Two quick-and-dirty nuts-and-bolts dialogue tips for dialogue formatting. But dialogue in fiction has many rules to follow. Writers are always curious about formatting dialogue, or how to write it better. Why? Literary agents and publishers are always looking for examples of sharp, smart dialogue that’s a distillation of real life, or real life enhanced (Read more about writing realistic dialogue here.) This is a very nuanced topic, above and beyond the scope of one post, but here are two dialogue tips that you want to make sure you follow.
Two Simple Dialogue Tips
First, if you are addressing a character by name, the standard formatting includes a comma before and the capitalization of the name. An example:
“Would you like this disgusting tennis ball, Gertie?” (My dog’s favorite question.)
Second, if the character happens to be the parent in your story, you need to make an important distinction. Are you addressing them as Mom or Dad (as if it is their name), or are you referring to them as a noun? I see this all the time in manuscripts. Here’s an example that makes the distinction clear:
“Do you have a mom, too, Mom?”
Here, you can talk about “a mom” or “her dad” or “his mommy” all you want, but it is lowercase. The second you use it to address a character, just as you would a name, it becomes capitalized. A quick proofread will tell you if you’re on the right track. If not, commit this simple dialogue formatting rule of thumb to memory. (Ready for more dialogue tips? Maybe about dialogue tags? Now we’re getting into the real meat of this very important topic.)
Dialogue writing can be tricky for even the most seasoned writer. Not only do I proofread every manuscript for errors like these as your book editor, but I’ll give you bigger picture creative feedback on your work.
Writers who have mastered the qualities of good writing are a blast to read. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, one page to the next.
The Crucial Qualities of Good Writing
How do they do it?
Let me wager a guess: writing good sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are one of the crucial qualities of good writing.
A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of writing craft at the sentence level. Here are three qualities of good writing that will make your prose sing.
How to Begin a Sentence
Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.
Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:
I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.
He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.
If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way. (Advice on rewriting sentences here.)
How Long Should Sentences Be
Length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you’re focusing on the qualities of good writing. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.
Now compare to this one:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.
I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.
Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing
Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:
Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.
Short, choppy sentences heighten story tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:
Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.
Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of length, and you’ll be on your way to finding the qualities of good writing that enhance the tone of your work.
How to Use Punctuation
There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon. (Tips on punctuation rules for dialogue.)
Harnessing Your Writing Tics
Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.
One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:
“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”
Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.
I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one. Remember: One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.
Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice
Repeat after me, folks:
Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!
Feels good, right? Writing good sentences is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!
An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.
From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work: overuse of past perfect tense. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)
In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect tense: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.
What is Past Perfect Tense?
When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect tense is for. (Read here for more on writing flashbacks.)
To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect tense sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much of it — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.
She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…
I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.
When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect tense, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”
Minimizing Past Perfect Tense
The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect tense once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old past tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.
Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.
She chased the memory away now…
Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect tense if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.
Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise. (Want even more tense talk? Check out: present tense writing.)
Are you struggling with tense or other grammatical issues? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.