Bob looked at Steve, who looked back at him.
“I think I want pizza,” he suggested.
“I do too,” he declaimed. “But what kind?” he queried.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever,” he announced. “I’m … flexible.” He winked slyly. “Me too.”
Who’s winking? Who asked for pizza? Why are people suggesting or declaiming or querying or announcing instead of just talking like normal human beings?
Balancing diction and tone and rhythm to generate a character’s authentic voice makes for tough work for any author. But perhaps even more important than a character’s voice is the structural framework into which that dialogue sits.
Writers too frequently overlook the mechanics of how they fit speech into the narrative. Think of dialogue as a precious gem and the underlying narrative as a ring. Speech attribution — both its words and its punctuation — serves as the prongs that keep everything held together. With weak prongs, you risk losing the gem; with weak attribution, you risk losing the dialogue.
Consider the following best-practice principles:
- In a single paragraph, only one speaker’s voice fits. Other speakers need separate grafs; asides — like a character’s inner dialogue about what a different character is saying — should be in separate grafs, too.
- Watch for appropriate pronoun references. Especially in scenes with just two speakers, both of whom are the same sex, over-reliance on pronouns can lead to a reader’s confusion. Use names as necessary, but not to excess, and avoid over-indulging in synecdoche in lieu of names so that your prose doesn’t transform into an unwieldy bouquet of floral, off-point references.
- The use of attribution tags like “she said” help the reader maintain order. They aren’t always required. As long as it’s unambiguously clear who’s speaking, an attribution tag may be skipped, especially in short alternating bursts of dialog.
- Never underestimate the power of said as a speech tag. It’s a word that blends into the background; it directs traffic without calling attention to itself. A sure sign of an inexperienced writer is the over-use of words like declaimed, announced, exclaimed, asserted, etc., etc., on the theory that said is too pedestrian to stand on its own. In general, it’s better to rely on said and to only occasionally rely on narration to color the mode of the character’s speech. In fact, it’s usually more helpful to leave the exact mode of delivery to the reader’s imagination; you need not over-prescribe the reader’s engagement with the scene.
- Introduce longer passages with a speech tag early in the discourse. Use a transition sentence to switch speakers, or just break the first independent clause or complete sentence to insert a speech tag. Don’t run through many lines of prose before identifying the speaker.
- Extended passages of dialogue can be broken by a paragraph. At the break, do not use closing quotes or any other narration. Start the new graf with a quotation mark without any prefatory narration.
- Inner speech, especially thought bubbles, generally renders without quotes, but in italics. Otherwise, treat it exactly like any form of spoken dialogue.
- Remember that most people rarely talk aloud to themselves.
- When a person is interrupted, the first speaker’s final word is punctuated by an em dash, then a closing quote, then a new graf begins with the interrupting speaker’s words. Any speech tags for the interrupting speaker should follow the first clause or sentence.
- When a person pauses or trails off, use commas and periods. If the pause or trail-off is really important, reference it with narration; do not rely on an ellipsis to make the point. In fact, the best writers don’t use ellipses at all. (Hint.)
Many stories profit from more careful attention to these guidelines, even though the structural norms for dialogue are often overlooked as an improvement opportunity.