We participate in conversations every day, so you'd think it'd be easy to write dialogue. But it's not. Writing a conversation is not the same as having one, and there are many things to think about when it comes to representing speech on paper. I've broken down a few aspects of writing dialogue here to help you out.
Stylistic conventions of writing dialogue differ slightly depending on what country you're in and what style guide you use. I write and edit using the Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition and using American style spelling and grammar. These apply within North America but may be different elsewhere.
I cover a lot in this post, and you can use these links to jump to the relevant section:
Let's start with the basics. When writing dialogue, there is standard punctuation to follow so your readers will understand what they're reading.
Any words being spoken go inside double quotation marks. "This what is what dialogue looks like," she said.
You'll notice that the closing punctuation is also inside the quotation marks. This applies to commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks, etc. unless the punctuation is not a part of the dialogue. For example:
"I can't believe this!" she said.
Did she really just say, "I hate Oxford commas"?
Notice, as well, that a tag introduces the dialogue with a comma, and the dialogue is always concluded with another closing punctuation mark (besides the double quotation marks). If the dialogue is followed by a dialogue tag, the closing mark will be a comma, an exclamation mark, or a question mark. If the dialogue is ending the sentence, it will end with a period, an exclamation mark, or a question mark. For example:
"Does this make sense?" she asked.
Her friend replied, "I think so. Wow, there are a lot of punctuation rules about dialogue."
Dialogue can also be split by a dialogue tag or an action beat in a few different ways. The way you split dialogue and the punctuation you use changes the rhythm of the sentence and can therefore affect other story aspects (tone, mood, etc.). Here are some examples:
"It's too difficult to pick a favorite author," she said. "But lately I've been loving Nnedi Okorafor."
"It's too difficult to pick a favorite author. But," she said, "lately I've been loving Nnedi Okorafor."
"It's too difficult to pick a favorite author. But,"—she took a sip of tea—"lately I've been loving Nnedi Okorafor."
If someone is quoting someone else in dialogue—also known as a nested quotation—single quotation marks are used inside the double quotation marks. For example, "Did she say, 'I'm tired of the snow'?"
These rules can seem intimidating, but the more you read and the more you write, the easier they are to work with.
Whenever a new character starts speaking, their dialogue should start a new paragraph:
"What do you want for dinner?" Gina asked.
"Hmm. Today feels like a day for fruit salad and ice cream," Margo replied.
If one character is speaking for a long period of time and you want to break their dialogue into paragraphs, start each paragraph with opening quotation marks, but do not use closing quotation marks until the end of the final paragraph of their speech:
Mom sat down to tell me a story. "Once upon a time, there was a writer named Julia who wrote science fiction and fantasy. She worked on her first manuscript for five years, and she sent it to beta readers and editors. Even with all of that work and feedback, she was still nervous to query agents.
"One day, she worked up the guts to write a query letter. She even had an editor look over it, and she sent it off before she lost her courage. She didn't receive a reply. She was determined, though, and she sent out five more query letters to agents she had researched closely. Then, it happened. When she saw the request for her manuscript, she thought she had died and gone to heaven."
You may have heard the saying "said is dead." Forget that. Seriously, forget it. The three most common dialogue tags are "said," "asked," and "replied," and those are usually enough. These dialogue tags are so common that they are practically invisible to readers.
If other dialogue tags are used for every line of dialogue, they stick out to readers, which can interrupt the story. Sometimes "whispered" or "shouted" (or another tag) is necessary, but there are also other ways to show the volume or tone of a character's voice.
Let the context of the scene do the work. Context can set the tone so that a reader implicitly knows how a character is speaking. Action beats can also do this. For instance, if two characters are fighting and throwing things at each other, it's probably not necessary to say Character A "shouted" at character B. Using an exclamation mark would be enough to indicate their volume, and the context of the scene would be enough to indicate their tone.
Something else to be aware of with dialogue tags is that action beats do not function as dialogue tags. For example, breathed, laughed, chuckled, smiled, and snorted are things that people do, not ways that people speak.
I'll talk about action beats more later.
Adverbs function similarly to dialogue tags other than the main three. Sometimes they can be effective, but mostly they are redundant because the context of the scene should be enough to indicate how someone speaks. You could also use a stronger dialogue tag rather than combining "said" with an adverb.
For example, which passage is stronger?
"I don't like it here. It feels like we're going to be eaten by a monster," Joe said quietly.
"I don't like it here. It feels like we're going to be eaten by a monster," he whispered.
Joe hugged himself, his shoulders hunched against the cold. "I don't like it here." His voice was hushed but it seemed to echo in the small space. "It feels like we're going to be eaten by a monster."
For more on adverbs, see Adverbs: Kill Them or Let Them Live?
Language does not come across through words alone; we also speak to each other through things like body language and interactions with the world around us. Action beats are essentially short descriptions that come before or after dialogue, or they can split up long sections of dialogue. They can help a scene flow more naturally and realistically for the reader. Sometimes a section of dialogue functions well without action beats, but more often the dialogue can sound choppy without any added description of the scene.
When reading over dialogue, see if there are places where a small action from a character could indicate their tone or add to what they’re saying. Action beats can help develop the setting, characters, tone, and more.
Action beats can also replace dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking; too many dialogue tags in one scene can make the narrative choppy, so using action beats is a good alternative. Note that an action beat can replace a dialogue tag but does not function as one:
Incorrect: "Ha! That's funny," Aly rolled her eyes.
Correct: "Ha! That's funny." Aly rolled her eyes.
There are many types of action beats:
Description of a character’s body language
Description of how a character interacts with their environment
Description of how a character interacts with another character
Louise Harnby has a fantastic article about action beats and how to punctuate them.
Dialect and Accents
People from different areas speak differently, and it can be tempting to write out their way of speaking by visually representing their dialect. This is done in some pretty famous books like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.
However, I suggest avoiding writing out dialects and accents unless you are writing your own dialect or accent. Why?
Writing out a dialect or accent involves showing how you interpret the phonetics—how the words sound to your ear. If the accent is not yours, your representation of it could be offensive and/or stereotypical. In addition, you likely don't want someone's accent or dialect to be the focus of the story, and representation of dialect can sometimes draw too much attention to how something is being said rather than to what is being said.
If you want to write the dialect or accent of someone with a different culture or ethnicity than yourself, I highly recommend getting a sensitivity reader to check that your representation is authentic and not harmful.
Louise Harnby (bless her editor heart) has a wonderful article about this as well called "How to convey accents in fiction writing: Beyond phonetic spelling."
Here are some more resources for writing dialogue:
Editor Crystal Shelly has 6 Tips for Writing Dialogue
How to Write Great Dialogue from Quick and Dirty Tips
I hope you find these basics about writing dialogue helpful! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you may have.