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I've come across the following conventions:

"What’s this for?" asked Jake.
Sue replied, "None of your business."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, it looks darned funny sitting here."
"It’s still none of your business," she asserted. "It’s female stuff, so don’t you mind."
"Oh!" Jake dropped it and backed away.

And

Jake "What’s this for?"
Sue "None of your business."
He shrugged his shoulders.
Jake "Well, it looks darned funny sitting here."
Sue "It’s still none of your business," she asserted. "It’s female stuff, so don’t you mind."
Jake "Oh!"
Jake dropped it and backed away.

There's also the style of placing the speaker above and centered (screenplay?).

First seems to be the canon version of writing dialog. The second might appear in a screenplay (but we'll ignore those) although more predominantly in games, where the speaker almost always gets the label (usually accompanied by a semicolon).

I'm writing something and have very dialog driven plot (in certain chapters) and the usual advice for dealing with situations like this isn't very pleasing to hear. Typically, I find the recommendation is to use speech tags (ie. "said Sue") every 4 or so dialog lines; and if only two characters to avoid them altogether. Ironically, the recommendation also usually say you should avoid paragraphs in dialog, and instead split it on multiple lines.

Let's say, for simplicity sake, I'm writing a detective story. And, there is just one main character and (in accordance with the guidline of "show, don't tell") most of the plot is him conversing with other characters rather then narration. Isn't that going to lead to just a intelligible blob of text?

My question: Is it just better to go with the version that's documented in most manuals of style? (ie. example 1) Or is there a alternative, 3rd solution?

Credits to Victory Crayne for the (initial) dialogue snippets.

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Yes, "There's also the style of placing the speaker above and centered" is proper screenplay formatting. Not for novels. –  gmoore Mar 4 '11 at 21:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

If you're writing a novel, the correct way to go is Example 1. Example two is completely wrong in novels and is only seen in amateur writers. If you send something like that to a publisher they'll most likely laugh at you and automatically reject it.

Modern advice is to use as few dialog tags as possible. Most publishers want you to use action tags instead.

Susan leaned against the door jam. "What are you up to?"
Bill closed his laptop and turned to look at her. "Nothing!"
"Uh huh..." Susan narrowed her eyes. "Wanna try that again?"

Action tags give the reader a better grasp of what's going on.

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+1 for the term "action tags," which I had not heard before and I LOVE. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 4 '11 at 1:20
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If your novel is of a particular type (either lit fic or gimmicky) you can have sections in full on screenplay format, something Stephen Fry did in Making History. In genre novels you have to go a long way to get away with that kind of stuff. But writing it straight out like the draft of a play isn't appropriate unless the reader can gain some meaning from your adoption of the approach. –  One Monkey Mar 4 '11 at 11:34
    
Not really writing a novel; meaning what I'm writing is not near novel length. However, you make a very good case for action tags and how they improve the writing. –  srcspider Mar 4 '11 at 13:01
    
@OneMonkey is on the money there. –  micapam Oct 12 '13 at 5:50

I like a mix of dialog tags and action tags. You should definitely break up paragraphs of speech with stage business and action tags.

Dean Wesley Smith had an advice piece for writers which I ran across for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and I don't have it to hand, but the one bit which stuck with me is "The word 'said' is invisible. Use it." He thought that one should never use bookisms like asserted, insisted, sighed, etc. but I like those used judiciously. And reading back over my own work in chunks, he's right: said is really invisible. It just doesn't register, any more than the word "the" does.

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That's the same advice Stephen King gives to aspiring writers. If you need to use a dialog tag, use said. Anything else use sparingly and avoid adverbs. "She said loudly." "He whispered softly." –  Ralph Gallagher Mar 4 '11 at 1:37
    
That's pretty much what I like to see so it's pretty much what I like to do. +1 –  One Monkey Mar 4 '11 at 11:32
    
+1 for the tip on using "said" :) I'm not really sure about stage business though; I really wish to avoid these sort of narrator or semi-narrator pauses in dialog (if possible), as a matter of personal style. –  srcspider Mar 4 '11 at 13:05
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I think you need stage business pauses for a few reasons: (1) to break up a lengthy monologue (2) to be more accurate in reflecting actual speech -- nobody just sits in a chair and monologues without moving; they shift, sigh, scratch, get up and pace, gesture, smile, sniffle, roll their eyes, etc. (3) to give the reader a more accurate picture of the characters' interactions, so they can picture the scene better. But if you're not using that technique deliberately as a matter of style, that is of course your choice and your right. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 4 '11 at 15:13

The other answers are absolutely correct about the use of action tags, but I think there's a larger issue here.

You don't really want to write "just" dialogue. That would be a screenplay. Action tags certainly help, but if the remain at the level of "the character's physical expression or action as s/he talks," then you really haven't added anything beyond stage directions.

