Wednesday, April 15

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 6 comments
Writing effective dialogue is tricky, no doubt about it. It can't be pointless and boring. It can't be too fast or too slow. But most of all, it can't be confusing.

An important consideration in creating dialogue clarity is paragraphing--which lines should be grouped together, and which ones shouldn't.

I think the best way to learn is to analyze an example, then look for guiding principles.

Below is a section of an unpublished middle grade short story of mine about a bunch of preteen musicians at a competition, trying to psych each other out. It's in third person limited omniscient POV, told by eleven-year-old Callie.

Because the audience is younger readers, more of the dialogue has either a tag (he said), or an action beat (Joe smiled), or a description than would be strictly necessary for adult readers. But note that there is variety in how speakers are identified. Constant "he said...she said" can be as grating as no attribution is confusing.

Note also in the fifth through seventh paragraphs, there is one actor, but noticeable shifts in emphasis, which calls for separate paragraphs. Callie goes from processing to decision to acting on a decision. Those paragraph breaks are an important clue to the reader to pay attention, something is changing with each new paragraph.


The flautist beside her kicked her legs out straight. Callie flinched when she noticed a wide run snaking from ankle to knee of the girl’s dark tights. [Callie's observation, her POV]

“Trumpet, huh?” the flautist said. She tossed her hair and wrinkled her nose at Callie. “You know a brass player has never won this contest.” [flautist response]

Callie set down her horn and said, “You have a run in your tights.”

The flautist narrowed her eyes. “Nice try, brassy. I’m gonna wipe the stage with you.”

A snarky comeback tumbled to the front of Callie’s brain. Then she remembered the boy who’d been stalking the hall, bragging. He came back from the audition red-eyed and smelling of puke. Two minutes under the bright lights and his toughness had vanished. A scared kid among other scared kids. Why couldn’t anyone be real about it? Or at least less jerky? [Callie's interior mental and emotional processing]

Could I? she wondered. Could I play a new tune, a different game? [Callie's crux moment thought]

Callie sat up straighter. “I have an extra pair you can borrow if you want.” [Callie acting on decision]


“Tights. I have extras. You want them?”

The flautist looked at her leg and screamed. “What am I gonna—? I can’t go out there like—!” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Callie pulled a crinkly cellophane package from her bag and set it on the flautist’s lap. “Here, please take them, um…”

“Amber,” the flautist whispered, sniffling. “I’m Amber.”

“I’m Callie.” She jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go ahead, there’s time.”

Amber nodded, clutched the tights, then jogged down the hall.

The boy violinist a seat down from Amber smiled and gave Callie a thumbs-up. “Nice strategy,” he said. “One down, eighty six to go?” [new actor introduced]

Callie shook her head and rolled her eyes. [action beat only reaction]

“Let me guess…I have spaghetti sauce on my shirt? Mismatching socks? Come on, Trumpet Girl, bring it on.  I can take it.”

“You look fine. Good luck.” Callie blew another warm breath into her horn.

“Yeah, right. It is spaghetti sauce, isn’t it? Man, I knew it!” He jumped up and ran for the bathrooms, nearly banging into Amber. [violinist action and speech, segue to new actor]

“What’s his problem?” Amber asked as she took her seat.

“Nerves, I guess.”

“Hey, Callie? Um…thanks for the tights. They’re way nicer than the ones I was wearing.”

“No problem.”

Amber bit her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess.”

“How come you’re being nice to me? I was, well, not to you.”

Callie shrugged. “I just don’t see the point of us all snarling at each other.”

“But it’s all part of the game. Throw the other guy off balance and all that.”

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“I came here to play music, not mind games. Honestly, does putting other kids down make anyone a better musician?”

Amber picked a hangnail. “I think it just makes me tense, trying to look tough.”

Callie nodded. “Exactly. I mean, what good is that?”

“So how do you not get nervous?”

Callie twirled the mouthpiece in her pocket. “I remember how it feels when I’m playing. Like there’s liquid gold flowing from my breath, through my horn and filling everything with light and happiness.”

Amber stared at her, wide-eyed.

“That sounded totally nuts, didn’t it?” Callie said.

“No. It sounded nice. Light and happiness. I like that.”

The boy violinist stomped up the hall. He stopped in front of Callie’s chair and yelled, “I look fine! Totally fine!” [previous actor returns. His actions and speech]

“Of course you do. Didn’t I say that?” Callie replied.

“She did, I heard her,” said a cellist two chairs down. “So how about you stop hollering? I’m trying to meditate.”  She closed her eyes and laid her hands, palms up, in her lap. [tertiary character speech and action]


What are some key takeaways from this example?

1. Same actor and speaker in a paragraph.

2. New actor or speaker, new paragraph

3. Segues to new actors need to be clear.

4. Use not only tags, but also action beats, descriptions, distinctive diction (dialect, pet phrases), address to another speaker ("Hey, Joe"), or mention of a relationship ("Mom wouldn't like it") to distinguish speakers.

5. Reactions that are unspoken--action beats or the POV character's thoughts--should be separate paragraphs from what they are reacting to. See #1 above.

6. Moments of interiority or even action interspersed in dialogue should be paragraphed topically or thematically, with breaks for new topics or themes or actors (see THIS post for more examples)

For further reading, I recommend Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you find paragraphing dialogue difficult or easy? Why?


  1. Great post! Very informative and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you!

  2. I've read in so many places (and been told in various writing groups) that dialogue tags other than "said" (i.e. replied, asked, yelled) are frowned upon these days by the powers that be. Is this different when writing MG?

    1. I realize the way I wrote that sentence, I sounds like I'm advocating wacky dialogue tags, when I meant don't ONLY use dialogue tags to identify speakers. Make sense?

      I agree that you don't need to get too fancy with tags, and should be sparing with unusual ones. But asked and replied don't mean the same thing as said, nor do whispered and yelled--showing some emotion in a tag can make for more economical writing at times. Flattening all tags to only "said" seems an arbitrary rule.

      But if you have a group of tag haters critting your work, other methods I mentioned can give a more sophisticated feel than just said, said, said.

    2. Based on your question, I fixed the confusing sentence in point 4. Hope what I meant is clearer now. :-)

  3. Excellent post and tips! I appreciate this a great deal since I'm often trying to teach this skill to MG and YA writers. Actually, I'm usually happy if they start a new paragraph for each speaker. I loved how you showed action "tags" without any "said" type tags.