We’ve been talking about macro-level stuff on this blog so far, but I’ve yet to dive into some of the craft of writing – the wordsmithing part that all writers should know. So I’m starting this series of posts on craft. I hope this will become a regular thing.
Today’s topic is dialogue. I assume most of you have learned how to punctuate in and around quotation marks. Perhaps you’ve even learned how to incorporate quotes into an academic paper. (If not, then there are plenty of resources online.) Dialogue, however, is more than just the quotation marks, which makes it a beast unique to creative writing. This post is going to focus more on construction and word choice rather than grammar.
A tag is the two-word phrase placed outside of the quotation marks which identifies who is talking. These are the he said, she said of the piece. The tag could be more than two words, especially when the speaker isn’t given a name. “The man said”, “the woman in red whispered”, “the Dwarven bartender yelled” are all longer examples. Regardless, all tags include a noun and a speech-related verb, such as the ones in the examples above.
Most tags follow the standard grammar rules and put the noun first. The tag itself can be placed before or after the character’s line.
Eileen shouted, “The beasts cannot be stopped! What good are hunters now?”
“The beasts cannot be stopped! What good are hunters now?” Eileen shouted.
You can also reverse this structure and put the verb before the noun. This only works if the tag comes after the character’s line, not before.
“The beasts cannot be stopped!” shouted Eileen.
All of these are functionally equal. The only differences are in the rhythm of the syllables, the shifting of emphasis on verb or noun, and how all of these factors effect the flow of the sentence. These are the nuances that are more a matter of taste and style rather than effective communication.
A dialogue tag can interrupt the line as well.
“The beasts cannot be stopped!” Eileen shouted. “What good are hunters now?”
Here, the tag comes in between two sentences. If you have a more complex sentence, you can insert the tag at a natural breaking point within it. In the example below, I’ve inserted the tag between the two halves of this compound sentence.
“That wasn’t necessary of you,” Eileen said, “but you have my thanks.”
I find this construction particularly useful for the start of speeches and monologues – any time a character is going to be saying a lot of stuff. It allows me to identify the speaker quickly before they take up the rest of the paragraph with their dialogue. However, interrupting tags can be jarring for the reader when there’s only one line of dialogue, like in these examples. The interruption can set the whole line off-kilter. This is something you need to develop an ear for, so it can only be mastered through practice and reading your work aloud.
The problem with dialogue tags is that they can get repetitive after a while. Thus, writers have come up with a number of ways to avoid using them. From a functional perspective, all of these methods take advantage of the reader’s natural inclination to associate things that are in close proximity to each other. In other words, if a single character is the focus of a paragraph, the reader will assume that all dialogue within that paragraph is also spoken by the character in focus. It sounds complicated, I know, but once I get into the examples, you should see what I mean.
There are two methods I want to identify in this post; these are the ones I use and see others use the most. First is narration which implies the act of speech.
Eileen’s voice echoed off the high ceiling of the cathedral. “The beasts cannot be stopped! What good are hunters now?”
The sentence before the dialogue talks about Eileen’s voice. Naturally, voice is a sound, and further, a sound must be produced in order for it to echo off anything. Both of these facts indicate that Eileen is saying something. The dialogue tells the reader what she is saying.
The second method is describing what the characters are doing as they are saying their lines. In acting, this is called “business.”
Eileen smiled wearily at her comrade. “Don’t you worry about me.”
Eileen’s business here is smiling. Since this action is in close proximity to the dialogue, the reader will assume that these two things happen (more or less) simultaneously. And because Eileen is identified as the one who is smiling, the reader will also assume she is the one talking.
A method I don’t see as often involves the preposition “with.”
Eileen threatened her adversary with “Your blood is mine.”
