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.

101 comments

  1. Daniel mack says:

    It’s frustrating loving english and words and writing, but I don’t understand the langue of having it all working together. I’ve written about ten short stories and have given up due to feeling I’m writing all wrong. I have a huge imagination. Like when describing something for instance. The fog horn blows, like red dragons coming off red hot metal in the ears. I don’t want to sound like a failure, but feel like I write as a hobby while others have told me, “Dan you have a real talent with words and keep me interested and always wanting more.” Also having a learning disabilities to read something understanding it, but can’t comply. It’s upsetting.

    • Matty says:

      It’s okay. Sometimes I feel like that too. My family tells me i’m great, but I’m not sure I can really trust them. I mean they’ry family right! It always seems like they’re either being biased or just saying it to make me feel better. Most of the time I start a story, but end up never finishing it because i’m unsure how if it’s going to turn out good which is a shame because when I look back i’ve actually written some pretty killer stuff. It’s just that i’m afraid to continental on and end up writting a completly different story under the false hope that I will be ab,e to finish that one. What I try to do though is to do is to never look back. I challenge my self by ting to make the next paragraph better than the first and if I doubt that i’ve done it right I try to make the next one right. It’s a way to motivate your self to keep moving. I don’t know if you can tell, but I also struggle. With spelling mostly and recognizing words. With out sell check and the crutch of having someone read my work after wards i’d be a gonner. But it’s the satifayion of writting something good that keeps me moving on.

      • Matty says:

        Hope that helps Daniel. Sorry about the eirors. That was kind of personal so I didn’t want other people in my family to read it. If you want to make your writting clearer make sure you priture exactly what the dragon is doing and don’t get ahead of your self. Like this… the fog horn blows loudly, it’s sound sounding like what I imagine a dragon would sound like. Loud, angry and it hurts my ears, my head, my whole body! I’m panicking and can’t help picturing red hot pokers punctuating me. My ears, my head, every where. I think i’m screaming now and then just to seal my fate a dragon apears, laughing at me, it’s hot breath sufficating me and a red poker in his claw ready to gorge out my eye. I feel people around me, but all I can see hear and feel is the dragon, the pokers, and the fog horn. Ooh that’s good. Mind if I use that? The trick is that everything has to connect other wise the reader gets confused and won’t see that what promoted the dragon was the frog horn and what promoted the readers pain, described as hot pokers, was the loud sound of the dragon/foghorn. Just explain a little more other wise the reader will have to puzzle out the sentence witch they don’t like to do. Your thoughts will make sence if you explain them just like my poor a tempts at spelling will make sence when I actually speak the word. Just know that your not alone in this!

  2. Wes says:

    Okay, I have a question that I can’t find anywhere. Let’s say I’m having a dialogue between two people, I understand that you start a new paragraph when a new person speaks, but do you start a new paragraph if you interject something during the dialogue? So for example:

    Example A

    “I’ve seen him enjoying his extracurricular activities when he should have been at home taking care of his wife.”

    Suzanne nodded in agreement. She was mystified by Diego Lopez. He seemed friendly, almost cordial in the way he spoke to her. It appeared he was showing her deference.

    Example B

    “I’ve seen him enjoying his extracurricular activities when he should have been at home taking care of his wife.” Suzanne nodded in agreement. She was mystified by Diego Lopez. He seemed friendly, almost cordial in the way he spoke to her. It appeared he was showing her deference.

    I’ve been doing example A, since although it is not a new dialogue, it is something different than the mono/dialogue. Is this correct?

    And what if it’s just a short phrase.

    “Why am I going to tell you what he did?” Diego asked.

    Suzanne nodded.

    “You will know soon enough.”

    Does that work, or is it this?

    “Why am I going to tell you what he did?” Diego asked. Suzanne nodded. “You will know soon enough.”

    Thanks!

    • Jazzie says:

      Have you figured the correct way of writing this? I have this exact same issue! for example:

      “Don’t thank me for that. I’m just doing my job.” She rolled her eyes and started whisking the eggs.
      “Right, it’s your job to make sure the citizens of America are safe.” Jake grabbed her hand, causing her to look up at him.

      See, in the first line, the male is speaking, and in the second line the female is speaking. But their action tags seem to be a little confusing.

  3. Destiny says:

    My book has a lot of citations in it. When they say “she said” the they don’t put the gaps between the sentences. Sometimes in puts them between the sentences but most of the time it doesn’t. They put the question mark if its a question and it has parenthesis, they put explanation marks.

  4. John says:

    So this my dialogue

    Interior- hospital- patient room

    John wakes up from a comma “ where am I? John confused

    The nurse stops writing the patients result on lab test for the patient blodd “you awake” nurse smiles

    The nurse then pulls out her phone, and calls the Nero surgeon “ doctor Brian, this is nurse cooper can you come to room 456? John Doe is awake.

