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Writing Tip: Don’t Be Afraid of Mixing Dialogue and Action

So I’ve been reading a lot of amateur writing lately, and I’ve noticed what seems to be a common problem: dialogue. 

Tell me if this looks familiar. You start writing a conversation, only to look down and realize it reads like: 

“I’m talking now,” he said. 

“Yes, I noticed,” she said. 

“I have nothing much to add to this conversation,” the third person said. 

And it grates on your ears. So much ‘said.’ It looks awful! It sounds repetitive. So, naturally, you try to shake it up a bit: 

“Is this any better?” He inquired. 

“I’m not sure,” she mused. 

“I definitely think so!” that other guy roared. 

This is not an improvement. This is worse. 

Now your dialogue is just as disjointed as it was before, but you have the added problem of a bunch of distracting dialogue verbs that can have an unintentionally comedic effect. 

So here’s how you avoid it: You mix up the dialogue with description. 

“Isn’t this better?” he asked, leaning forward in his seat. “Don’t you feel like we’re more grounded in reality?” 

She nodded, looking down at her freshly manicured nails. “I don’t feel like a talking head anymore.” 

“Right!” that annoying third guy added. “And now you can get some characterization crammed into the dialogue!” 

The rules of dialogue punctuation are as follows: 

  • Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph - when the speaker changes, you start a new paragraph. 
  • Within the speaker’s own paragraph, you can include action, interior thoughts, description, etc. 
  • You can interrupt dialogue in the middle to put in a “said” tag, and then write more dialogue from that same speaker. 
  • You can put the “said” tag at the beginning or end of the sentence. 
  • Once you’ve established which characters are talking, you don’t need a “said” tag every time they speak. 
  • ETA: use a comma instead of a period at the end of a sentence of dialogue, and keep the ‘said’ tag in lower caps. If you end on a ? or !, the ‘said’ tag is still in lower case. (thanks, commenters who pointed this out!) 

Some more examples: 

“If you’re writing an incomplete thought,” he said, “you put a comma, then the quote mark, then the dialogue tag.” 

“If the sentence ends, you put in a period.” She pointed at the previous sentence. “See? Complete sentences.” 

“You can also replace the dialogue tag with action.” Extra guy yawned. “When you do, you use a period instead of a comma.”

So what do you do with this newfound power? I’m glad you asked. 

  • You can provide description of the character and their surroundings in order to orient them in time and space while talking. 
  • You can reveal characterization through body language and other nonverbal cues that will add more dimension to your dialogue. 
  • You can add interior thoughts for your POV character between lines of dialogue - especially helpful when they’re not saying quite what they mean. 
  • You can control pacing. Lines of dialogue interrupted by descriptions convey a slower-paced conversation. Lines delivered with just a “said” tag, or with no dialogue tag at all, convey a more rapid-fire conversation. 

For example: 

“We’ve been talking about dialogue for a while,” he said, shifting in his seat as though uncomfortable with sitting still. 

“We sure have,” she agreed. She rose from her chair, stretching. “Shall we go, then?” 

“I think we should.” 

“Great. Let’s get out of here.” 

By controlling the pacing, you can establish mood and help guide your reader along to understanding what it is that you’re doing. 

I hope this helps you write better dialogue! If you have questions, don’t hesitate to drop me an ask :)

Moon Signs:

Aries: Understanding the world through the palms of your hands. Touching everything that is tangible. Internal temper-tantrums that make your blood run hot. Struggling to contain your emotions; being outraged one minute, and playful the next. A secret adrenaline junkie. Being addicted to doing things the hard way. Becoming passionate about new ideas too easily. Becoming passionate about new people too easily. Falling in love quickly and roughly. Looking through eyes that watch the world burn, manic and breathless. You are the infinitely relight-able fuse at the end of a firework, or a bomb.

Taurus: A slave to familiarity. Possessing a dragon hoard consisting of antiques, or the things in which you treasure most. Speaking before you think. The lavish romantic; lover of good times and calm surroundings. The pursuit of pleasure. Slow to forget, slower to forgive. Unfamiliar with compromise. The Aphrodite of love, and the Dionysus of luxury. A social butterfly, yet undoubtedly loyal. A distaste for messy emotional outbursts; being naturally self-contained. Guided by the firm, steady hand of desire. You are the lady and the lord, peaceable and regal and charming in all things. 

Gemini: Feeling with your mind, being frustrated with emotions you can’t logically understand. The uncontrollable urge to interact with others, needing intellectual stimulation in order to function. Studying a billion different subjects in one day. A lover of literature, or just simply the words of people. Distancing yourself from emotion, never really knowing how you ‘feel’ about an issue. Always the Devil’s advocate. Constantly trying new things; needing change to keep both of your personalities happy. You are the mental immigrant, comfortable only when you’re foreign.

