Dialog Structure

I used to be surprised when I would see editing requests that ask for help with or demand experience in dialog. This is one of the most common literary devices. Not only is it all throughout most fiction novels, but you frequently find it in non-fiction too.

Many people say that to be a good author, you should be an avid reader. So shouldn’t writers be familiar with the rules here?

Until I became a professional editor, I never really paid any attention to punctuation, though (unless it interfered with my reading experience). So I can see how even if you read a lot, you may not have any firm ideas about how to make dialog flow, let alone how to punctuate it or structure it.


dialogLet’s Start the Dialog Discussion With Structure

Based on some of the books I have edited recently, I hope people out there are asking, “What can go in a paragraph with dialog?”

The short answer is LOTS!

You can definitely add thoughts, and more importantly you should add action—at least on occasion.

Since the majority of dialog in a book is between two people, let’s go over the most basic of dialog structure: Each person gets their own paragraph. In a conversation between two people, you should alternate your paragraphs between them. This helps eliminate a need to tag each statement with the person who is saying it, which can get clunky. It also encourages you, as the writer, to add more than just a quick statement said aloud by each character.

Just Talking

“This is boring,” said the reader.
“No, just wait… you’ll learn something,” said the natural-born teacher.
“But I just want to know this simple thing.”
“I get that, but sometimes a simple question needs a complicated answer. And I’m trying to give you a visual here.”
“I get it, but are you really just standing there saying these words with nothing else going on?”
“Aha! That’s my point,” the teacher said triumphantly.

Going back and forth like a ping-pong match is fine on occasion, especially if you want to illustrate a quick-fire exchange. But most of the time, people do things while they talk.

Add Some Action to Your Dialog Structure

teaching dialog“This is boring,” said the reader. She rolled her eyes and started to swipe left.
“No, just wait…” the natural-born teacher said as she waved her hands frantically in front of her reader. “You’ll learn something,” she promised.
The reader sighed. “But I just want to know this simple thing.”
“I get that, but sometimes a simple question needs a complicated answer.” The teacher turned and started writing on the chalkboard. “And I’m trying to give you a visual here.”
“Oh, I get it now,” said the reader. She continued to scroll down the page.
“I’m so glad you get my point,” the teacher said triumphantly.

Remember: Each Person Gets Their Own Paragraph

I unfortunately have seen more and more people putting the action into separate paragraphs from the dialog. At some point, it gets hard to tell who is saying what and which person is doing which thing. That’s why the basic rule is to alternate paragraphs between people.

Sometimes you need to use multiple paragraphs to go through a thought process or show a burst of action. Count back so that every other paragraph has the same person speaking. If you go more than two paragraphs with no speech, that is fine. Just be sure to use a dialog tag to make it clear who the speaker is when you resume the conversation.

“I’m so glad you get my point,” the teacher said triumphantly.
The reader nodded as she jotted down a note to herself.
“I hope this was useful!”

Let me know in the comments below what you find challenging when writing dialog. I’ve got more coming in this series and will keep writing them to help you out!

3 comments on “Dialog Structure
  1. Susan Land says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you!
    You say, “Each person gets their own paragraph.”
    Does that mean the awkward and annoying “Each person gets his or her own paragraph” is officially history?

    I sure hope so, but it’s a heady feeling. . .

    Sorry if you’ve already gone over this.

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