Just line in the examples in the previous section, this example takes advantage of proximity to connect Eileen with the dialogue. Yet there’s an additional implication at work here. Eileen isn’t merely speaking these words. The words themselves are (at least metaphorically) doing something. In this case, the words are the threat. They are how Eileen is threatening her adversary with bodily harm. This technique is one I would recommend using sparingly in order to remain effective. Use it too often and the reader will stop attributing additional weight to the words.
Dialogue is not just one person talking. Conversation is where dialogue shines. It is best to start a new paragraph every time you switch between speakers. Reasons why are that the paragraph break visually indicates this switch to the reader, and the paragraphs help contain each character’s line. Paragraphs become essential when there are no tags or narration to help the reader identify who says that.
“You don’t need to worry about him anymore.”
“Don’t you ever listen to your elders?”
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t…”
“No matter. You did save my life.”
The paragraph breaks create a back and forth rhythm. So while there are no tags nor narration, the reader can still identify two speakers in this passage. Further, they understand that the first and third paragraphs belong to speaker A, while the second and fourth paragraphs belong to speaker B.
There is one exception to the convention I just described. It is when two speakers’ lines are combined into a single, compound sentence. Then, grammatical rules regarding compound sentences win out. I have only seen one published writer do this, however.
“I can listen now,” he said, but she said, “Not now. Later. You are tired.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, A Man of the People
When I came upon this sentence the first time I read Le Guin’s novella, I was confused. It took me reading it a couple of times to finally figure out what Le Guin was doing and how this dialogue fit into the larger scene. Why did she decide to write it this way? I don’t know. I present this example to show that writers can and do break their own conventions. Personally, I would never do this, since I strive for clarity in all of my writing. I also wouldn’t encourage beginning writers to do this either. Get comfortable with the standard rules and established conventions first, so that, when you decide to break them, you will better understand what you are doing and why.
When to Identify Speakers
So when should you use tags (or narration) and when can you rely on paragraphing? Standard practice is to identify the speakers at the start of the conversation.
The young hunter emerged from the cathedral, wiping the blood off his blade. “You don’t need to worry about him anymore.”
“Don’t you ever listen to your elders?” Eileen asked.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t…”
“No matter. You did save my life.”
Here, the speakers of lines 1 and 2 are identified within the text, via narration and a tag respectively. Following the logic outlined in the “Paragraphing” section, the reader also understands that the young hunter says line 3 and Eileen says line 4.
Conversations aren’t always restricted to two people. When a third character enters, identify them at their first line. Then, re-identify the other two characters in places where the reader might get confused. Look at this example and I’ll show you what I mean.
The priest asked, “That old lady over there. Was it you who saved her?”
“I told her about this place, if that’s what you mean,” the hunter replied.
“Well, she’s not much for conversation and a bit sour if you ask me.”
“I have ears you know!” the old woman shouted from across the chapel.
“Still, it’s good to know she’s safe. What with the beasts and all.”
“Right. Glad I could help,” the hunter said.
The tag identifies the priest as the speaker for line 1, and the back and forth of paragraphs identifies him as the speaker for lines 3 and 5. A tag identifies the hunter as the speaker of line 2, but they are not the speaker for line 4. The tag there attributes that line to the old woman. Thus, a tag for the hunter is repeated in line 6. If that tag were removed, the reader could accidentally attribute line 6 to the old woman through the back and forth of paragraphs.
There may come a time when your story requires a scene that is essentially a long conversation between characters. If said conversation spans multiple pages, a rule of thumb that I follow is to include tags or speaker-identifying narration at least once per page. Twice per page is even better, if you can manage it. The tags and narration add variety to the prose (which has multiple benefits), but it also re-establishes the back and forth order you are depending on the reader to leverage. If you are writing a long story that is not intended to be read in a single session (such as a novel or novella), then this rule of thumb becomes especially advantageous. It allows the reader to put down the book in the middle of this conversation, and when they return, they don’t have to reread as much in order to figure out who is saying what.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. If you have suggestions for the next craft post, feel free to leave them in the comments below.