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Storymill Publishing Dialogue

Dialogue Improvement

Development of dialogue may be the most important aspect of writing a novel, and editing one. Realistic dialogue immerses the reader in the scene, is memorable and believable, sounds different for each character, adds depth to the characters and advances the story line. Believable, free flowing conversation is one of the basic skills required of a fiction writer. The reader should fall into the story and ‘hear’ the characters conversing, as though they were in the room with him. Grammatical errors and a lack of clarity as to who is speaking to whom, breaks the reader’s concentration – killing the flow of dialogue.

In fiction writing it is desirable to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell.’ You want the reader to feel the emotions the character is feeling. Telling is no more than documenting emotions, while showing creates a picture in the reader’s mind. One of the best ways of doing this is with well written conversation.

Today’s writer and self publisher does not have the luxury of a big publishing house doing the editing and proofreading for him. Depending on which publishing package you select, we may be editing and proofreading, but the writer must understand that editing is a long and repetitive process. The writer has to submit the absolute cleanest prose possible.


Dialogue Format

You have to use the correct format for dialogue. You are portraying a conversation, each time you switch speakers, you make a new paragraph. Remember to indent for each new paragraph.


Dialogue Structure and Punctuation

A few pointers on structure and punctuation for writing dialog:

  • You identify the spoken word by enclosing it within quotation marks. Once the character’s speech is set apart, you may enjoy more freedom to write the character’s words and phrasing. Poor phrasing, unusual ordering of words, word omissions, slang, incomplete sentences, improper grammar, writing in the accent of the speaker, etcetera are all permissible, because you are portraying how your character would speak. Avoid "nonstandard" phonetic dialect. If the reader has to sound out the words, it will slow the pace, and the effect lasts for a while. Each character should come across as different and distinct from the others. Make them 'sound' different - to the point where who said what is clear, even if three is no tag attribution. A child speaking would naturally be very different from the grandmother’s speech pattern.

Dialogue Tags and Beats

You must identify the speaker very clearly for the reader. This is accomplished by the use of tags, (I said, he said, Susie said, Jack screamed, Artie asked, Joe commented, bemoaned Ralph) before, during or after the words are spoken. Another way of identifying the speaker is with beats - actions taken by the speaker before, during or after the words spoken.

The correct punctuation for a tag is different than that used for a beat.

Here are some examples:

Jason was driving too fast. This sentence would normally end in a period if it was not a part of written dialog.

“Jason was driving too fast.” She ran toward the intersection. A beat after the dialog always requires a period because the beat is to be considered a separate sentence which will always begin with a capitol letter.

“Jason was driving too fast,” yelled Bill. A tag after dialog changes the period to a comma.

“Jason was driving too fast,” yelled Bill, “I hope he makes that curve.” A tag in the middle of spoken words requires that the tag not be capitalized unless it begins with a proper noun or personal pronoun.

Bill called to his sister, “Jason was driving too fast.” Tag first, followed by comma with dialog ending in a period.

It is imperative that it is clear as to who is speaking. Do not leave the reader guessing or with the need to re-read the section. It is not necessarily to add a tag each time the character speaks. An example of an instance in which a tag or beat would not be necessary follows:

“Officer, I had no idea I was driving that fast!”
“Just hand over your license and registration please, Sir.”
“Of course, I have them right here, but…”
“License and registration, Sir, this isn’t up for debate.”

In general, begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. This helps the reader follow the dialog. On occasion, a character’s dialog will run from one paragraph to the next. In such a case, do not use a closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, and do use an opening quotation mark at the beginning of the following paragraph.

When dialog is located at the end of your sentence, use correct punctuation for the end of the quotation and drop the punctuation normally used to end the full sentence.

Did the cop actually say, “This isn’t up for debate.”

Note the absence of a question mark at the end of this sentence (which is actually a question). Always enclosed end punctuation with the quotation mark, even when it doesn’t feel right to do so. It is a hangover from years ago when the printing plates could easily break in places where lone periods were used after closing quotation marks.

When the dialog contains a quote from someone else, the inner quote is enclosed in single quotes:

“Mark told me, ‘You will never be able to write a book.’ just last year,” Jason laughed as he signed the next volume.

Although some writers revel in the descriptive tag, (he screamed, she said suspiciously), it is best to stick with the words ‘said’ and ‘asked’ as much as possible. They pass through the eye and into the brain of the native English speaker so seamlessly as to be hardly noticed at all.

These are the basic conventions the self publishing and self editing writer will need to follow. There are bound to be some rare exceptions, but this should get you off to a good start. Writing good dialog is a skill you can quickly improve by studying the work of others whom you admire. Once you begin to be more aware of what you are reading, your own work will automatically benefit.


Wonderful descriptions, original story lines and gripping action will not make up for stilted dialogue between characters.

For Realistic Dialogue:

Create scenes that mimic what readers see during real life conversations.
Study how your favorite author portrays physical actions of his characters while they converse.
Describe facial expressions.
Use contractions.
Use slang sparingly.
Build a specific style and sound for each character.
Be consistent, your character's way of speaking should not change.
Keep dialogue brief.
Use synonyms for common everyday words.
Use dialogue to reveal a character's personality.
Write witty dialogue.
Avoid talking heads.


Have all the characters speak in the same way.
Try to be funny.
Use exclamation points.
Use dialogue for info dump.
Use clichés.
Use adverbs in your dialogue tags.
Stuff your dialogue with exposition.