How to Lay Out Dialogue

One of the issues that regularly crops up in my creative writing class centres on how to lay out dialogue. Beginning writers tend to write their dialogue in one big block. ‘Did you see that Anna got her hair cut?’ said Sadie. ‘No I didn’t,’ said Yvonne. Laying out dialogue like this makes it hard to read and means the manuscript doesn’t flow as well as it might.

There are a few simple techniques you can use to ensure that your dialogue is laid out in a way that makes your manuscript look more professional for publisher, and more importantly, makes your dialogue easier to read.

Separate It Out

Every time a character speaks, their dialogue gets its own line. When one person finishes speaking, you move to the next line and write the other person’s reply.

‘Did you see that Anna got her hair cut?’ said Sadie.

‘No, I did not,’ said Yvonne.

‘Looks horrible.’ etc.

He Said/She Said.

Another trap beginners fall into is to tag each line of dialogue, telling the reader who said what. The reader will figure it out from the flow of conversation. When two people are speaking, you only need to indicate who starts the conversation. The reader will will know from the story who they are.

‘Did you see Anna got her hair cut?’

‘No I didn’t.’

‘Looks horrible.’

If there are multiple people taking part in the conversation, you will need to indicate who’s speaking, or it’ll get confusing. But you still won’t need to do it all the time, because the reader will pick up who is speaking.

Quotation Marks

It’s standard practice in UK English now to use single quotation marks for dialogue, and double quotation marks for quotes within a sentence. US English uses the reverse. So it’s:

‘Did you see that Anna got her hair cut?’ said Sadie.

and

‘Did you see that “The Ice Queen,” as we call her, got her hair cut,’ said Sadie.

What issues do you struggle with when laying out your dialogue, in terms of physical layout and style?

 

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3 thoughts on “How to Lay Out Dialogue

  1. If I do find I have to specify who’s talking, I try to avoid anything but “he said” or “she said” (or “asked” or “continued” at a pinch). Plain and simple. Then there’s a further round of revisions: I try to eliminate as many of the “he/she saids” as possible by using other hints about who is speaking.

    e.g. instead of “Whose is this gun?” I asked

    try

    I picked up the gun. “Whose is it?”

    I also happen to use ellipses (…) quite a lot in my dialogue. Nowadays I follow the rule of putting a single space either side of the dots, as in “Whose is … this?”.

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