Sunday, June 27, 2021

How to Write Dialogue Accurately

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts     

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In another article, Amp up That Dialogue!, I discuss various techniques for writing dialogue that will come alive on the page. Drop over there for some advice on making your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. Also, check out another post of mine, Some Dialogue Don’ts.

This article just provides a reference for the correct punctuation and capitalization for writing dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Using correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted, confused or annoyed, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, it’s best to follow these technical guidelines.


First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker, unless you’re doing it for a good reason, like a pause or emphasis.

Punctuation for Dialogue:

1Put quotation marks around all spoken words.

Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes around any quoted words or phrases within the quoted dialogue.

(But don't put quotation marks around thoughts.)

2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.

* If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.

“Where were you?” she asked.
“Help!” she screamed.

*Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.

* If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.

“Let’s go home,” he said.

* If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.

“Turn off the TV.

3. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:

He said“But my game is on.”

4. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:

“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.” (Note no capital for the second part.)

5. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (definitely not a great idea to have one person speaking at great length), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.

“…no matter what you do.    
“And another thing, don’t ….”

6. To show a person trailing off while they're speaking, just use ellipses (...) with no punctuation after it: I'm not sure...

7. To show the speaker being interrupted, use a dash at the end, with no other punctuation after it, before the end quote:

“I saw them yesterd—”

“You saw them? Where?”

8. To show action or a change in demeanor or tone while a person is speaking, you can use dashes, like this: 

“Someday your cockiness is going to get you into trouble, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to rescue you.


1. Avoid overusing dialogue tags. 

Instead of constantly using he said or she said (or the name and said), replace them often with action beats, which will also help bring the scene alive:

He closed the door very quietly. Too late.
She stood there, hands on hips. “Where’ve you been?”
“Don’t start.” He took off his coat and hung it up.
The action immediately before or after the words tells us who’s talking.
Or, if it can be done without confusing the readers, just leave out the dialogue tag or action beat. Context often makes it obvious who’s speaking. 

Note that when you use an action tag instead of he/she said, you use a period at the end of the dialogue, not a comma like you would before he said".

2. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said 

(or asked), or with the name: John said, Carol said. These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid fancy or redundant tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, affirmed, explained, apologized, etc., which can be distracting. 

Don't say I'm sorry, she apologized. or This way, he explained. Those explanations are redundant telling and mildly insulting to the reader, who can tell by what they're saying. Just use said”. Or often, no speech tag is needed. 

But I do suggest using verbs that accurately and quickly describe how the words are delivered, like whisperedshouted, yelled, screamed, or stammered.

You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags.
These are both incorrect when using a comma after what they said:
X  “Nice outfit,” he smiled.
X  “Thanks, but I can't do a thing with my hair,” she frowned.
Why don’t they work? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” or "frown" words, so they're not valid replacements for "said".

Change to:

Nice outfit, he said, smiling.
or Nice outfit. He smiled. (Note period and capital “He”)

“Thanks, but I can't do a thing with my hair. She frowned.  (Period and capital for action tag.)
Or “Thanks, but I can't do a thing with my hair,” she said, frowning.

But you can use muttered, whispered, yelled, etc. as direct replacements for said, with the same punctuation and capitalization as said, since you can mutter or whisper or yell words.

4. Use adverbs very sparingly.
Definitely avoid:

“I’m sorry,” she said apologetically.
“Come here,” he said imperiously.
“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.

Instead, make sure the words they’re saying and any actions convey the feelings you wish to express.
5. Make sure the dialogue sounds natural, like those people would actually speak in that situation. In general, use casual language and avoid complete, grammatically correct sentences. Also, use contractions, like "I'm" instead of "I am," "you're" instead of "you are," and "we've" instead of "we have".

Slightly off-topic: Do not put quotation marks around thoughts. That’s a topic for another post.

Also, see "Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript -- Formatting 101."


1. Contemporary North American fiction seems to avoid the reversed form, “said Carol,” in favor of “Carol said.” The reversed form seems to be more British and also considered kind of archaic, which makes it fine for historical fiction.

2. Most contemporary North American fiction writers, with the notable exception of Lee Child, seem to put most dialogue tags after the words spoken:

“Let’s go,” Tony said.  

Rather than before:  
Tony said, “Let’s go.”

However, if what they're saying is lengthy, readers want to know immediately who's talking, so I would put the “Tony said, before a long sentence or a paragraph of dialogue.

These last two points are of course just my observations of common usage, not rules. But aspiring or debut authors would do well to stick with what seems to be in favor, to give a contemporary feel to your novel. Of course, if you’re writing historical fiction, go for the older “said Elizabeth” form.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling FictionCaptivate Your ReadersFire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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