Essential Dialogue Rules for Creative Writers

dialogue

I participate in several online writing groups as part of my desire to develop myself as both a writer and editor. The other day, a writer in one group said her editor told her it was okay not to start a new paragraph when introducing a new speaker. This was after she posted an excerpt of her writing and several readers pointed out to her that doing so would have made understanding who was speaking easier. I found myself having a face-meet-palm moment, asking myself, who does breaking dialogue rules benefit?

As an editor, I make it a point to maintain a writer’s personal style and voice, but I also think it’s important to remember that rules exist for a reason. If you’re going out of your way to break one, make sure to ask yourself why first.

Rather than fume about misguided but well-intended advice, I decided to write this post and share some dialogue basics. To back everything up, I included references to which section of the Chicago Manual of Style discusses these rules. The CMOS is the go-to style guide for professional book editors and most publishing houses.

Quotation marks enclose dialogue.

This one is easy, but it’s a fix I often find myself making while editing client work. Any punctuation included in dialogue should also be enclosed in quotation marks.

If your character is speaking for a long time, the CMOS has an interesting rule for that.

If your character speaks for several paragraphs, place one quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph and place a closing quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph (13.39). Well, at least I find it interesting, if only because the editor in me so badly wants to ignore everything about this rule.

The idea of letting a whole paragraph pass without a closing quotation mark concerns me. I for one have read passages like this and forgotten for a moment that I was reading dialogue at all. The lack of a closing quotation mark for each individual paragraph of dialogue means a reader is probably even more likely to forget this. But luckily, if they do, that final closing quotation mark will serve as a reminder.

Yes, you do need to start a new paragraph for each new speaker.

Why? Starting a new paragraph for each speaker makes things easier for your readers. Do each of your characters have their own unique voice? Do they sound different? Because if they don’t (and maybe even if they do), a reader might not understand which character is speaking. The last thing you want is to make reading your story work for your readers.

When it comes to inner dialogue, things get a little more tricky.

Direct questions don’t require quotation marks or italics (more on that in a moment). But you do capitalize direct questions, and unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence, they are offset with a comma.

Does this look right? she wondered.

She wondered, Does this look right?

An alternative to the comma might be a colon, if appropriate. The following example is from the CMOS (6.65).

The question occurred to her at once: What if I can’t do this?

The tricky part comes in when weighing the use of quotation marks and italics. As I mentioned earlier, neither are required. That doesn’t stop some writers from using them. Flip through published books, and you’ll find that many authors use them as well. It’s entirely plausible that they fought with their editors for the right to do this. At the end of the day, I suppose it’s a matter of personal choice and consistency. It may even be something you weigh for each book. If your writing is already littered with italics and quotation marks, it might be best to forego them in inner dialogue.

If you want to be a by-the-book editor or writer, the CMOS (6.42) suggests that using no italics or quotations is the way to go, as in the above examples.

That’s what she said.

Writers are in the habit of analyzing every word they use, making sure it packs the right punch. So it isn’t surprising that we cling to words like admonished, exclaimed, asked, replied, chided, etc. when the simple, tried-and-true, plain old “said” would do just fine to attribute dialogue to a character.

You’ll often find editors fall on one end of the spectrum or the other. They either promote the use of said and said alone or tell writers to get creative and use whatever verb their hearts desire. I think falling somewhere in the middle is probably best. For almost all purposes, said is preferred. I’ve heard some readers say that the overuse of varying dialogue tags is actually distracting. Readers can tell if a character is snickering or exclaiming something all on their own if you’ve immersed them in the scene well enough.

I’m curious what dialogue rules you find yourself sticking to or breaking. Are there any other dialogue essentials I should add to this list? You can let me know in a comment below.

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