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.
“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 :)