Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dialogue Nuts & Bolts

by Jodie Renner, editor & author, @JodieRennerEd 

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 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 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 around any quoted words or phrases within the quoted dialogue.

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 (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 ….”


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, yelled, screamed, or stammered.

3. You can’t use words like laughed or grinned or smiled or grimaced or scowled as dialogue tags.

These are both incorrect:
“You look great,” he grinned.
“Why, thank you,” she smiled.
Why don't they work? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” or “grin” words.
Change to:

"You look great," he said, grinning.
“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.
"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. Off-topic, but do not put quotation marks around thoughts. That's a topic for another post.

 TWO CURRENT STYLE TRENDS (Jodie's observations):

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 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.

For more tips on dialogue, thoughts, and other fiction techniques, check out my book, Fire up Your Fiction - An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Stories.

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!

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website:


  1. Thanks for your post, Jodie. Great tips. I agree strongly with your statement "replace them (dialogue tags) often with action beats." Action beats provide the most efficient insight into what is occurring, without otherwise needing to state who is speaking.

    Thanks again. I refer to your craft books often.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Steve. And I'm so glad you find my craft books helpful! I'm busy working on the next one! :-)

  3. I dropped by this morning, but didn't see your post until tonight. I'll tweet it now. Thanks for posting, Jodie.

    1. I dropped by early this afternoon and didn't see anything up so I just put this "oldie but goodie" up at the last minute, Jordan. :-)

  4. On "John said" vs. "said John." You're correct, John said is preferred – unless the name is followed by a descriptor of some kind. Keep the word said as close to the name as possible. Otherwise you end up with something like, "I'll be right there," John, the former president of the bowling league who had given up the game 10 years ago when he married Rita, said.
    You may laugh (I hope you do, anyway) but in my news job I fish stuff like that out of news copy at least once a week.

    1. Good tips, John! Thanks for your great example! :-)

  5. Thanks for the reminders, Jodie. I found your comments regarding current trends very interesting. Also, the trends of British vs. American punctuation.

    1. Glad you found my tips useful, Della! Thanks for dropping by, and do visit us again! :-)

  6. Great post about dialogue tips. Am thinking of picking up a copy of 'Fire up Your Fiction' now.

    1. I guarantee you, you won't regret it, Joseph! :-)

  7. Jodie, with your quality of did-bits, soon i will not need to go to any more workshops. I needed this info you passed along this morning. By the way are you married?

    1. LOL! Thanks, RG! Then I think you'll like my two books, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as my upcoming one, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS.

      (And nope, I'm single! ;-) )

  8. I love the tip to use action beats instead of dialogue tags. It forced me to get creative with movement. Thanks, Jodie!

    1. You're most welcome, Julie! We love that you take the time to share your thoughts here so often! :-)

  9. Thanks, Jodie for making the "rules" of punctuating dialogue very clear.. I have also read not to use a question mark if the attribution is he asked e.g. "Are you home," he asked instead of "Are you home?" he asked. Or maybe it should be "Are you home?" he said. What do you think? Have you ever seen this? Thanks. Reading your book now.