In my time critiquing, I’ve found that a common issue is dialogue. There are three main elements to consider when writing dialogue:
- How to punctuate dialogue correctly.
- Effective choice of dialogue tags.
- Avoidance of ‘talking heads’.
To start, I just want to be clear on what I mean when I use the term ‘dialogue tag’.
Dialogue tag = said, asked, cried, stuttered, exclaimed, etc.
How to Punctuate Dialogue Correctly
The Problem: A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, can be unsure exactly how to punctuate dialogue. Do I use a comma or period? Does it go inside or outside the talking marks? What about dialogue after the tag; do I capitalise or not? What about the dialogue tag; does that need a capital letter? A period or comma?
What to do: Here are the rules you need to remember…
- Always end dialogue with a comma inside the speech marks if it is followed by a dialogue tag. eg:
“I love pasta,” said Sarah.
- Even if there is a long piece of dialogue with several sentences. eg:
“Hi, Kate. How are you? I just got back from Hawaii,” said Ben.
- The only exception is if the sentence is a question or exclamation, in which case you would use a question mark or exclamation mark. eg:
“Can I borrow your pen?” asked Nathan.
- Notice you always start the dialogue tag with a lower case letter, even when using a question/exclamation mark. Unless of course you use the person’s name first. eg: Nathan asked.
- If you want to switch it around and have the dialogue tag first, you put a comma after the tag, start the dialogue with a capital letter and end the dialogue with a period. eg:
Olivia said, “Don’t forget the milk.”
- Always end dialogue with a period if it is NOT followed by a dialogue tag (if it is a stand alone piece of dialogue without a dialogue tag or it is followed by the character completing an action) eg:
“This class is boring.” Penny leaned back on her chair and rolled her eyes.
- For dialogue broken up by a dialogue tag, the above rules apply for the dialogue preceding the tag; for the dialogue following the tag you should use a period after the tag and begin the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter on the same line (only make a new line if a new character is speaking). eg:
“I saw him over there,” Tom said, pointing. “He was standing by that tree.”
- There is an exception to this, but if you’re feeling confused, don’t worry about this one for now. If you are breaking up dialogue in the middle of a sentence (and this is not something you want to do often as it is better used for effect), you will use a comma following the dialogue tag and begin the dialogue following the tag with a lowercase letter. eg:
“I think,” said Kylie, “we should go to the disco.”
Does all that make sense?
Effective Choice of Dialogue Tags
The Problem: Remember back in school when your teachers taught you all the different ways you could say said? Remember how they encouraged you to use a variety of different dialogue tags and avoid the boring word ‘said’ to make your writing more descriptive? The problem is effective writers use said more than any other dialogue tag and avoid those other flowery dialogue tags as much as possible; the complete opposite of what we were taught in school.
What to do: Forget what you learned in school. From now on ‘said’ is your best friend when it comes to dialogue tags. The reason for this is ‘said’ is unobtrusive, which helps make your dialogue flow more naturally. Your second most used dialogue tag will be ‘asked’. That’s not to say you can’t use other tags here and there for effect, but make sure they are realistic (eg: a person can stutter dialogue, but how exactly does one smirk dialogue? It can be said with a smirk, but it can’t be smirked.) If you are unsure, say the dialogue out loud the way you’ve written it.
The same goes for using lots of adverbs, eg: she said, happily. or he said, lamely. Try to find ways to describe the way your characters are talking through use of actions, facial expressions, body language and even the dialogue itself. It’s a good way to include character quirks/traits. eg: Jessica might react in different way to John.
So instead of:
“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica said, excitedly.
You could have:
“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica jumped up and down, a grin like a Cheshire cat stretched across her face.
John’s character would interpret excitement in a different way:
“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” John said, fist bumping Pete.
Avoidance of Talking Heads
The Problem: There is a lot of back and forth dialogue happening between characters, with no visual description in the scene to ground readers.
What to do: This is a good opportunity to show your characters’ personalities or disperse descriptions of the scene naturally. By interspersing little descriptions of what your characters are doing as the dialogue takes place, you avoid big blocks of back and forth dialogue which can cause readers to get lost or envision talking heads with no scenery to ground them.
So rather than:
“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona.
“What do you mean?” asked Gary. “We see each other every day. We live together.”
“I mean really see each other.”
You could write:
“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona. A tear ran down her cheek and dropped onto the shirt she had been ironing.
“What do you mean?” asked Gary, his eyes never leaving the TV. “We see each other every day. We live together.”
Fiona ran the iron over the shirt, not realising she had been ironing the same sleeve for the last five minutes. “I mean really see each other.”
In the second version we can see more of the characters’ personalities and mood. It also grounds the readers to where they are: at home.
And never forget the golden rule for dialogue:
Always start a new line when a new character starts speaking. (If the same character is still speaking, even if there are a few sentences of action in between, you don’t need a new line.)
Any questions? Leave them in the comments!
4 thoughts on “The Basics of Writing Good Dialogue”
Hi Jo! Very helpful info, & I’m glad you shared this. It doesn’t fall under “basics,” I don’t think, but a future dialogue topic could be “buried” dialogue. I’ve been seeing that a lot in my editing projects.
Thanks, Beth. Buried dialogue is a great topic. It’s almost the opposite of talking heads as the dialogue gets lost amongst description. It’s really about finding a balance, but as you say, that’s getting beyond basics. A possible future topic!
I love this post. You boiled it down to the important stuff and made it accessible. If I had this summary back when I was a teacher, I would’ve printed it out and had my kids glue it into their Learning Logs for reference!
I might have to do just that if I get back into teaching again in the future.