Christian Fiction Writer


The Basics of Good Dialogue

Published in The Ready Writer E-Zine, by Vicki McCollum, © 2008
Quotation marks are used to punctuate a speaker’s actual dialogue in fiction or to punctuate a direct quote in nonfiction. Speech tags (also known as attribution tags in nonfiction) identify the speaker using speech verbs: he said, Janet yelled, Jack shouted.

Use speaker tags, also known as attribution tags in nonfiction, and separate the tag from the dialogue with a comma:
  • When asked directly, Janet replied, “No way, I’m not going there.” (direct quotation)
  • “No way, I’m not going there,” Janet said. (direct dialogue)
Don’t use quotation marks to punctuate recounted dialogue:

  • Janet said that there’s no way she’s going to go there. (recounting dialogue)
Notice that periods and commas are placed inside quotation marks:

  • “No way, I’m not going there.” (“.”)
  • “No way, I’m not going there,” Janet said. (“,” Janet said.)
Don't use commas with other punctuation:

  • "You aren’t going?,” Jack asked. ("?," Jack asked.) Incorrect.
  • Right: "You aren’t going?” Jack asked.  ("?" Jack asked.) Correct.
Speech or attribution tags may be placed before, in the middle, or after the quote or dialogue, depending on the writer’s desire to pace dialogue or stress sentences.

  • Janet’s husband said, “She never wants to go where I want to go.”
When a speech tag comes before the quote, the comma follows the tag and the speech is placed in quotation marks:

  • "Janet’s problem is that she lacks a sense of adventure,” her husband said.
When the speech tag follows quoted speech, the prounoun attribution isn't capitalized:
  • "Janet’s problem,” Jack said, “is that she lacks a proper sense of adventure.”
When the speech tag is placed in the middle of and interrupting the speech, the quoted speech continues without capitalization. (". . . problem,” Jack said, “is that she…”)

Paragraphs in direct dialogue

Give each speaker his or her own paragraph and indicate when the speaker changes by beginning a new paragraph. Example:

Janet stroked the cat behind its ears and sighed. “I’ve told you before, Jack. I hate ice-hockey. It’s too violent.”

“Since when has violence bothered you?” he asked. “It didn’t bother you when you played professional roller hockey.”

“That’s not fair.” She tossed an angry glare at him. “I played in order to pay your way through medical school, and this is the thanks I get?”

Action Tags

Use action tags to identify a speaker when you don’t want to use “said,” or other speech tags. Jack and Janet continue their conversation with each speaker receiving his or her separate paragraph. For variation, the third sentence uses an action tag; the tag shows Jack in meaningful action, which should move the plot forward, or characterize the speaker in some way.

"You never want to do what I want to do,” Jack said.

Janet said, “Don’t start with me, Jack.”

He opened the door. "Fine! I’ll go without you.”

Avoid adverbs

Adverbs are words that end with an “ly,” such as “angrily, softly, gently.” Instead of adding adverbs, allow the speaker’s words to express his feelings. Adverbs can make dialogue sound overwritten and cartoonish. Example:

"You never want to do what I want to do,” he whined pathetically.

Janet whispered angrily, “Don’t start with me, Jack.”

Opening the door he shouted furiously, "Fine! I’ll go without you.”

Readers can sense tone and emotion by the speaker’s word choice, and if the speaker's words expresses his or her feelings, then adverbs are repetitious.

Now it's your turn:

Read passages of your favorite author's dialogue. Compare how the author handles different character's dialogue. I'll bet they don't sound the same, do they? Just as people don't sound exactly like each other, neither do characters. Their way of speaking is shaped by education, work and social circles, family background, and much more. Absorb good dialogue by reading, or even re-typing, long passages of several authors' dialogue. Then apply what you've learned to your own characters' dialogue.


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