Cancer: Omnipotent in regards to emotions. Fearing change, and hating superficiality. The unexpected jokester. Moods that change faster than the weather. The emotional hoarder; fears throwing away anything at all. Falling into their own pain like a well and drowning themselves in it. Adopting all types of people into your ‘family’. Their own worst enemy. Offense taken towards indifference. The passive-aggressive problem avoider who leaves a trail of crumbs for their partner. You are the sea witch, who has the depth of the entire world contained inside of her, threatening to spill out.

Leo: Praying to the stars to make you one of them. Wanting to burst from a lack of affection, or attention. Hands that flail dramatically while telling a story. Needing confirmation that somebody really does love you, and feeling terribly vulnerable because of it. Wanting to shout your love, and hatred, from the hilltops- like an actor in a bad movie. Smiles that make people believe in heaven. Being painfully defensive when someone hurts your pride. Acting kingly or queenly when a situation gets uncomfortable. You are the physical embodiment of the sun, come down from the sky to bring light to Earth.

Virgo: Secretly enjoying the little things that you’re appreciated for. The woman who hides behind the fan to avoid unwanted attention. Routines biggest cheerleader. The best counselor you will ever encounter. The fine eye that takes a sledgehammer to their own self-esteem. The original skeptic. Raised eyebrows at those who put their faith blindly. A face of apathy, and a mind of curiosity. Surrounding yourself with invisible barriers, hoping that somebody finds a way through them. You are the analyst, struck the hardest by your own discerning eye.

Libra: Inevitably becoming the mediator in all conversations. Deep-seated desires to mold your life into the perfect balance of both Yin and Yang. Debating an issue for so long that everybody around you groans. A refined, attractive aura that makes you seem doubly gracious. The war for peace. Falling in love so, so young. Always feeling fickle. Having to have the last word. Finding your own strength through other people. Feeling so intensely vulnerable because of your uncertainties. You are the gentle judge, who will not cede when staring into the eyes of unfairness.

Scorpio: Not accepting any gray areas in life, living in a world of black and white. Emotions so intense that your teeth chatter, even while your face remains stoic. Living a secret life as a private investigator. Feeling raw when you fall in love, because of how deeply it cuts you. Being horribly satisfied with your obsessions. Internally burning down everything you once knew in order to be reborn. A phoenix in your own right. Looking into the mirror in order to confront your own demons, seeing dirty words stamped onto your forehead. You are a white flag on fire, spitting in the face of surrender.

Sagittarius: Mr. Brightside and the lover of open space to roam. Feeling gagged by routine, like a dentist has her hands down your throat. Throwing yourself off of the cliff towards possibility; getting taken advantage of. That deep-seated desire to leave an impression on people, like goose pimples after a gust of cold air. Being a little too honest. Experiencing highs and lows that make you seem like you’re more than one person. Naturally enthused. Always searching for something. You are the mistress of experience, bold and wild and feeding off of the knowledge of the unexpected.

Capricorn: Seeming to be cool and steady, even when you feel like screaming. Possessing a deep, undeniable need for security- in all areas of life. Dreaming of building kingdoms with your bare hands. Being embarrassed, but pleased when somebody compliments you. Being too hard on yourself, and experiencing black moods because of it. Hiding your sensitivity behind biting, but nonetheless amusing sarcasm. Wanting to feel worthwhile in the world. Having a deep desire, and drive, to make something of yourself. You are the Titan Cronus, learning the lesson of the finiteness of mortality. 

Aquarius: Growing up and just feeling ‘different’. Loving all things messy, except emotions. Rejecting negative emotions because you hate feeling jealous, or fearful. Compassion through philosophy.  The starry-eyed professor, mad scientist, or general genius. Becoming so immersed into your own goals that you forget your reasons for said goals. Attracting all types in the eccentric crowds. Lovingly charming; struggling early on to find the medium between humor and offense. You are the electric shock of innovation upon society, bold and sharp and drastic as hell.

Pisces: The unrivaled mental space cadet. Intuition resembling psychic affinity. Caring for others so deeply, that their emotions make you feel like you’re underwater. Seeing pieces of yourself inside of everybody else. Being so excited for the future, you lose the present. Empathizing with everyone. Having secret worlds to retreat to, when reality is too awful. The natural performer. Being slightly jealous of mermaids/men. Loving everybody just a little bit. Having your heart broken more than once a day. You are the holy ghost, filled with divine love for all, and longing even more so.

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Kilchurn Castle by Olivia Notter
Via Flickr:
Loch Awe, Argyll & Bute, Scotland | November, 2015