Most writers think of dialogue as an essential component to novels and short stories, but it is also important when writing essays. Personal essays, sometimes called narrative essays or creative nonfiction, is a genre of writing that incorporates many elements of fiction writing, including dialogue. Rules for writing dialogue include not only how to punctuate it correctly, but also how and when to use it to the benefit of your essay.
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Dialogue vs. Quotations
Dialogue is an exchange of speech between two people. Quotations come from already-existing texts, such a speeches or other documents. In your essay, you are most likely not quoting existing texts or speeches, but rather creating a scene in which two people are talking. In essay writing, this exchange between people is often a conversation you, as the author, remember from past events. To that extent, the dialogue does not need to be exactly what was said, but rather what was said to the best of your memory.
Dialogue is best broken up by short paragraphs of action. In real life, we often do not stand still, doing nothing but speaking to the person in front of us. We complete simultaneous actions, such as moving our hands, walking around, and picking up a glass of water. Break up sections of dialogue with short paragraphs describing what the people in your essay are doing as they talk. You can also include sentences describing what one of your characters is thinking and feeling as a conversation is taking place. Dialogue plus action creates more vivid scenes for your reader.
Dialogue tags are ways of reminding the reader who is speaking, such as "he said" or "Mary said". They typically come after the dialogue. For example: "I do not want to go to the market," Mary said. Try to avoid using adverbs such as "he said softly" or "she said convincingly". The dialogue should let the reader know whether a person is speaking softly or convincingly. Rather than relying on adverbs, revise your dialogue so that it conveys the emotion you want to portray.
Each time a person in your essay speaks, start a new paragraph. Open and close each paragraph of dialogue with quotation marks. The period at the end of the final sentence in a section of dialogue should be placed within the closing quotation mark. If dialogue is interrupted mid-sentence, place a comma at the end of the final word before the break. Then insert closing quotation marks followed by the non-dialogue action or a dialogue tag. Begin the rest of the dialogue with new quotation marks. Do not capitalise the first word in the second half of the interrupted dialogue. For example: "I'd rather not," she said, "go to the market today."
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