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)
- Janet said that there’s no way she’s going to go there. (recounting dialogue)
- “No way, I’m not going there.” (“.”)
- “No way, I’m not going there,” Janet said. (“,” Janet said.)
- "You aren’t going?,” Jack asked. ("?," Jack asked.) Incorrect.
- Right: "You aren’t going?” Jack asked. ("?" Jack asked.) Correct.
- Janet’s husband said, “She never wants to go where I want to go.”
- "Janet’s problem is that she lacks a sense of adventure,” her husband said.
- "Janet’s problem,” Jack said, “is that she lacks a proper sense of adventure.”
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?”
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.”
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.