Dialogue Formatting and Tagging

Dialogue is one of the most vital parts of writing fiction. When dialogue is done correctly, it can draw upon the reader’s emotions and make them truly identify with the characters. When done incorrectly, it can be near impossible to understand. I have read many works of fiction from unpublished authors. I’ve read the writing of various people I’ve known and read writing online, including reading some works of fanfiction. I often would find works that sounded interesting, but were ruined for me by poorly constructed dialogue. I say “constructed” because often the dialogue would have been quite good, given that it actually had possessed the correct formatting. And so below I’ll have a list of the most common dialogue mistakes I’ve seen, and how to fix them.

Formatting Fails

One of the biggest issues people seem to have with dialogue is formatting. Here are some basic rules:

  1. Do not start dialogue in the middle of a paragraph.
  • When dialogue is started in the middle of a paragraph, it makes it very hard to read. It gets jumbled up in the middle of another thought and it makes it much harder to read and understand. For instance, if I was writing something about how much I disliked someone and suddenly started talking about cats in the same paragraph, with only quotation marks to show that the bit about cats was someone speaking, it’d be pretty confusing.
  1. Every time a new person speaks, it should be a new paragraph.
  • Whenever a new person speaks, it’s technically an entirely new topic. Separating the dialogue into different paragraphs helps make it obvious who is speaking.

Dialogue should look something like this, and not be heaped into a large paragraph with thoughts or even multiple lines of dialogue from multiple different speakers:

“Hey!” Sally said excitedly, “Are you still coming to the party tonight?”

Lucy grinned, “Sure am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“That’s great.” Sally smiled, “You don’t get out often enough.”

Lucy bit her lip nervously, not wanting to admit why she hadn’t been out as often as she normally was. “I… I’ve been busy.”

It shouldn’t look like this:

“Hey!” Sally said excitedly, “Are you still coming to the party tonight?” Lucy grinned, “Sure am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” “That’s great.” Sally smiled, “You don’t get out often enough.” Lucy bit her lip nervously, not wanting to admit why she hadn’t been out as often as she normally was. “I… I’ve been busy.”

Terrible Tagging

With dialogue, you have things called speech tags. Speech tags are the bit that tell you who is speaking and how they’re saying something. Sometimes they offer a bit more information than that. Below is an example of proper speech tagging:

“Hey!” Sally said excitedly, “Are you still coming to the party tonight?”

Lucy grinned, “Sure am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

I have seen this done improperly, where people would do something like this instead:

“Hey! Are you coming to the party tonight?” Lucy grinned.

Now, Lucy wasn’t the one who said that. Sally was. However, the paragraph where Sally spoke had Lucy’s reaction when it shouldn’t have. To a reader, something like that is extremely confusing and they’d assume that Lucy said the line, until a few lines down when the realized that the tagging was off. A mistake like that is a way to quickly lose readers, no matter how good the writing, because they don’t know what’s going on.

~Victoria

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