Crash Course: Formatting Dialog

Because I’ve worked as an editor and proofreader for a while in addition to being an avid writer and reader, I enjoy helping other writers with their work. Whether it’s brainstorming, simple feedback, or tips on how to write.

Recently, a friend of mine approached me curious about dialog tags (as in, “he said”). He wanted to know how to write dialog effectively without inundating the reader with “he said” and “she said” over and over, while still making sure who was speaking was clear.

Dialog can be a tricky beast, one that can hang up a lot of budding (and even established) writers, so I threw together this “crash course” in dialog formatting for him. Then I decided to share it with all of you in case you find yourself in his situation.

You don’t need to use dialog tags for every statement.  If you only have two people talking, the easiest way to distinguish who is saying what is by making sure each person has their own line. Not ALL authors do this, but it’s my personal feeling that each person’s dialog AND actions should have their own space.

*Note: I have purposefully used all male characters for my examples, because it can be even trickier to handle dialog when you have several characters of the same sex once pronouns enter the picture and not make things confusing for your reader.

For example, take this:

“But I love you,” Bob said. Henry looked at him, confused, uncertain if what he was hearing was true. “You can’t mean it.”

In that example, it’s confusing who is saying what – it would be even more confusing if it was in a section with a lot of other dialog.  If we recast it like this:

“But I love you,” Bob said.

Henry looked at him, confused, uncertain if what he was hearing was true. “You can’t mean it.”

Then there’s no doubt that HENRY is the one saying that last statement. If BOB were saying it, we could put it on it’s own line, to let us know that although Henry did the described actions, BOB is the one who said the last line. Make sense?

Notice how we don’t need to SAY “Henry said” for the last line (or if, it were Bob speaking, “Bob said,” because the reader will be able to follow who is saying what. That’s why I really encourage people to give ACTIONS their own line in addition to dialog so there’s no ambiguity as to who is speaking, and you don’t need dialog tags.

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