Dialogue Mechanics – Part One: The Speaker’s Paragraph

DialogueDialogue is an important part of great novels. Why? Because dialogue injects a feeling of reality. The fact is, most people talk. Some people talk a lot. So in order to make our stories realistic and natural, we need to show people talking.

Yet, dialogue sequences that are badly structured or poorly conceived can be confusing or even make your story unrealistic to the point of absurdity.

In order to help make sure your story dialogue sparkles, the next few tip posts will cover dialogue mechanics.

First, let’s look at how to structure a series of dialogue paragraphs.

#1. Every time the speaker changes, break to a new paragraph. I’m sure the vast majority of you already know this, but I receive a surprising number of stories that have multiple people speaking in the same paragraph.

#2.  When a particular character’s actions and dialogue occur one after the other, if at all possible, keep the action and dialogue in the same paragraph. In dialogue, I like to think of paragraphs as belonging to the speaking character. The paragraph in which a character speaks will also contain that character’s actions when the spoken words and action occur in sequence.

For example:

I gave him a casual nod. “What’s up, Mex?”

“Glad you recognized me.” His usual hint of a southern accent gave away his Texas roots, and his voice jittered as he glanced from side to side. “Listen, Phoenix. I’m in trouble. I need one more soul to meet quota. Just one. Age doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.” I stretched out the word. “Just go to the executions and pick one up.”

“It’s not that easy.” He took a step closer. “I’m on the probation list. Suspicion of trafficking souls.”

“Just suspicion, huh?”

“Of course.” He glanced both ways again but said nothing more.

Notice that each paragraph includes a character’s words and actions. The first paragraph belongs to the “I” character (Phoenix from Reapers). He nods and then speaks. The second paragraph belongs to the responding character (Mex). He speaks, glances from side to side, and speaks again. The third paragraph belongs to Phoenix again. He speaks, stretches out the word, and speaks again. And so on.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes the actions of others might be interspersed within a character’s paragraph. This is merely a guideline to help writers remember a structure that is easy for readers to follow.

#3.  If you begin a paragraph with dialogue and want to use a speaker tag to indicate who is speaking (like “he said”), insert the tag at the first natural break in speech.

For example, the following paragraph has the speaker tag near the end:

“Without a doubt, you are the most gifted candidate to apply in all the years I have been a part of this organization. You have passion, a proven record, and perseverance. If you are accepted, and if you decide to join us, you will certainly go far. Nothing can stop you,” Jim said.

In this excerpt, if there are several people in the room, a reader might think a character other than Jim was making this speech. Then “Jim said” corrects the reader far too late, which jerks a reader out of the story. In order to keep the reader in the loop, it is better to put “Jim said” near the beginning, like so:

“Without a doubt,” Jim said, “you are the most gifted candidate to apply in all the years I have been a part of this organization. You have passion, a proven record, and perseverance. If you are accepted, and if you decide to join us, you will certainly go far. Nothing can stop you.”

(Much more on speaker tags in an upcoming tip.)

#4.  Sometimes a character speaks a long time, adds various actions, and continues speaking, all without significant interruption. If you put all of these into one paragraph, the paragraph can become bloated and overly long. Find a way to break up the paragraph.

For example, here is a bloated paragraph in which Noah speaks, acts, speaks, acts, etc, without interruption:

“Not just your loved ones, Makaidos. The entire world would do it, because character and integrity are not as important to them as acceptance from the masses or as comforting as the false security they receive from not examining their lives.” Noah leaned back and sighed. “I know this all too well. My sons and I worked like slaves on a boat for a hundred years while people laughed at us and mocked us. Just as I prophesied concerning you, I was obsessed with obeying a heavenly voice that no one else heard. I saved the future of the planet, but in the process I lost one of my sons. I do not regret the years of coercing my sons to build that monstrosity of a boat. Though even their eyes at times seemed to question my sanity, I have been completely vindicated.” He shook his head again, and a tear coursed down his weathered cheek. “But being proven right does not lessen the pain of my loss, for it seems that, in spite of all my efforts, my ark did not keep my own son from drowning. Of course a father cannot be held responsible for the sins of his son. But am I completely innocent just because he has free will? Seeds of rebellion cannot grow unnoticed, and I ignored them.” He ran his wrinkled hands through his wispy hair, tears again filling his eyes. “Did zeal for God blind me to the rebellion of my own son? Should I have rebuked him every time he rolled his eyes, every time he grumbled when a parade of people passed by mocking us, calling us fools for wasting our lives on building an ark?” He reached for Makaidos’s neck and stroked it lovingly. “Emzara died in sorrow believing Ham was lost forever. Will I go down to Sheol with the same misery haunting me? Is there any hope that a son might turn his heart back to God when he has rejected a salvation he has seen with his own eyes?”

