’s mindset, an author can also show what is going on inside that character’s head: feelings, ideas, and reactions to situations and events. Internal dialogue builds a fuller, more complete character profile and offers readers the chance to connect through a shared history and/or motivation.
Readers are looking for that “me, too!” moment, and internal dialogue can help make it happen.
When it comes formatting dialogue, our editors follow a very simple style guideline: Dialogue is surrounded by quotation marks, and thoughts are in italics.
This means that anything spoken out loud by a character is considered dialogue and should be enclosed in quotes, along with accompanying punctuation. A change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph. Here are some examples:
- “I’m a little tired,” he said.
- The boy wrinkled his nose. “That smells funny.”
- “On the other hand,” he said with a grin, “I’m always up for a challenge.”
- “Watch out!” they shouted in unison.
- “Get moving already,” she mumbled.
- She asked, “Did you hear the plaintiff say, ‘Leave me alone?’ ”
- “Uh, I think so?” the defendant replied. “Maybe?”
- “But you didn’t listen, did you?”
- He glanced nervously at the jury. “I … I don’t remember. It all happened so fast.”
Internal dialogue takes place inside a character’s head and should be formatted in italics:
- I feel awful, she thought.
- There he goes again, the man brooded, blustering like a buffoon.
- I hate it, she thought, when he says, “Never mind.”
- Enough! he resolved. I won’t take anymore! “Put it down!” Was that his voice? It sounded surprisingly strong.
Note that unless the story includes telepathy or prayer, there is never a need to include “to herself,” “to myself,” or “to himself.” If a character is thinking, it goes without saying.
The next time you’re sitting at a coffee shop or standing in line at a store, pay attention to the conversations going on around you. What do you hear? What do you not hear? What tells you a speaker is being authentic? What are the telltale signs of a lie? What keeps you interested? What turns you off?
Become a student of human expression, then take what you learn and put it to work in your fiction writing. Above all, practice, practice, practice! As Jaime Buckley writes in Prelude to a Hero, “There comes a moment in every life when the Universe presents you with an opportunity to rise to your potential. An open door that only requires the heart to walk through, seize it and hang on.”
WRITTEN BY STEPHANIE STRINGHAM, MANAGING EDITOR, AND ANGELA WADE, EDITOR