Creating Smooth Transitions in Dialogue
  • 10-minute read
  • 24th August 2023

Creating Smooth Transitions in Dialogue

This microlearning covers ways to smoothly, effectively, and correctly transition from narrative to dialogue in a piece of content.

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about smooth transitions in dialogue using our interactive quiz.

 

Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

Talk to Me: Dialogue and Narrative

This microlearning covers ways to smoothly, effectively, and correctly transition from narrative to dialogue in a piece of content.

Dialogue refers to any spoken or written direct speech.

Narrative text tells a story or explains events or situations.

Here’s a piece of text with the dialogue in bold text.

As the bustling coffee shop hummed with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, Alex and Max found a quiet corner to catch up after years of separation.

“So, how’s life been treating you?” Max inquired, sipping his steaming latte.

Alex leaned back, a hint of weariness in their eyes. “It’s been a rollercoaster, to be honest. I changed careers, moved to a new city, and faced challenges I never expected.”

Max nodded empathetically. “I can imagine. Change is never easy.”

Writing transitions between dialogue and the narrative can be tricky, as dialogue has its own set of rules and stylistic nuances. 

The rules and guidance covered in this microlearning apply to transitions in dialogue. Although similar, how direct quotations are used and punctuated in other types of text (such as academic essays) is slightly different, so we won’t cover it here.

Some More Terminology: Dialogue Tags

One of the basic building blocks of dialogue is the dialogue tag. A dialogue tag is any phrase that describes how the dialogue is being delivered.

“I know how dialogue works,” she said.

In the example above, “she said” is a dialogue tag.

“Said” is the verb most commonly used in dialogue tags. You can, of course, vary this to create a different tone of voice and avoid repetitiveness. Some possible options are:

  • Stated
  • Explained
  • Argued
  • Replied
  • Complained

Avoid Thesaurus Diving

Many authors agree that “said” should be used more than any other verb for dialogue tags.

The reason for this is that our brains will skip over the word “said,” while they linger on words like “pleaded” and “complained,” which can bog down the flow of the narrative and sound clunky and unnatural.

For this reason, you shouldn’t go into editing dialogue with the idea that you need to provide variety in your dialogue tags. As long as you’re not using “said” repetitively, alternatives should be used purely to support and enhance the text’s intended purpose and tone. As a very basic example, you would use something like “exclaimed” following an exclamation mark, or “asked” following a question mark.

Don’t go thesaurus diving for verbs simply to avoid repetition.

Adverbs can also help provide variety without changing the verb used (although, again, you should be moderate in their use). Here’s an example of adverbial dialogue tags and alternatives to “said” for dramatic effect:

“I want to break up,” he said wearily.

She shrugged. “It’s your choice.”

“I never meant anything to you,” he spat out. “I’m leaving.”

Sharp eyes will spot the little bit of narrative description included there. We will cover this concept later on.

Positioning and Punctuating Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags can come before, after, or in the middle of dialogue. You can vary their positioning for interest and dramatic effect. You can also omit the dialogue tag altogether, where appropriate.

Before the Dialogue

Any dialogue tag that comes directly before the dialogue should be separated from the dialogue with a comma. The dialogue will start with a capital letter.

The man skidded to a halt, breathing deeply. He exclaimed, “You literally saved my life!”

Note that you should avoid starting a paragraph or new dialogue with dialogue tags unless they’re accompanied by some sort of narrative description (as in the example given above – more on narrative description in the next section).

In the Middle of the Dialogue

Here, the punctuation and capitalization depend on whether the dialogue tag occurs between two complete sentences in the dialogue or if it occurs in the middle of a sentence.

When the tag describes the previous sentence, it:

  • Is preceded by a comma (or exclamation/question mark)
  • Is followed by a period
  • Starts in lower case (unless it starts with a proper noun)

Additionally, both sentences of dialogue start with a capital letter.

Example:

“Maybe I should think about going back home,” Alex continued. “Sometimes you just need an opportunity to reset.”

When the tag describes the following sentence, it:

  • Is preceded by a period (or exclamation/question mark)
  • Is followed by a comma
  • Starts with a capital letter

Additionally, both sentences of dialogue start with a capital letter.

Example:

“If that’s what you feel you need to do.” Max looked down at his hands before saying, “Or you could come and work for me.”

When the tag splits a single sentence, it:

  • Is preceded and followed by a comma.
  • Starts in lower case (unless it starts with a proper noun).

Additionally, the first half of the sentence starts with a capital letter, while the second half starts with a lowercase letter (unless it’s a proper noun).

Example:

“I don’t know,” Alex said hesitantly, “if that would work out.”

These rules apply however many sentences of dialogue appear before/after the dialogue tag; it is the dialogue immediately before or after the tag that determines which rule is followed.

After the Dialogue

When the dialogue would otherwise end with a period, replace the period with a comma. Then, the dialogue tag:

  • Starts in lower case (unless it starts with a proper noun)
    Ends with a period.

