The Nuts and Bolts of Writing Good Dialogue

Astute fiction fans often look first at a novel’s dialogue structure when debating whether or not to read on. It provides instant insights into the writer’s ability and experience. If you want your fiction to vault this hurdle, make sure your dialogue is on firm ground when it comes to punctuation marks, capitalization, and tags. Here’s a look at dialogue’s basic building blocks.

Straight-Up Dialogue

Spoken words are enclosed in double quotation marks. The first word in every sentence is capitalized. End marks like periods, question and exclamation marks, and the like fall within the end quote. Example:

“We were such fools, Teddy. It could all have been different."

“If I hadn’t behaved the way I did back then?”

“I’ve told you before. It wasn’t just you!”

Tag Lines

Set up a new paragraph when the speaker changes. Identify the speaker by using a tag line, such as “he said” or “she said”.

If the tag comes after the spoken text, separate them with a comma at the end of the spoken text, inside the quotes:

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself,” he said.

"How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” said King Lear.

If the tag comes before the spoken words, separate them like this:

Elizabeth Taylor said, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

If the tag comes in the middle of the sentence, bracket it with commas. The word following the second comma should not be capitalized.

"All right," Dundy said, "sit down and listen!"

If the tag comes between two complete sentences, end the sentence after the tag and then open a new quote:

“I told you before,” he said. “I am not going.”

Exclamation Points and Question Marks

If using a tag after a question, don’t insert a comma, and keep the question mark inside the quotes. Also, don’t capitalize the tag. It looks like this:

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” he said.

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy flight!” she said.

She said, “What’s in the box?”

Long Blocks of Speech

When a character says a big chunk of text, and you want to tag it with “he said”, insert the tag at the first natural pause. For example:

“Like I said a while ago, let me tell you about Tony and me,” he said. “He had arms as thick as my legs. When he smiled, I shook. When he walked out, I started breathing again.”

“Back in the ‘50s when my dad was a kid growing up in Clairton, near Pittsburgh,” he said, “there was soot and grime everywhere and the air was gross.  When the big shots talked about ‘smoke control,’ nobody knew what they were saying.” 

Various Tags

Tags may contain only verbs that imply speech. The most common are “said”, “asked”, and “replied”. Stick to them ninety percent of the time. The reader’s eye moves swiftly over these simple words, scarcely noticing them, and so they don’t distract from the story.

Don’t use other verbs, such as “sighed”, “threw up his hands”, etc. as if they were tags. They are action beats, and they have different rules. For example:

WRONG: “I went broke playing the slots,” she sighed.

RIGHT: “I went broke playing the slots.” She sighed.

As a thumb rule, if the verb is not an obvious synonym of “said”, treat it as an action beat.

Action Beats

Interrupt dialogue with action. Your characters are actors on a stage; they can’t just sit or stand there. Using action beats that involve verbs other than speaking will get the reader anchored in the scene better, and remind her of the context of space and time.

Action beats, unlike tags, are not separated from dialogue by commas. They may occur before the spoken words, or when the spoken words are finished. For example:

He strode into the kitchen. "Mac and cheese again?" He turned to his wife. "What is this? A fat and carbo conspiracy?" He waved the meal away.

Putting it All Together

Here’s how Donna Tartt handles a bedside meeting between young Theo and Pippa in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch. Study and learn.

“You can sit here,” she said to me, shifting over slightly in the bed to make room.

After I glanced back at Hobie to make sure it was okay, I sat down gingerly, with one hip, careful not to disturb the dog, who raised his head and glared.

“Don’t worry, he won’t bite. Well, sometimes he bites.”  She looked at me with drowsy eyes.

“You remember me?”

“Are we friends?”

”Yes,” I said without thinking, and then I glanced back at Hobie, embarrassed I’d lied.

Summing up

Critical readers expect accurate, effective dialogue to be a sharp arrow in the quiver of your writing skills. Begin with a firm foundation first made with small advances. Use quotes, commas and end marks correctly, keep your talking characters on the move, don’t confuse tags with action beats, and you’ll be off and running toward writing sound dialogue.



Dimitri Gat

Dimitri Gat is a long-established professional writer. He has been an editor for the Harvard University Library, a librarian at Mount Holyoke College, a member of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst English department, a technical writer and data analyst with the Emhart Corporation and an independent consultant and contractor for other major US corporations. He writes thrillers, mysteries and women-in-jeopardy novels under his name and pseudonym, C. K. Cambray.

Find him at LinkedIn and Upwork

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