If you write like a screenplay, it'll read like a screenplay. So, you ask, what's the difference between a screenplay and a dialogue-centered novel? Well, it's pretty much the same as the difference between reading a screenplay and watching the movie. Straight dialogue is a bunch of talking heads; it's difficult to be exciting or engaging in the format. Plot, setting, and emotion are your friends - even when the dialogue is in the center.

Jim Van Pelt just wrote an excellent blog post on precisely this subject. He demonstrates the wildly different directions the same raw dialogue can be taken - and how bland "simple" action tags can be, compared to a rounder, more fleshed-out scene.

So what do you need to add to the dialogue to round out a transcript into a fullblown scene? Here's a couple of thoughts:

  • The viewpoint character likely has a lot of thoughts and reactions to the conversation around him. Share them with us - they act as a counterpoint to the raw dialogue, and keep us immersed in the character and his personality. That also lets you get across powerful motives and desires that motivate his side of the dialogue, that he'd never allow to slip barefaced into the conversation itself. That's what Van Pelt's second example does - he goes beyond describing what happens cinematically, into explaining why this dialogue is taking place, and immersing us into the viewpoint character's world and hopes.
  • Consider where the dialogue is taking place. It could be two characters taking in their living room, or in a coffee-shop. But the scene would be a lot more colorful and active - less "talking-heads" - if they talked while doing something. If two characters were talking during a game of bowling, that would be an entirely different scene than one where they were talking because they were the only two students in detention, or if they were talking five minutes before they were each auditioning for the same part in a musical. Each of these would give the scene a vastly different tone - and provide all kinds of events, reactions, distractions, and interruptions throughout the scene.

Some additions will be extremely brief, and interspersed with the dialogue - like the action tags. Others can take a paragraph or two - the sudden musings of the viewpoint character, something interesting going on in the area, a short flashback, etc. Of course, you shouldn't be adding in content as simple padding - these are ways to add more substance to your writing, coloring your "raw" dialogue with all the personality, flavor, and action of the entire piece.

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That blogpost was brilliant. –  srcspider Mar 4 '11 at 15:07
    
I'd hoped you'd like it :) I really like JVP - plus, his actual stories are excellent :D –  Standback Mar 4 '11 at 15:10
    
that was a great post! Thanks for pointing it out. what a great exercise. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 4 '11 at 16:24
    
+1 for the blog post. Really good exercise. –  krdluzni Mar 4 '11 at 18:09
    
I'm glad people like the exercise! He's got a lot of other good ones strewn across his blog - he teaches creative writing, and if his blog's any indication, I'm willing to bet he's damn good at it. Maybe I'll write up a list of his writing exercises - they're good, unusual, simple, and very helpful. –  Standback Mar 5 '11 at 18:15

There have been some authors (even some published authors) who've gotten away with non-traditional styles. In some cases the work demanded it, in others it just enhanced an already good work.

If authors have gotten away with using a series of letters, and other similar things, you could aim for transcripts of the various interviews your character is doing. You could either forgo action entirely for this, bring it out in comments injected by the transcriber or the detective after the fact, or find something else that naturally fits.

You wouldn't be locked into the style for the whole book, necessarily. It could be interspersed throughout the more common style, or the more common style could be interspersed throughout the transcripts. Or you could keep it for the whole story, if that works.

In general, sticking to the norm and making it work is probably safer, but there are other options.

You can look into Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Haven't read that one myself, but it's supposed to be quite good, and uses the format of a screenplay/murder trial transcript for a large part of the story, with diary entries for other parts.

Now, none of this is intended to say I recommend doing something like this, but if it works or is needed for your story, and you feel capable of pulling it off effectively, the option does exist. If you want to get published, though, you may want to do some extra asking around... I'm willing to bet that non-standard styles come with an extra hurdle or two in that regard.

Disclaimer: I am not a published author. I am not even an unpublished author. I am a programmer who just happens to have an interest in storytelling of various forms. Judge anything I say carefully.

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+1 for the last bit in particular. Wish everyone were as wise. ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 9 '11 at 21:36

The second style is dominant in games mainly because there are strong reasons to show dialogues this way:

  • When you read a book, you see the whole page and are able to go forward and backward a few lines. In games, you see only the current dialogue line.
  • In games, dialogues are voiced and anything else should happen on the stage, just like in screenplay. So no action tags.
  • Contrasting with movie subtitles, some games don't have a method to focus your attention on a speaker, for example strategy games. Even if they had, it would still remain plain boring without characters with convincing body language. So, if stage is mostly static, you turn to the text only. Then labels, and even avatars beside the dialog line are helpful.

The main point is that game is not a book, and because of that it has different guidelines.

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I'll take that as a bomb shell on the 2nd style. Ty for the clear explanation. :) –  srcspider Mar 4 '11 at 13:03

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