Ask the Editor Series, Q8
Q: What are the three most common issues writers have with dialogue?
A1: Writing it. Writing it. Aaannnddd . . . wait for it . . . Writing it.
A2: It’s complicated, but nobody knows why. I’m here to help you make it simpler.
For some odd reason, people who manage to talk comfortably to others on a daily basis are often stumped when they sit down to write believable dialogue. Either it doesn’t come out sounding natural, or a perfectly normal-sounding bit of conversation has its oomph diminished by bad punctuation or an odd dialogue tag.
First, let’s take a look at an example of bad lines:
- “I’m going to drive down the road to the grocery store. Shall I pick up food for you as well?” (TOO FORMAL)
- “I’m headed to the store. Need anything?” (MORE REALISTIC)
We don’t always speak in full sentences, and it’s rare that we tell people what they already know when we talk to them. If you’re going to the store, the other person knows or assumes you’ll drive there. They also know you need to drive on a road, so all that stuff isn’t needed. We tend to abbreviate when we speak more familiarly, as long as the other person can grasp what’s being said, so “Need anything?” is perfectly sufficient here.
Second, how about bad/unnecessary dialogue tags?
- “You are not allowed to go tonight, mister!” she shouted loudly and angrily. (REDUNDANT TAGS)
- “You are not allowed to go tonight, mister!” The vein in her forehead made its presence known as she spat out the words. (TAGS REPLACED BY A VISUAL)
If someone is shouting, you can bet it’s loud. Shouting, by its very nature, is loud, so to add “loudly” is telling the reader something they already know. Additionally, instead of telling us this person is angry, it can be shown by describing what the speaker looks like in that moment, as in the second example. Or the dialogue tag can be omitted entirely, since the sentence itself is pretty self-explanatory. The words spoken convey the intent, and the surrounding dialogue should support that.
Third, bad punctuation abounds in written dialogue, and for that, I’m going to blame software that provides “helpful” grammar suggestions. When that blue squiggly line appears under your words, proceed with caution. The most common mistake I see involve dialogue punctuation, like this:
- “Go upstairs and make your bed.” She said. (WRONG)
- “Go upstairs and make your bed,” she said. (CORRECT)
- “Are you telling me what to do?” He asked. (WRONG)
- “Are you telling me what to do?” He asked? (WRONG)
- “Are you telling me what to do?” he asked. (CORRECT)
Unless there’s a question mark or exclamation point, there should only be one terminal punctuation, and that’s after the dialogue tag. If the sentence is interrupted by an action or a dialogue tag in the middle, the rules are slightly different, like this:
- “Go upstairs,” she said, “and make your bed.” (CORRECT)
- “Go upstairs”—she watched him gather his blanket and pillow—.“and make your bed.” (CORRECT)
In the “wrong” examples above, there are two instances of terminal punctuation. You can’t have a period after what’s quoted and then another period after the dialogue tag, and you should never have a question mark or exclamation point after the tag. A comma is appropriate at the end of the actual dialogue, and then the tag should start with a lowercase letter (she said, not She said) and end with a period (full stop).
For more information, check out: How to Correctly Punctuate Dialogue for Novels
Happy writing! And feel free to submit your questions here so I can answer them in a future post.
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2 thoughts on “What Are the Three Most Common Issues Writers Have with Dialogue?”
“If the sentence is interrupted” I think is a key statement from you. Most of the mistakes in punctuation I think happen because they see dialogue and tags as seaparate sentences instead of seeing it as one.
As far as the tags, I think “ejaculated” remains as my #1 favorite wtf lol. At least it’s not a redundant “shouted loudly” type, it has its own character . . . or something to that effect 🤣.
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That’s a great point, about the separate sentences, and it makes perfect sense now why so many people get it confused.
As for “ejaculated,” I’m with you on the favorite wtf moments. Thank goodness for evolving language that stops people from using it as a regular thing today! One of my friends told me how confused she was when (as a young child) reading the Elsie Dinsmore books, she came across a scene where a young gentleman, a suitor, wanted to court Elsie. Her father said no, but he could come over to the house and have intercourse with her (meaning conversation). My friend was like, her dad doesn’t even let her sit on the floor! Why would he let her have intercourse?? lol
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