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How to Use Dialogue Correctly

by BLH on September 20th, 2010

If you’ve never learned the rules of using dialogue in fiction, it can be bewildering when you hand your first short story in to a teacher and get it back covered in red marks. Nevertheless, the rules of dialogue are an essential and rarely broken law, for good reason: without these standards of how to use dialogue, it would be hopelessly confusing as to who was speaking in a story. If you’re unsure about some of the unwritten rules for dialogue use, brush up on your skills and read on.

Rule #1: A new speaker makes a new line.

If you have two characters speaking in a story, it’s important to keep it clear who’s speaking. Hemingway often makes things challenging by having long back-and-forths between characters without dialogue tags (tags are “he said” and “she said”). That’s allowed, as long as you make a new line every time someone else is speaking.

The wrong way:

“I wish I could fly,” John said longingly. “Why don’t you grow wings, then?” Sarah snapped back.

This is wrong because we don’t know it is Sarah speaking until we get to the end of the dialogue. The convention tells us that it is still John speaking.

The right way:

“I wish I could fly,” John said longingly.
“Why don’t you grow wings, then?” Sarah snapped back.

With the line break, it keeps the reader on track, knowing that someone else is speaking.

Rule #2: Quotes, quotes, and quotes

Even a small thing like using the wrong quotation marks can reflect poorly on your story, particularly if it’s being read by an editor or agent. Here are the rules to remember for American standard dialogue use.

Two quotation marks for speech; one mark for speech within speech

“You wouldn’t believe how he treated me,” said Mark. “He said, ‘Go back where you came from!’”

This way, we know for sure who is speaking and whether what is said is a direct quotation or not.

After the jump: rules of thumb for effective dialogue.

Rule #3: Break up dialogue into two parts

It’s awkward in speech to wait until the end of a speech to give the dialogue tag, because then we don’t know who is speaking for a long time. Instead, give the first thought, then a comma and tag, then go back into dialogue. That way, your reader will be able to picture who is speaking throughout the speech.

The wrong way:

“I can’t believe I failed the test. I studied and studied, but somehow I choked and left most of it blank. I’m probably going to have to retake it,” Mark said.

The right way:

“I can’t believe I failed the test,” said Mark. “I studied and studied, but somehow I choked and left most of it blank.”

Rule #4: Avoid flashy dialogue tags.

Here’s a bit of shocking news: your elementary school teachers were wrong. They urged you to stretch your vocabulary by using every big word you knew for dialogue. If you do that, though, you end up with a clunky, distracting mess. Here’s an example:

The wrong way:

“You broke my heart!” she screamed.
“It’s not my fault!” he growled.
“But you cheated on me!” she wailed.
“I’m sorry — it just happened,” he stammered.

The problem with this passage is that the tags start overshadowing the actual words being spoken. They’re completely unnecessary. They are often crutches in our writing; in reality, the words themselves should suggest the tone with which they are spoken. In fact, using “he said” and “she said” is so familiar to readers that the words blur into the background, retreating so that the main action of dialogue can come to the fore. That’s why it’s best to keep wordy dialogue tags to a minimum and just use “said” for most of your dialogue. You can also drop tags entirely when it’s clear only two people are talking back and forth.

The right way:

“You broke my heart!” she said.
“It’s not my fault!” he said.
“But you cheated on me!”
“I’m sorry — it just happened.”

Rule #5: Use action to show who is speaking

Now that you know dialogue 101, you’re ready to move on to advanced dialogue. It can still get tedious to have long strings of back-and-forth dialogue. Instead of using “he said” and “she said” back and forth endlessly, use action both to break up the dialogue and indicate who is speaking. If you have dialogue without tags, whoever is given an action afterward is the implied speaker. Let me show you what I mean.

The wrong way:

Sarah stood up. “I love you, John.” He shrank away shyly.

This is not technically wrong, but it is very unclear, because the convention is that the speaker is who is given action after the dialogue. In this passage, it sounds like it is John who has said “I love you, John.” Here’s how you can make it clear.

The right way:

Sarah stood up. “I love you, John.” She reached out to him longingly.

As you can see, it’s very clear in this passage who is speaking and how her words are linked to her actions. That’s another rule of thumb to keep in mind: most of us talk while doing other things. Don’t stop the story so that your characters can give soliloquies; instead, give them things to do as they talk, whether it’s chopping vegetables or fidgeting nervously.

If you have any other questions about the rules and conventions of dialogue, raise them in the comments and we’ll figure them out together.

From → The Writing Life

32 Comments
  1. Clair permalink

    Hi! I’ve been reading Writerly Life for a long time and nothing encourages me to get writing as much as a blog post. This one raised lots of questions (and answered many; I’ve been nervous about how to handle dialogue):
    Was Hemingway wrong to be so sparse with his dialogue tags? Do you think it’s best to keep up a steady stream of “he said”-”she said”s? At what point should you leave off with dialogue tags altogether; and at what point should you bring them back? Is it okay to just use “she said” if you have two women speaking, or vice versa?
    Thank you so much, Ms. Hurley, and please continue to be an inspiration!

  2. jondoe permalink

    Is this correct?

