How to Use Dialogue Correctly

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.


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