Writing Perils: How to Properly Format Your Dialogue Scenes

 

by Liam Cross

 

A big part of our game is studying the game.

We assess all aspects of social media, analysing the content other pages/people are putting out. We take notes. We look for any gaps/holes. And if they appear, we fill them with wonderful content.

That’s how the title for this article came about.

There’s so much information out there for writers, but in our opinion, not enough of it covers the basics. And when we say basics, we mean basics. You may have read that title and thought to yourself, Seriously? So if that’s you, this article probably isn’t of much use.

However, if you happen to be one of the (many) writers who still aren’t sure about proper speech formatting (as in, formatting that is publication ready), then stick around – we’re about to change that.

 

* * *

 

LET’S START AT THE START

Because, well, that just makes sense.

The use of the basic he/she said is imperative in fiction. Stephen King said it best:

“While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said she said’ is divine.”

So, now that we’ve established its importance (Stephen King said so…) it’s time to look at the proper way to use this combination of beautiful words in your writing. Despite their wonderful simplicity and brilliance, they are often misused. And that’s fine. How are you expected to understand the formatting of them if you’re never told about it?

That’s where we come in.

The proper way to write he/she said, is by ending the speech with a comma (or another form of punctuation – more on that below) and beginning the word he/she with a lowercase letter.

 

Example:

“But… but it can’t end like this.” He said. – That’s incorrect.

“But… but it can’t end like this,” he said. – That’s more like it.

Take note of the difference. In the correct version, we end the speech with a comma, not a period, and we begin the dialogue tag with a lowercase letter, not a capital. Why? Well because the tag and the speech are all part of the same sentence – that’s just how they’re written.

 

* * *

 

BUT WHAT IF I’M USING MY CHARACTER’S NAME?

We thought you’d never ask.

And well, we’re glad you did, because the answer is very simple. That’s because the exact same rule applies, only, you apply it a little differently. You still end the speech with a comma, only, when you writer ‘*character’s name* said’, you use their name as you normally would: starting with an uppercase letter.

 

Example:

“But… but it can’t end like this,” dawn said. – Incorrect.

“But… but it can’t end like this,” Dawn said. – Correct.

 

* * *

 

ENDING THE SPEECH WITH DIFFERENT PUNCTUATION

Now this is where things start getting tricky.

When you end your speech with a different type of punctuation (a question/exclamation mark or maybe ellipsis) you maintain the rule of the lowercase letter – with he/she said, of course.

When using a character name, the same rule applies. You write their name with its usual uppercase letter at the start. Are you with us? It’s not that tough to follow right now, right? Take a look and see for yourself. It’s pretty simple.

 

Examples:

“But… but it can’t end like this!” She said. – Incorrect.

“But… but it can’t end like this!” she said. – Correct.

“But… how can it end like this?” He said. – Incorrect.

“But… how can it end like this?” he said. – Correct.

“But… how can it end like this?” jason said. – Incorrect.

“But… how can it end like this?” Jason said. – Correct.

You get the picture by now. So basically, if you end the speech with any punctuation other than one specific type, you always start the tag with a lowercase letter (unless you’re using a name).

 

* * *

 

THE OUTLIER

The only time you don’t use a lowercase letter (or he/she said at all, for that matter) is when ending your speech with a period. This is because a period marks the end of the sentence, meaning you can’t include your dialogue tag as part of it.

But wait, question/exclamation marks end sentences too, right?

Right. However, when it comes to speech, there’s a considerable difference.

Question/exclamation marks do end sentences, but when used in speech they’re there to let the reader know how the character says something. And therefore, under the (strange) laws of fiction, can be considered as part of the sentence, thus allowing the rule to stay the same.

With the period, however, its usage doesn’t add anything to the speech. It doesn’t add an imaginary tone for the reader to perceive, and it doesn’t spice things up. It just signifies its end, and therefore, never has he/she said after it. Ever.

 

* * *

 

HOW TO USE THE PERIOD

So, the period is best used with different types of dialogue tags, and in a lot of cases, with no dialogue tags at all. It’s so versatile that we recommend using it way more than you probably do.

A great time to use it is when two characters have been talking for quite some time, with no inclusion of anyone else. This means that the reader won’t get confused by who is talking – that’s always good for you. Why? Because now you can really spice up that dramatic response by leaving the reader with only that.

 

Example:

“It’s time, Dawn. I’ve got to go,” Jason said.

“Go? Go where?” she said. “We’ve got so much time left together. So many things we’re yet to share. And now you’re just going to throw all that away?”

“My plane leaves in two hours.”

Do you see how harsh and effective that is? That effect wouldn’t be as severe if you included a dialogue tag, and that’s where periods are usually best used. In the same sort of way, they can be used in speech that have character actions as dialogue tags. In this sort of usage, the period plays a huge role.

 

Example:

Jason shrugged. “My plane leaves in two hours.”

That works just as well. It shows his nonchalance and lack of concern, and because that is juxtaposed so well with her longer, heartbroken speech, the reader will really feel this hit them right as it’s hitting her. That’s what’s important. That’s what makes periods in speech great.

 

* * *

 

WE HOPE THIS HELPED

If you’ve learned something new today – even if it’s just one minor thing – then our mission is complete. All we want is for our content to deliver value. That’s it. We don’t care how many views it gets. If one person learned something new today, then we’ve won.

If you have any further questions about speech formatting off the back of this, please feel free to shoot us an email. We’d love to help out however we can.

Get those heads down and those fingers on the keys. It’s time to write.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Liam Cross. Liam has loved writing ever since he can recall. Even as a small child in primary school, the craft of writing had always been an interest of his, and he now delegates his time to novel-writing – and of course, the occasional short-story or poem here and there. His ultimate goal is to be a published author, but he can also be found training in the local gym for upcoming bodybuilding shows.

 

6 thoughts on “Writing Perils: How to Properly Format Your Dialogue Scenes

  1. I’ll be sharing this one. As an editor, I see these rules broken far more often than I should! I’m constantly explaining how dialogue punctuation works. Now, I’ll simply point people at this perfect, simple, easy to understand article. “Bless ya,” she said.

    Like

  2. The problem with dialogue is what does it convey; does it advance the story or the characters? Use of a character’s name? Use the name to keep straight which player is speaking. Otherwise, the reader should be able to tell who is speaking by what is said. Do not use extra words. As in screenwriting, do not use everyday speech or terms. Dialogue must sound like everyday speech, but it isn’t. Every excellent movie from the Thirties and Forties provides examples, Casablanca being one of the best.

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  3. ‘”Go? Go where?” she said.”
    I noticed you used the dialogue tag, said, instead of ask. Is this acceptable to the style books? If so, that’s fine. I’m just a little surprised.

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    1. Jumping in here – I’m currently editing the debut novel of a sixteen-year-old girl. She didn’t know the rules of dialogue, so I’m doing a mighty cleanup, and we’ll be discussing this issue. She’s also been pointed to this article already. 🙂 I’m changing question tags to ‘asked’, myself. It’s jarring for me to see them left as ‘asked’ when I’m reading, so I do change them.

      Like

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