Formatting Dialogue

 

Formatting Dialogue (2)

One Person, One Paragraph

As mentioned in the previous lesson, a conversation is like a ping-pong match—and each time someone new starts to speak, you start a new paragraph. In this lesson we're going to expand on this idea just a bit.

I like to think of a dialogue as a set of boxes that travel down the page. Each box contains the words, actions, and feelings of one person—and only one person:

Study the following conversation. The conversation flows down the page (in the yellow column), with each box containing the words, actions, and feelings of only one person. The right-hand column provides commentary: It emphasizes how each paragraph "belongs" to one (and only one) person.

Deanna stared at the bruise on Laura's cheek. "Did he hit you?"

This is a Deanna paragraph, because Deanna is talking.

Laura felt embarrassed. "No," she replied. "I just fell, that's all."

This is a Laura paragraph. It includes Laura's feelings and words.

"Don't lie to me. I know he did it." Deanna clenched her fist in anger. "That bastard!"

Again, a Deanna paragraph. It includes Deanna's words as well as her actions.

"You don’t understand. It was my fault."

Laura's turn. Notice that I've left out the tag. You're allowed to do this, as long as it's crystal clear who is talking.

Deanna shook her head. "Don't make excuses for him," she said. She went to the refrigerator to get some ice. "Please, Laura, come stay with me. I don't think you should be here when he gets back."

Deanna Paragraph.

Notice how Laura and Deanna are hitting the ball, back and forth, each responding to what the other says, the ball bouncing down the page from paragraph to paragraph.

Caution!

When writing dialogue, you should try very hard to avoid sentences like this:

Why? Because where are you going to put it? Does it belong in a Lula paragraph or an Earl paragraph?

Bad

Better

Lula said, "I'm going to kill you," and Earl took a step back.

Lula pulled out her gun. "I'm going to kill you," she said.

 

Earl stumbled backward. "Please don't shoot."

In the "better" example, each paragraph is devoted to one—and only one—person.

Note: Professional writers sometimes break this rule, and they may write sentences like the one in the "bad" column. That's because they are professional writers and they know what they are doing. You, however, should master the rules of formatting dialogue before you start to break them.

Below, in the Lesson Steps, I'm going to ask you to write a dialogue between two people. Your finished conversation should look very much like this:

Jake froze. "Did you hear that?"

Kayla nodded. "It sounded like a baby crying."

"A ghost baby," said Jake. "Come on, let's get out of here. This place gives me the creeps."

"But what if it's real? Kayla asked. "We can't just leave a baby here. What if it needs our help?"

Jake's flashlight went out, and he banged it against the palm of his hand until it flickered back to life. "Are you kidding? No one has lived here for more than one hundred years. What would a baby be doing here? There's nothing here but ghosts. Come on, Kayla, let's leave while we still can."

Kayla took a cautious step forward. "Don't be a chicken. Let's investigate just a bit more."

Lesson Steps

  1. Open your writing portfolio. Go to
  1. Write a dialogue between two people.
  1. When you're finished, return to this page to take the quiz.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.

Quiz