Writing Tip I: Dialogue and speech tag formatting

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Nothing breaks up a stretch of lengthy prose like a good conversation—even if the character is speaking to themselves!

However, formatting rich conversations properly is important. You want the Reader to have to do as little mental as possible when:

  • Trying to figure out who’s talking
  • Deciphering prose from dialogue

If you make this hard for the Reader, the higher the chance that they get distracted and therefore lose their immersion in your story. No Writer wants that!
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Use new paragraphs generously

Smushing dialogue into paragraphs with prose rarely helps the Reader make sense of anything. Of course, there may be something artistic or tonal you’re trying to do. But in most cases it’s better to use a new paragraph when:

  • A new line of dialogue starts, or
  • The speaker changes

 

❌ POOR FORM

They walked down the street. “Hey, let’s check out the new pub,” said Alyia. Her friend Shoshanna frowned and shook her head. “I’m not thirsty right now.” She pressed further. “We don’t need to drink! Well, you don’t need to drink. This week has been hell.” “Okay, whatever,” sighed Shoshanna.

It’s hard to tell who’s saying what here, and hard to distinguish prose from dialogue. Not impossible, but the Reader has to spend extra mental energy on it. Compared to:
 

✅ GOOD FORM

They walked down the street.

“Hey, let’s check out the new pub,” said Alyia.

Her friend Shoshanna frowned and shook her head. “I’m not thirsty right now.”

Alyia pressed further. “We don’t need to drink! Well, you don’t need to drink. This week has been hell.”

“Okay, whatever,” sighed Shoshanna.

 
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Speech tags and other signals

A speech tag is the said Alyia bit. It’s not complicated: it tells the Reader who’s speaking. You need them or another kind of signal in pretty much every new scene of dialogue. They can be occasionally dropped once a conversation starts rolling, but you really shouldn’t ever abandon them (especially in long conversations).

‘Other signals’ are descriptive pieces of prose that serve the same purpose as a tag, but also add some richness to the conversation. They’re usually the speaking character’s action or expression. In the example above, Her friend Shoshanna frowned and shook her head. is not a speech tag, but it helps signal that the dialogue that follows is hers.

Generally, it’s best to use these signals less often than tags. Else you risk cluttering the dialogue’s flow. But I did 50/50 in the example above, so: you do you.

 

❌ POOR FORM: TOO FEW TAGS / SIGNALS

The new pub was called Stonkers. Aliya pulled on the front door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Locked? Wow.”

“Guess the adventure will have to be elsewhere,” she said.

“Where though?”

“You tell me!”

“I chose last time, why don’t you pick?”

“But I suck at picking. You know this.” Shoshanna crossed her arms.

“You’re in a mood today. What’s wrong?”

Though you can make a good assumption, it is not really clear who says “Locked? Wow.” You really need a speech tag here, or to combine Aliya’s action of pulling on the door with that line of dialogue. If you start off guessing, the rest of the conversation is also a little confusing, at least until we get to the second to last line. If you assumed wrongly at the start, now you’re extra confused.

 

✅ BETTER FORM: GOOD AMOUNT OF TAGS / SIGNALS

The new pub was called Stonkers.

Aliya pulled on the front door, but it wouldn’t budge. “Locked? Wow.” She rattled it again.

“Guess the adventure will have to be elsewhere,” said Shoshanna.

“Where though?”

“You tell me!”

“I chose last time,” Alyia said, still staring at the door. “Why don’t you pick?”

“But I suck at picking. You know this.”

“You’re in a mood today. What’s wrong?”

Here, fewer than half of the lines have tags. Both speakers are identified by action or tag at the start of the convo. I dropped an action signal about halfway through the tag-less exchange as a reminder to the Reader.
 
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There is no overusing “said”

It is common for new writers to think that replacing “said” or “says” with more exciting or descriptive words is a good way to improve dialogue.

Truth is, speech tags are kind of invisible to Readers. They’re like punctuation—the brain tends to process them in a different way than the story itself. You can use “said” for 90%+ of your tags and be completely fine.

When you replace “said,” it does indeed elevate the tag. It makes it much more noticeable. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you’re trying to do. Usually, you’re trying to keep the Reader immersed. Too many distracting speech tags can ruin immersion.

 

❌ POOR FORM

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong? You know what’s wrong,” seethed Shoshanna.

“Whoah, hey, hold on now,” flustered Alyia. “Is this about the contract?”

“Is this about the contract?” mocked Shoshanna.

“Come on, I warned you about it,” pouted Alyia.

“I thought you were joking!” growled Shoshanna

Here, the writer tries to convey all the emotion through speech tags... and ends up using too many in doing so. Actions or implication works much better, and you don’t need to signal everything (trust your Reader).

 

✅ BETTER FORM

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong? You know what’s wrong,” said Shoshanna.

“Whoah, hey, hold on now.” Alyia turned fast, stumbling. “Is this about the contract?”

“Is this about the contract?” mocked Shoshanna.

“Come on, I warned you about it.”

“I thought you were joking!”

 

Edits, line by line:

  1. Replaced “seethed” with “said.” The way she repeats “What’s wrong” clearly implies her anger.
  2. Replaced “flustered” (which is a weird choice anyway) with an action—show don’t tell.
  3. Keeping “mocked” as is. It’s hard to convey that tone without using the ol’ iS tHiS aBoUt ThE cOnTrAcT format. If I really think about it, I’d probably try and rewrite this line entirely to find a better way to get the tone across.
  4. Dropped tag, argumentative tone established, trust Reader to fill in blanks
  5. Dropped tag, argumentative tone established, trust Reader to fill in blanks

 
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I hope you found this helpful! I own the license to all images in this post, except for the Scholar and Scribe banner icons, which were designed by @trashyomen. This tip was inspired by the massive and useful tip catalogue that The Ink Well has put together over the years.



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Amazing. Learned a lot your blog.
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I think this is excellent, I will learn some new things for my writings. Gracias

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