Dialogue can often seem a lot more complicated than it is.
I have put together a short explanation of how to do this correctly, so as not only to improve readability of your work, but also to ensure future editors or agents looking over your work aren’t put off by something that is really an easy fix. Please note this is how I do it, but this is by no means the only correct way to do it.
Single or double quotes? American writers will use double quotation marks to enclose their dialogue, while UK writers will use the single quotes. This is what publishing houses expect.
The speaking character’s dialogue should be on the same line as their dialogue tag or action beat.
Start a new line when a new character speaks. It’s a good idea to start a new line when a new character reacts to the speaker as well, even if they don’t verbally respond.
“Would you like some water?” Shelia asked.
She filled the cup about halfway at the tap and then pointed over her shoulder to the freezer. “Ice?”
“No thank you, ma’am”
Use contractions. Very few people speak without using contractions. If you have a character that does it as a quirk, definitely make sure you don’t fall into that habit with the rest of your characters, or all your dialogue will sound unnatural.
Ellipses (...) are used when someone trails off while speaking, meaning an omission of words. “I just always thought that I would, you know…” Sally said in a trailing murmur.
An Em Dash (—) is used to show speech interrupted or abruptly cut off.
“Look out! There’s a car com—" And just like that grandma was flattened by a Buick.
The weakest place to apply a dialogue tag is in the front. Tom said, “I want some fries.” The next best place is in the middle. “Let’s go out to eat,” Tom said, “get some fries.” And the best place is almost always going to be the end of the sentence, where it can more effectively disappear. “Let’s go out to eat, get some fries,” Tom said.
Do not, however, put a single dialogue tag at the end of a full paragraph or long string of dialogue. (typically) INCORRECT “I want to go to the store. Think you could give me a ride? I really need some eggs and milk,” Becca said. (typically) CORRECT “I want to go to the store,” Becca said. “Think you could give me a ride? I really need some eggs and milk.”
Punctuation always goes inside the quotation, whether it’s an exclamation point, a question mark, a comma, or a period.
“No!” Kevin snarled.
“No?” he asked.
“No,” he said.
Internal dialogue, thoughts, mental asides should be in italics to show that it is a thought, but only if it is written in present tense. He watched her as she danced, wondering if someone so beautiful would ever fully see him. Think of him. Want him. That was pretty unlikely, he thought, taking another long pull off his beer. (Not italics) He watched her as she danced. Could someone so beautiful ever really see me? Think of me? Want me? He took another long pull off his beer. That’s pretty unlikely. (Present tense thought = italics)
Who is the speaker?
You have several options for showing the reader who is speaking any given line of dialogue in your story. Regardless of how you choose to do this, if you have strong characterization and unique voices for your characters, any dialogue attribution should almost be unnecessary, as the reader should know who is speaking based off word choice and context.
Dialogue tags directly relate to the quoted dialogue, telling you who spoke and how they said it. The tag following the quote is usually lowercase, usually begins with a “he” or “she” or a proper noun like “Sue” or “Joe” then said or a variant of said.
Said or Asked
“Stop!” he said.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Never again,” Sue said with great determination.
“Why not?” Joe asked.
Note that the comma or quote punctuation is inside the quotation marks.
Punctuating Dialogue: 5 Rules For Success
How to Use Dialogue Tags Like a Pro
“You are new at this,” Seth called.
“You’re wrong,” Duncan insisted.
“I know this road!” Raza screamed.
“It is actually true,” Sara whispered.
“How did you make the dragon leave?” he gasped, sheathing his sword.
Shouted, bellowed, yelled, snapped, cautioned, rebuked, consoled, comforted, reassured, admired, soothed, babbled, gushed, exclaimed, whispered, stuttered, stammered, gasped, urged, hissed, blurted, declared, insisted, maintained, commanded, sighed, murmured, laughed, cried, mumbled, sobbed, lamented, jabbed, sneered, scolded, demanded, threatened, insinuated, spat…
There are so many different ways to say “said” or “asked,” and you might be tempted to think back to what your grade school teacher told you about variety, using the thesaurus, and avoiding repetition. In the case of said, I am going to go out on a limb and tell you that your grade school teacher was wrong.
Said and asked are invisible words, and the reader has had a lifetime of conditioning to process their meaning and move on, much in the same way they do a period or question mark. This is great! The little said has done its job and ensured clarity in the speaker all the while going unnoticed. Why would you want to insert yourself into that and distract the reader from their steady progression through your story with an unnecessary gushed, or insisted, or rebuked?
