I was re-reading Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country the other day. I love the way he used an unconventional method to show dialogue. Other authors – like Nadine Gordimer or Frank McCourt – also break the rules when it comes to dialogue. But for most of us starting out, it’s better to use a tried-and-tested approach to laying out our dialogue.
Here are five ways that punctuation helps our dialogue and makes it easier for the reader to understand and enjoy.
1. To show an interruption—or break—in dialogue
Tyler tightened his grip on his pen. ‘I think you’re being unreasonable in wanting—’
‘In wanting what?’ Michelle demanded. ‘I just want you to show me respect—’
‘You’ll get respect when you earn it.’
In the above example the long dash, or Em Dash, shows how the two speakers are cutting each other off. It adds pace and energy to the dialogue.
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2. To show a trailing off …
Caitlin stared wistfully the foam of her cappuccino. ‘I just wish I could find someone who gets me …’
Donna didn’t know what to say to her friend. She simply stirred her latte.
Caitlin sighed. ‘Do you think I’ll ever find love …?’
In the above example, the ellipsis, or three dots, shows that Caitlin’s dialogue trails off. It slows down the pace and shows the spaces in dialogue.
3. To add some drama or to make a point
Dorothy stood with her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone of voice!’
In the above example, we use the exclamation point to show Dorothy’s raised voice and the emphasis she is putting into the sentence. A word of warning: Don’t use more than one exclamation point – it can look amateurish.
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4. Don’t stop!
Often dialogue is still a part of a sentence and by using a full stop, we break the flow of the dialogue. This is a mistake many new writers make when using dialogue attributions and tags. We need to know when to keep the dialogue together.
Incorrect X: ‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Said Paula.
Incorrect X: ‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ Said Paula.
Correct √ : ‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ said Paula.
In the correct example, the comma is breaking up the dialogue so that it reads naturally. Keep in mind, in the other two examples we could have broken the dialogue using the dialogue tags differently.
We could have said:
Paula yawned. ‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’
‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Paula lounged back on the deck chair.
In these examples, we’re separating the action from the dialogue – so we’re creating a different structure for the dialogue.
5. Close the door behind you!
Another thing to watch out for is this rule: If you open an inverted comma or speech mark, make sure you close it when your character is finished speaking.
Incorrect X: ‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days, said the therapist.
Correct √: ‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days,’ said the therapist.
Oops. If we don’t close the dialogue off with the appropriate mark, the reader will be confused and assume everything after the first mark is speech. So watch out for this in editing.
If you want to know more about dialogue, you will love:
- Let’s Talk Dialogue – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words
- Let’s Talk Dialogue – Do You Say It Out Loud Or Keep It To Yourself?
- Let’s Talk Dialogue – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue
- Let’s Talk Dialogue – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!
- Let’s Talk Dialogue – How Social Media Has Changed Dialogue
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