Example:

“Max was right,” Alex said.

When the dialogue ends with other terminal punctuation (!? – …), keep the existing terminal punctuation. Then, the dialogue tag:

  • Starts in lower case (unless it starts with a proper noun)
  • Ends with a period.

Example:

“When was this?” she asked.

No Dialogue Tag

If it’s clear who’s speaking, it’s fine to use dialogue tags more sparsely. You can either omit them entirely or just use narrative description (more on this in the following section):

Alex got out of their chair, looking away from Max as they gathered up their belongings. “Last time we worked together, it ended badly.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad!”

“You burned down the kitchen—how is that good?”

Similarly, if you’re describing comments from members of a crowd (and the reader doesn’t know or care who says what) then you can/should leave dialogue tags out.

“He burned down the kitchen—wasn’t that…?”

“You know, at that restaurant on the other side of the river.”

“Oh yeah, I remember that on the news!”

Positioning Dialogue Tags cont.

Note that the punctuation immediately following any section of dialogue goes inside the inverted commas, whatever English dialect you’re writing in.

Where you place the dialogue tag should be logical. This is particularly the case when using verbs that describe how a speaker has said something. For example:

“Do you think people actually remember that? It’s yesterday’s news,” Max asked.
“Do you think people actually remember that?” Max asked. “It’s yesterday’s news.”

You should also avoid putting the dialogue tag at the end of a long paragraph of dialogue, as it means the reader has to wait until the end to find out who’s speaking. You can, however, use an additional dialogue tag to indicate that something about the speaker has changed, most often their tone of voice:

“Max, I know you want to help,” Alex said. “But we were not a good combination. I really think my best option is to head back home for a while.”

They looked awkward and fiddled with their watch, glancing away. “Anyway, I should really head off. I’ve got to pack up all my stuff, plus there’s a few other people I need to talk to before I leave. But thank you—I really appreciate all your friendship,” they finished lamely.

It Looks Like a Dialogue Tag, but Is It?

A common error is when writers treat a verb as though it is a dialogue tag, but it isn’t. Some examples of such verbs are:

  • Smiled
  • Frowned
  • Nodded
  • Looked
  • Laughed
  • Sighed

Each of the above verbs describes a character’s actions, not the way in which they are speaking.

For example, the following is incorrect:

“I guess so,” he nodded.

To fix this, you could do a number of things:

“I guess so,” he said, nodding.

“I guess so,” he said as he nodded.

“I guess so,” he said, and then he nodded.

“I guess so.” He nodded.

You can’t, however, do this:

“I guess so,” he said and nodded.

To figure out why this doesn’t work, look back at the original incorrect answer. In essence, you’re still saying “he said and nodded,” thereby describing the character’s actions, not the way in which they are speaking.

Note the final correct option listed above (‘“I guess so.” He nodded.’). The period makes all the difference—by using this, you’re turning “he nodded” into a narrative description, which we are finally going to look at in more detail …

Narrative Description

Dialogue tags are the only phrases that combine with dialogue using a comma and/or lowercase letter. Anything else is considered to be a part of narrative description and should be separated from the dialogue with a period and capital letter.

“I guess that’s that.” He nodded as he turned to leave.

Max smiled nostalgically. “It was a good fire, though.”

“What?” Alex whipped their head round. “You don’t mean… Was it deliberate?”

Some writers even use adverbs on their own as a form of narrative description:

“What do you think?” Smugly. “I told you I’d get back at the owner somehow.”

However, this is a very idiosyncratic style that shouldn’t be used unless the author themselves has employed it elsewhere in the text.

Are You Still Talking? Multiple Paragraphs of Dialogue

Sometimes, you’ll find that a character will have a longer monologue that needs to go on for more than one paragraph. When this is the case, you can add dialogue tags or narrative if the topic changes, but otherwise you can just continue the monologue without further explanation.

The one thing to note here is that only the final paragraph of the monologue ends in a closing set of inverted commas.

For example:

“You know, it’s funny how life can push you to do things you never imagined.” Max looked slyly at Alex over steepled fingers. “But that owner, he thought he could treat everyone like dirt. He changed everything.

“That night, as the flames danced in that kitchen, I only felt satisfaction. All those memories, all those moments, turned to ashes just like that. I guess you could say I’ve always been invisible, just blending into the background. But that night—it was my way of showing him that he couldn’t control everything, that he couldn’t trample on people and expect no consequences.

“No-one’s forgotten about it. They still wonder who did it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll think twice before they stomp on someone else’s dignity.”

Summary

In this microlearning, we’ve covered how to:

  • Effectively use dialogue tags and narrative description in a way that provides clarity without distracting the reader.
  • Position dialogue tags logically and to achieve different effects.
  • Properly and consistently punctuate dialogue tags and narrative description for improved readability.
  • Achieve variety in dialogue tags through the judicious use of adverbs.
  • Deal with multi-paragraph monologues.
  • Jump to Section

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