Okay, so maybe every now and then, just to make it absolutely clear that a neutral line of dialogue is meant to convey a different or stronger emotion than context lends itself to (and only when you can’t revise that dialogue to be strong enough to deliver the context on its own), you may want to toss in an occasional sneered, or murmured, or spat. But 90% of the time you are going to want to use said, or no dialogue attribution at all.
No Attribution at All
This works best when you only have two people in the scene, or it is very clear who the people in the conversation are, and you can establish a pattern, a sort of ping pong style of taking turns speaking. Usually this is Person A, then Person B, A, then B, A, then B, and if a new party interjects, Person C. With the new arrival, you add in attribution again for clarity until a new pattern is established. Once more this still works best if your characters have a distinct way of speaking and a clearly unique voice.
I don’t suggest doing this for more than a handful of lines in a row. About every four or five lines, just toss in a dialogue tag, a simple he said, or Jack said, or Sally said, to make sure your reader doesn’t get lost.
Action Beats or Tags
Action beats or action tags are what you will most likely use the most. It is generally assumed that speech (dialogue) is kept in its own line or paragraph with the actions of the speaker. Therefore, you can have someone speak, and then let their action follow behind it to tie the dialogue to the person acting, or thinking, or emoting in the narration that follows. This can be done in the reverse as well, with narration first, followed by dialogue attached at the end, tying both together.
Note that the word that follows the quotation is capitalized:
“Let them know I am coming at noon. I’m bringing pizza.” His tone was positive, almost excited.
“Damn it all!” She screamed the words, realizing too late that she was still in the middle of the library.
“Let’s get our story straight.” He leaned in then, lowering his voice to a conspiring whisper. “You never saw me. Neither of us were ever here.”
John-Marsha Syndrome: Direct Addresses Gone Wild
Sometimes when we are not paying attention, or we’re just really concerned that the reader may not understand who a character is talking to, we add it right into the dialogue as a direct address. A direct address is when the speaker calls the person he/she is speaking to by name. In general, this reads unnaturally, because it is rare that we do this in real life. If you are married, think how many times you actually finish a sentence spoken to your spouse with their name, or when you are talking to a friend on the phone, how often do you start a sentence by saying their name? The other person isn’t likely to forget who they are, so you really don’t need to remind them.
Of course, when you are angry at someone or simply frustrated, you may address them by name. So if you want a line of dialogue to sound vaguely confrontational...a direct address just might do.
*Note, where kids are concerned and your name to them is Mom, you can fully expect your name to be said over and over again in every conversation, especially if you are trying to not be part of the conversation.
Here is an Example of overused Direct Address
“Hey, Frank. Are you still coming by tonight after work?”
“I donno, Bob. I was really hoping to hit the gym this evening.”
“Well, gee, Frank. Couldn’t you just come by after?”
“Bob, I will probably be tired and sweaty. Just gonna get a shower and sleep.”
“Aww, that blows, Frank. Been planning this night all week.”
“You should have told me sooner, Bob. I could have worked out at lunch.”
Frank, Bob, Frank, Bob, Frank, Bob…
There is nothing natural about Bob and Frank. Well, at least about their penchant for saying each other’s names in every sentence. The dialogue might not be so bad if not for all the direct addresses, and even if it were just one or two it might be salvageable. In general, you want to save direct addresses and use them only when you need that extra emphasis…like when a mom uses a child’s full name to really get their attention.
The Grey’s Anatomy Speech
People do not talk like this. People who do talk like this end up having whoever they are speaking to walk away from them, vowing to never ever accidentally say “Hello” to them again. You will see it in a lot of TV these days as it has become quite popular, but in written fiction it just looks like a long block of text, and you don’t even get to see those trademark Grey’s Anatomy furrowed brows of understanding on the other person. Break up your dialogue, let other people cut in where they might naturally cut in. Allow tension to build through the give and take of information.
Other Dialogue Issues to Consider
Small Talk And Introductions
How to Edit Your Dialogue
An Insanely Simple Trick for Tightening Your Dialogue
Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)
Dialogue Info dump
As You Know, Bob --Info dumping Dialogue
He Said, She Said; Sarah Webb’s 10 Tips on Dialogue
Boring Dialogue and How to Fix It A discussion on Micro Tension.
Punctuating Dialogue: 5 Rules For Success
How to Use Dialogue Tags Like a Pro
10 Dialogue Errors Writers Should Avoid At All Costs
If you find you still struggle a bit with dialogue, I highly recommend you pick up:
This book is actually one I would recommend you pick up for a lot of reasons. If your writing is good, and just on the edge of being great, this one might be what you need to push you over that edge.