  3. jondoe permalink

    Is this correct?

    ” What are you doing?” said Laura

    ” I am going home” John said starting the engine

    • you have to punctuate your second dialogue line

    • Amber permalink

      No,
      “What are you doing?” asked Laura.
      “I’m going home.” said John, starting the engine.

      I could be wrong, but I think this is it.

      • This is covered by the comments further down, but this example specifically should be

        “What are you doing?” asked Laura.
        “I’m going home,” said John, starting the engine.

    • layla permalink

      i think it is

  4. is this correct:

    “Yeah I agree.” said John

  5. haimoko permalink

    Well, the period should be a comma if you are using something like ‘he said or she said, etc.’

    Ex:
    “I do not approve,” Charlie stated calmly, rubbing his imaginary beard.
    “Why?” John asked.

    Okay Donny, your sentence should look like this or this:
    “Yeah I agree,” John said.
    “Yeah, I agree,” John said.
    In the first sentence, having no comma makes it sound like its more jumbled together, and that he did not pause after saying yeah.
    In the second one, the comma lets the reader know there’s a slight pause after the yeah and slightly more emotion.
    But it would also help sometimes to vary the saids. Like using a better word to help the reader feel the emotion of the words. Ex:

    “No,” he said. Here, the it sounds like the reader is speaking normaly.

    “No!” he said. In this sentence, the exclamation point lets the reader know he is probably saying it louder and probably with a little more emotion than he is normally speaking. It could be more stern than normal or slightly annoyed.

    “No!” he yelled. This sentence shows shows more emotion, because:
    1) the exclamation point automaticly indicates more emotion,
    2) the verb helps the reader hear the volume of the speaker, 3) it can help describe the speaker’s emotion a little more.

  6. Hello! I have benefitted from reading this page. I have a question. How do I use ellipses in dialogue correctly?

    “Hello…” he said.

    or

    “Hello, …” he said.

    or

    “Hello…,” he said.

    or

    Are the above all wrong? Could you enlighten me as well as give me the correct way to use ellipses in dialogue accurately? Thanks a lot!!

  7. Thanks, this was really helpful. This site’s really contributing to my writing progress on fanfiction :)

  8. steve permalink

    this was extremelyy helpful, thanks.

  9. steve permalink

    you people need a life. no offence.

  10. steve permalink

    im looking to sell my giraffe . interested? hes called george and hes 10 foot. call me on.. 079077829729

  11. Excellent and always needed. One extra comment I’d make is that, in the “A new speaker makes a new line” rule, the new paragraph should start when the “camera” turns to the new speaker, not when they start speaking. E.g.

    Wrong:
    “Are you going home?” asked Laura. John shook his head.
    “No,” he said.

    Right:
    “Are you going home?” asked Laura.
    John shook his head. “No,” he said.

    • rebbecca permalink

      Thanks! That is actually what I was looking for. I was about to post it as a question when I saw your comment :)

    • Sable permalink

      Thank you so much, that’s exactly the answer I was looking for. How to do dialogue correctly is sooo confusing to me. I am a beginner writer and I’m trying to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can because I want to enter my short story in a contest.
      Again, Thanks so much

  12. superman permalink

    Does anyone know how long a brain can survive with brain damage? When they have no brain surgery?
    I know this has nothing to do with the topic. Sorry, but please help!

  13. That is a great tip especially to those fresh
    to the blogosphere. Brief but very accurate info… Thank you for sharing this one.
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  14. sanjana permalink

    wow……… its very beauty full

  15. katharine permalink

    I’m writing a short story and I want to know if this is right and if I’m using too much dialog. Any advice is welcome. Note: this is the start of the story.

    “Mommy, can we please get a pet?” Janet begged. Carol sighed. She has told Janet too many times that they can’t have a pet.
    “I told you before, we cannot get a pet so don’t ask me again,” Carol replied.
    “Why can’t we get a one?”
    “Because I’m allergic to cats and your father is allergic to dogs.” Carol said, getting annoyed.
    “Can we at least look for a different animal?” Janet asked.
    “Maybe when your father gets home we can all go together to agree on one.”
    “Oh thank you Mom!” Janet exclaimed. “I can’t wait to go!”

    • Anonymous permalink

      I might be wrong, but I believe it would be this.

      “Mommy, can we please get a pet?” Janet begged.
      Carol sighed, “I told you before, we cannot get a pet so don’t ask me again.”
      “Why can’t we get a one?”
      “Because I’m allergic to cats and your father is allergic to dogs,” she said, getting annoyed.
      “Can we at least look for a different animal?” asked Janet.
      “Maybe when your father gets home we can all go together to agree on one.”
      “Oh thank you Mom!” Janet exclaimed. “I can’t wait to go!”

  16. Peggy Foster permalink

    Thank you for writing this post. I definitely needed this because I’m working on my first book. I’m having a friend of mine critique my work and she commented that I needed to work on my dialogue. Thanks again!

  17. Laura permalink

    Oh, that’s freaky because my two characters were in fact chopping vegetables and fidgeting nervously in the scene I wrote today. Anyway, thanks for making this post – some good advice!

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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