For the book Eye of the Oracle, I broke it up by allowing Makaidos to interject:

“Not just your loved ones, Makaidos. The entire world would do it, because character and integrity are not as important to them as acceptance from the masses or as comforting as the false security they receive from not examining their lives.” Noah leaned back and sighed. “I know this all too well. My sons and I worked like slaves on a boat for a hundred years while people laughed at us and mocked us. Just as I prophesied concerning you, I was obsessed with obeying a heavenly voice that no one else heard. I saved the future of the planet, but in the process I lost one of my sons. I do not regret the years of coercing my sons to build that monstrosity of a boat. Though even their eyes at times seemed to question my sanity, I have been completely vindicated.” He shook his head again, and a tear coursed down his weathered cheek. “But being proven right does not lessen the pain of my loss, for it seems that, in spite of all my efforts, my ark did not keep my own son from drowning.”

Makaidos guided a wing tip over Noah’s shoulder. “A father cannot be held responsible for the sins of his son. I have heard you say this yourself.”

“Responsible?” Noah shook his head. “No. … But am I completely innocent just because he has free will? Seeds of rebellion cannot grow unnoticed, and I ignored them.” He ran his wrinkled hands through his wispy hair, tears again filling his eyes. “Did zeal for God blind me to the rebellion of my own son? Should I have rebuked him every time he rolled his eyes, every time he grumbled when a parade of people passed by mocking us, calling us fools for wasting our lives on building an ark?” He reached for Makaidos’s neck and stroked it lovingly. “Emzara died in sorrow believing Ham was lost forever. Will I go down to Sheol with the same misery haunting me? Is there any hope that a son might turn his heart back to God when he has rejected a salvation he has seen with his own eyes?”

This is the published version, but now I would probably break it up further. Shorter paragraphs are easier to digest.

In my next tip, I will discuss speaker tags and dialogue beats.

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20 replies

  1. Great refresher on the mechanics of dialogue. 🙂 I’m sure many will find this helpful.

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  2. Thank you! I love your writing tips 🙂

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  3. Mr. Davis, is there ever a time you should split up a characters action and the following quotation. Especially if there are several sentences devoted to that action? Thanks for your tips!

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    • Yes, you can if the action warrants it.

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    • Feel free to post an example that you’re wondering about.

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      • A little bit after supper, Ben pealed himself away from the fire and looked for his friends. They were by themselves around the last campfire. Ben strolled over and took a seat next to John. He whispered.
        “How is everything going for you two?”

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        • My first question is who is whispering?

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        • Yeah, Mr. Davis is right; the “he whispered” has to stay with the dialogue, although you could probably get away with making the paragraph break at “he whispered” and making it and the dialogue one paragraph. Typically, though I’d only suggest doing that if you’ve got more than the two sentences preceding going on.

          For example (I am not suggesting you add this, I am just making something up to show what I mean using your example):

          “A little bit after supper, dishes cleared and siblings shooed away to bed, Ben peeled himself away from his fire [which, you probably do need the pronoun change, to specify that there’s more than one campfire, just fyi]. His friends would be somewhere among the clusters of people huddled around scattered orange-red flames with smoke rising to the sky. A few sang; a few argued. Somewhere he heard a harmonica and the drawling voice of a watchman singing. At last, though, he found his buddies, alone by the very last campfire.

          Ben strolled over, took a seat next to John, and whispered, ‘How is everything going for you two?'”

          It’s essentially condensing action or movement or transition, then the paragraph break signals that we’re going to start the scene, sort of like watching stage crew change things around before the light goes back on and the actors begin again.

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  4. Hello! I’m here from Kingdom Pen for the contest this week. 🙂

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  5. Thank you Kingdom Pen for bringing me here! Really helpful article! 🙂

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