    This a random story I just came up with for an example I want someone to write back, and tell me if this is how I write dialogue with action?

    Email me at email me at aymanaltamimak282003@ gmail.com

  5. Veronica says:

    I love writing but sometimes I have issues with formatting dialogue right now I have someones sentence being finished by someone else

    “I’m sorry it it’s been a long day,” she said sniffling and wiping her nose “an- and-”

    “-and it’s hard when something bad happens to the ones you love and you feel like it’s because of you that it happened, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Dean said finishing Alina’s sentence.

    Is this formatted correctly?

  6. Rae says:

    Hey I need help on the quotation marks? I was writing when the dialogue got to long and I wanted to continue the dialogue in a new paragraph without starting a new dialogue. Here’s an example:

    Allura smiled sadly and whispered in the dead silent room, “What you have seen, is Voltron in two different times. The first one, was training all their life to just to get to see the legendary Voltron while the second one is very much like you. They had heard of Voltron, but had never thought they would be able to fight in it. That was their first battle after many pratices together.
    Soldiers were called in to go save them against the practice RoBeast. But, at that time, the king knew it was time to go get help.”

    Is what I just did the correct way with the Quotations?

  7. Jazmin M Lovejoy says:

    So when you split dialogue, how do you do it with questions? For example,
    “Love?,” He asked, ” I like that.”
    Or would it have to be separate dialogue all together?

  8. CJ says:

    Hello, my name is Cj. I have been writing since I was around twelve. I’m seventeen now and it just came across me as I was reading a short story. Which way would be more correct?
    An old lady says, “I’ll see you around Jack!”
    OR
    “I’ll see you around Jack!” An old lady says.
    I’m not quite sure whether or not I need to put the character in front of the dialogue or behind the dialogue. Could you please explain this to me?

    • Either can be correct, depending on how you want the sentence to flow, except that the second one should be
      “I’ll see you around Jack!” an old lady says. (Ignore what the autocorrect tells you). I’d be slightly more inclined to say
      “I’ll see you around Jack!” says an old lady. That’s a matter of taste and style, though. Also, in all versions you need a comma after around.

  9. Gabriella says:

    Hi, so I’ve never really written anything before other than for my classes. I started a book and never finished or really started, when I was about eight years old and knew nothing about writing, (I still don’t know that much about writing). I am now fourteen and trying to restart it but I don’t know how to do dialogue very well. Your article really helped a lot but I still have a few questions. How do you know when to put ‘said’ before the person’s name? Do you just do it when you break up dialogue into two parts? I hope my questions made sense.

    • Anne says:

      It shouldn’t matter whether you put “said” before or after the person’s name. It can go either way. Even when breaking the dialogue into parts, neither is grammatically wrong:

      “I’ll write you a letter,” said Maya, “and I hope it gets to you soon.”

      “I’ll write you a letter,” Maya said, “and I hope it gets to you soon.”

      Of course, you may prefer one way to the other depending on how you want the sentence to flow. Hope this helps.

  10. Anne says:

    Hi. How would you insert an action in the middle of dialogue? These are two ways I would consider doing it:

    “Today we are gathered to celebrate the uniting of two people,” he points at us, “and the joy of love.”

    or

    “Today we are gathered to celebrate the uniting of two people—” he points at us “—and the joy of love.”

    Which would be more correct?

  11. bunnyblues4 says:

    What if you are writing a novel and you are quoting something like a song or words off of a T-shirt? Example: Coffee 4 Life. Would it be, “Coffee 4 Life.” or ‘Coffee 4 Life’?

    • Anne says:

      For quoting a song or words from a sign or a shirt, you would definitely use double quotation marks. As far as I know, in America, you would only use single quotation marks for a quote that’s inside of regular double quotation marks. Like this:

      Mary said, “I know you want to go to the party, but your father said, ‘He’s not going anywhere until he’s done his homework.'”

      I believe the rules for this may vary depending on what country you’re in. Otherwise, hope this helps!

  12. Molly says:

    In writing a book and I’m puzzled on periods. one sentence was (hi. Ruth said. How are you doing?) Was this to many periods? Or should I have done something like this( h i Ruth said how are you doing? )

  13. This is great. But, let’s say we have a memoir where a person is describing the scene and then dialogue begins…does this first line of dialogue have to be on a new line, even if it’s the dialogue of the person who was describing the scene? Here is an example where Amanda starts by describing the scene:

    Matt broke the silence, anchoring the moment to reality. “Hi, Amanda,” he said, in a resonating voice. The sun peeked around the church steeple. The future looked bright.

    Should “Hi, Amanda” be on a new line? And, what if that dialogue was from Amanda? Would that still have to be on a new line?

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