Whatever type of fiction you write, you’ll almost certainly need to include some dialogue.
Even non-fiction writers may want to use dialogue occasionally (perhaps in an anecdote, or as part of an imagined conversation with a reader).
Some writers, including me, love writing dialogue and hearing their characters come alive on the page. But if writing dialogue is a struggle for you, check out these tips on letting your characters “speak” in your stories.
Setting out dialogue correctly, though, can be tricky — and even some experienced writers make mistakes.
While the exact layout of your words, and the difference between using a comma and a period, may seem fairly academic…correctly set-out dialogue makes your reader’s life easy.
Getting it wrong will make you look less competent, and may put readers off altogether.
The basics of laying out dialogue correctly on the page
I’m sure you’re getting most or all of this right already — you’ll have read plenty of dialogue, after all! In case you need a quick refresher, though, here are the basics:
- When a character speaks, their dialogue should be on the same line as their dialogue tag or action beat.
- When a different character speaks, start a new line. (It’s also often helpful to start a new line if they act or react — e.g. if they shake their head, even if they don’t actually speak.)
- Punctuation at the end of dialogue should go before the closing quotation mark.
- You can use single or double quotation marks (double are standard in the US, single are standard in the UK) — just be consistent!
Here’s an example of how dialogue should look, laid out on the page:
John closed the curtains. “It’s so gloomy out.”
“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said, “and the sky’s such a weird color, too.”
What are dialogue tags and action beats?
You’re almost certainly familiar with these, and using them, even if you’ve not heard these terms before.
- A dialogue tag looks like “Sarah said” or “he whispered”. It “tags” the dialogue to a particular character.
- An action beat can be almost any sentence! It might be an action (“John closed the curtains”) or a thought or description.
Guidelines for using dialogue tags
When you’re using dialogue tags, try to:
- Keep them unobtrusive. The dialogue itself is what’s important: The tag is just functional. In most cases, the word “said” will do just fine — don’t try to come up with lots of fancy synonyms. This is one case where repetition really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, “whispered” or “shouted” might be appropriate. For obvious reasons, avoid having character “ejaculate” a line of dialogue.
- Use a tag whenever it’s unclear who’s speaking. While you don’t have to attribute every single line of dialogue, do err on the side of caution. Avoid dialogue that goes back and forth without any tags — it can be confusing and tiring for the reader to follow.
- Avoid using adverbs too frequently in dialogue tags. Sometimes, an adverb might suit your meaning better than changing the verb (e.g. “he said darkly” rather than “he muttered”)… but don’t overdo it.
- Vary where you position your dialogue tags. They can go before, during or after dialogue: Changing them around can create a more varied and interesting rhythm for your writing.
How to punctuate dialogue tags
If the tag comes before the dialogue, use a comma straight after the tag. Start the dialogue with a capital letter:
John said, “It’s so gloomy out.”
If the tag comes after the dialogue, end the dialogue with a comma, even if it’s a full sentence. The first letter of the tag should be lowercase (unless it’s a name).
“It’s so gloomy out,” he said.
If the tag comes during the dialogue, end the first part of the dialogue with a comma then have the tag as normal.
Then, if you’ve broken the dialogue during a sentence, rather than at the end of a sentence, use a comma after the tag and start the next piece of dialogue with a lowercase letter:
“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said, “and the sky’s such a weird colour, too.”
However if the first part of the dialogue was a full sentence, you should use a full stop after the tag and start the next piece of dialogue with a capital:
“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said. “Did you hear what they were saying on the news?”
Guidelines for using action beats
Dialogue tags are handy and quick, but action beats can add much more detail and meaning to a conversation. When you’re using them, keep in mind:
- They don’t necessarily have to involve actions! An “action beat” might be a thought or description instead.
- An action beat can often convey the way in which a line of dialogue is spoken: For instance, if a character slams his fists on a desk before saying, “Get out of my office,” you won’t need to tell the reader he’s angry!
- Even if the action beat doesn’t add a great deal of meaning, it may be a useful way to create a pause in dialogue — changing the rhythm of it subtly. It can also “ground” the reader in the scene (without any action beats at all, the characters can feel like disembodied talking heads).
How to punctuate action tags
Action beats are punctuated as normal, full sentences (unlike dialogue tags), so they always start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. This also affects the dialogue preceding them — in the following example, notice how that the first part of Sarah’s dialogue ends with a period, not a comma.
John walked over to the window. “It’s gloomy out.”
“It’s been like that all day.” Sarah had tried not to dwell on it, but she couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that something was terribly wrong. “Did you hear what they were saying on the news?”
Next time you write dialogue, or edit a piece you’ve already written, pay special attention to your use of dialogue tags and action beats. Are your tags unobtrusively making clear who’s speaking? Are your action beats adding variety and meaning to the scene?
If you get stuck, you might want to look at a few of your favorite books: Find a passage of dialogue and see how the author uses dialogue tags and action beats.