A few days ago we discussed the importance of dialogue in your family history and some of the basics of re-creating dialogue from the past. Today, I would like to take a look at the more technical side of dialogue. Aside from struggling with re-creating dialogue, many family historians find formatting dialogue a little intimidating. It’s important to understand the techniques of writing your ancestor’s conversations and how to format them on the page so they serve your reader best and follow some basic elements of style.
Here are seven quick tips to formatting your dialogue that will help you overcome your hesitation.
1. Each time a new conversation or speech begins, you start a new paragraph. Additionally, every time there is a new speaker in a conversation, there is a new line. You do not include multiple speakers in one paragraph, so if one person asks a questions and another person responds, the question and the answer must be on two different lines. The use of this technique allows your reader to keep straight who is speaking.
Victoria asked, “When is Adam leaving for America?”
“On Thursday,” Grandpa replied.
2. Learn to use single and double quotation marks. Double quotation marks are used to indicate dialogue unless it is a quote within a quote, in which case single quotation marks are employed.
3. Understand the placement of quotation marks. Tradition dictates that punctuation falls inside the quotation marks. You may find some editors and professionals who are changing this practice but I would encourage you to stick with tradition.
4. Use commas before dialogue tags, for instance:
“I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house,” Helen said.
“I don’t want to leave,” Adam whimpered.
Instead of telling the reader he whimpered, spend your time describing the scene so we can see the image of Adam whimpering. It is perfectly acceptable to use he said/she said multiple times or not at all. The idea is your tags should be invisible and the focus should be on the dialogue.
6. With that being said use dialogue tags sparingly. You don’t want a string of he said, she said, he said, she said cluttering your story. If you know your characters and have given them a distinct voice, your reader will know from the dialogue who is saying what.
7. Capitalize only the first word of a dialogue sentence. If your dialogue is interrupted by a dialogue tag or description, you do not need to capitalize the second part of the sentence.
“I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house,” Victoria said while fidgeting in her chair, “because it brings back bad memories.”
Employ the above tips and your well on your way to writing great dialogue for your family history story.