Monday, November 21, 2011

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author     
In another article,
Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue, I discuss various techniques for writing dialogue that will come alive on the page. Drop over there for some tips on making your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding.

This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write 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:

1. Put 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 for quoting or emphasizing words or phrases within the quoted dialogue. (Italics are also used for emphasizing words or short phrases – but don’t overdo it.)

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.

3. 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!” he shouted.

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.

4. 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.

5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.
“Turn off the TV.”

6. 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.”

7. 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.)

8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (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 ….”


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.

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 tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, affirmed, etc., which can be distracting. But I do suggest using verbs that accurately and quickly describe how the words are delivered, like whispered, shouted or stammered.

3. You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags:
“You look great,” he grinned.
“Why, thank you,” she smiled. (both incorrect)

Why not? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” words. Change to:
“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)
Or “Why, thank you,” she said, then smiled at him.

4. Use adverbs very sparingly. 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.


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

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.

Fiction writers and readers, what do you think? Do you have any more tips to add to the mechanics of writing dialogue? Or opinions on the last two “style trends”? Let’s get a dialogue going!

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Terrific reminders! It should be required reading for every writer.

  2. When I first started writing, I messed up #3 all the time! But I learned. Excellent tips.

  3. Thanks, LJ and Jessica.

    Writers - what do you think of the "said Jane" form instead of "Jane said"? Do you use it? A lot? Occasionally? Does it strike you as old-fashioned, or just fine?

  4. I wish I'd had this list when I first began writing, Jodie. Great help.

    Personally, I don't use "said Jane", although my guess would be it's just fine and almost as invisible as "Jane said".

  5. The reason Lee Child might use dialogue tags British-style is because he's British. :)

  6. Yes, Lee Child is British, and it's always amazing to me how well he captures the American idiom, landscape, attitudes, and way of life!

    I wouldn't say Lee Child's frequent use of "Reacher said" in front of what he said (instead of after, which is way more common) is British, but the "said Bill" construction, which Child doesn't seem to use, is more British than American.

  7. A very helpful post, Jodie. Thanks for the info.

    I'm from the school of: if it works, do It, and as you're aware, Jodie, I've been known to break a rule or two. For me, it's all about the delivery. And the rhythm. There's a natural beat that runs through the words, and I try to keep true to that. Sometimes it means writing, George said. Sometimes it means writing, Said George. Sometimes it means no George at all. Whatever makes the words pound is what works best. I try not to pay much attention to genre influence or what's acceptable. Instead, I listen to my gut; I don't think it's ever steered me wrong.

  8. Thanks, Drew. Rhythm is so important, and often overlooked. My advice is mainly for aspiring authors, who aren't yet ready to take a lot of risks. Better to get the basics down first, then strike out on your own. Also, READ, READ, READ, especially top sellers in your own genre. Get a feel for what sounds right and rolls off the tongue naturally.

  9. Thanks so much for this! As an editor, dialogue snafus are by far the most common technical mistakes I come across -- from both fledgling and experienced writers. I'll definitely be recommending this post to my clients!


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