Self-Editing Tip #2: Who’s Saying What?

I have had a total of five different manuscripts from five different authors go through my hands since Monday, and I found one consistent thing in all of them that made me think about another tip to give when editing your own work.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the writing that we don’t have enough brain energy left to pay attention to where we put our dialogue in a paragraph, or taglines, or quotation marks. I’ve had a few people ask what is the rule for starting a new paragraph when a new character is talking, or when to use single or double quotation marks. I’ve seen it done a lot of different ways, have read books where the dialogue isn’t even in quotations at all, but marked with a dash (McCarthy, anyone?). And while the whole driving force behind fiction and creative writing is to create, to mix things up and rewrite or even undo the rules, there are some guidelines that I like to follow, both when writing and when editing another’s work.

  • Use paragraph breaks to distinguish between the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of different characters. Of course, when a new character speaks, that begins a new paragraph. I had a friend the other day ask me if it was okay to begin a new paragraph even if the dialogue was at the end of the sentence. Absolutely. If the new sentence is She slammed the phone down and yelled, “I’m finished!”, start a new paragraph at the beginning of that sentence. Do not leave her dialogue in the previous paragraph if a different character has spoken in that previous paragraph, and do not start a new paragraph halfway through the sentence at “I’m finished!”. I am also partial to starting a new paragraph when a different character’s actions or thoughts are described. In the following example, I’ve provided a new paragraph with dialogue at the end of the sentence, another for a new character’s thoughts, and the last for another character change in action. This makes it easier for the reader to pick out the change of focus from character to character, and to know just who is thinking and saying what.

Example:

She slammed the phone down and yelled, “I’m finished!” A bead of sweat formed on her upper lip.

Marcus couldn’t decide whether or not to actually believe what she said this time. He picked at a callous on his hand. “So what now?” he asked, just in case.

Kaitlyn rolled her eyes and whirled to the cabinet for a wine glass. She did not seem to know the answer herself.

  • Not every piece of dialogue in quotations needs a dialogue tag. Dialogue tags let us know who is talking, how they said it, or what they did while they said it (with an action tag). It is not, however, always necessary to put a dialogue tag after every string of dialogue. When that happens, it starts to get distracting. In my opinion, the following example has too many dialogue tags. A lot of the time, the reader picks up on more than we give them credit for, and having too many explanations can get distracting to the story. Personally, I would delete the dialogue tags highlighted in bold.

Example:

“Put down the gun,” I said. I tried to keep my voice from cracking, and my hands from shaking. “Do you really want to go through with this?” I asked.

He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of my shoes, but his hands didn’t shake at all. “All I wanted was for you to understand what happened,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure I understood from the beginning,” I said. I stepped forward slowly, keeping my hands raised in what I hoped would be a non-threatening stance. “We’ve always been on the same page. And honestly, what are you going to do without me?” I said.

  • Try to keep dialogue without dialogue tags down to a maximum of 3 lines. This is something that I have a lot of difficulty with when I read a novel. It is a certain stylistic technique to present dialogue between two characters in short bursts, without any tags at all. Most often, this is used to show the fast-paced timing of a conversation, and the emotion behind words when the characters seem to blurt them out. I know what is trying to be done when I read these, but I get so distracted by trying to remember who spoke first, and which character’s line is which, that I lose the emphasis behind the dialogue and have to backtrack to count who started and who finished. The following example shows a conversation where the dialogue has no dialogue tags, passes three lines of conversation, and starts to get confusing. I see this a lot, and I always want to break it up. Not only does the lack of a tag deny the reader the chance to quickly catch up with following each character’s dialogue, but it also diminishes the opportunity you have as a writer to give more insight into the characters as they speak. The line highlighted in bold is the way I see a lot of writers backtrack to add characterization after dialogue like this, which could be done much more effectively if embedded within the dialogue.

Example:

I crossed my legs on the bench, offered him my pack of cigarettes. “Want one?” I asked.

“No, thanks.”

“You don’t smoke?”

“I quit almost two years ago.”

“I don’t think I could ever quit smoking. I like it too much.”

“Wait until you can’t taste your food anymore. That was it for me.”

“Too late,” I said, and blew a cloud of smoke up to the sky. The whole time he spoke to me, he kept his hands in his lap and looked out to the lake in front of us. I knew he was trying not to look at me, trying not to throw a dirty glance in my direction, but when he told me he’d quit I saw his nostrils flare in distaste.

There are so many different ways to write dialogue, to flesh out your characters through their actions, words, and thoughts. Oftentimes, all three are an incredibly effective team of tools, while other times you can find a rare gem of action that says it all itself. I will not say that what I have written here are absolute rules to follow, but when I edit a manuscript, I search for the continuity of separating characters via paragraph, and balancing dialogue with action and dialogue tags. The key, as with anything, is to find a balance to keep your readers both engaged and held onto with a little bit of string. You want to make sure that they don’t get lost—that they don’t need to go back to figure out who’s saying what.

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