In How to write dialogue: 1, I explained how to punctuate written speech. (The fact that it took a whole blog is a measure of how complex it can be.) You should be comfortable with most of those ideas before reading this blog on layout – or at least have the other blog handy to refer back to if you need.
As before, I use large crosses for examples that show how not to do it!
New speaker, new line
In Part 1, I didn’t actually get as far as dialogue – I only covered speech by one character. If you are writing a conversation between two or more characters, the ‘new speaker, new line’ rule is very useful for keeping track of who is talking.
Annie said, “Jim can’t do it.”
“Don’t worry,” Pat replied.
If it continued on the same line, a reader, scanning quickly, might not instantly realise that someone new is involved. That is a distraction from the flow of the narrative. Here’s what I mean:
XX Annie said, “Jim can’t do it.” “Don’t worry,” Pat replied. XX
However, don’t take the ‘new line’ rule too literally. Often, speech is part of a longer sentence. You don’t start a new line in the middle of a sentence! Here’s what not to do:
XX Annie said,
“Jim can’t do it.” XX
(If nothing else, you can see the speech is part of a longer sentence because of the comma after said.)
In fact, if the action involves Annie, and then she speaks, the sentence with the speech in it doesn’t have to be on a new line. Eg:
Annie banged the teapot on the table in frustration. “Jim can’t do it!” she yelled.
You might choose to start her speech on a new line, perhaps if there has been quite a long paragraph of action or description beforehand. But if it’s still Annie, you don’t have to. A new line is only needed if the action and/or speech then moves to a different character.
This ‘new line’ rule really comes into its own for longer conversations, when it would be tedious to name the speaker every time (tedious for the reader, I mean!). Here’s an example:
“Jim can’t do it!” Annie yelled.
“Don’t worry – we’ll sort something out,” said Pat.
“But we’ve only got three days!”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas – it’s about time I called in some favours.”
“You think you have all the answers, don’t you?”
Naming the speaker is known as speech attribution. The traditional he said/she said is the most direct way to do this. For variety, this speech attribution can go either before or after the spoken words (see Part 1 for punctuation guidance). Even so, as already noted, it can quickly become very dull to see line after line of he said or its equivalents. But readers still need to be helped to know who’s who.
When you got to the end of the conversation above, were you clear about who said, “You think you have all the answers…”? Possibly not. I suggest that three turns without any speech attribution is the maximum most readers should be asked to cope with. But if you don’t want to get back to she said or similar, the speech could be interspersed with action. Any brief action from a speaker will all be in the same paragraph/section as their speech, either before or after. Eg:
“But we’ve only got three days!”
Pat gave Annie’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’ve got a couple of ideas – it’s about time I called in some favours.”
Annie shrugged her off. “You think you have all the answers, don’t you?” She banged the teapot on the table in frustration.
Each forced new line should have the same formatting treatment as any new paragraph. So if you are indenting the start of each new paragraph, then each new speaker’s first line will be indented, even if it only contains one word. (That may look odd to you, but it’s the norm.) The above conversation would look like this:
And if you have chosen to separate paragraphs with a line space and no indent (as in this article), then that is what should happen with your written dialogue. This can look too spaced out on the page, which may be why fiction tends not to be written like this.
If you don’t follow the writing conventions in these blogs, the earth will not swallow you up. But conventions develop for a reason. In this case, to prevent your readers scratching their heads, and help them focus on the important stuff, ie, what’s going on with the plot, or what a character is like.
I hope you have found this useful. Look out for another blog soon, covering speech patterns and characterisation.
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