Mastering Writing and Punctuating Dialogue

What you’ll learn:

  • What makes effective dialogue in fiction?
  • How to master dialogue by studying people.
  • How to master dialogue by studying books.
  • The essentials of punctuating dialogue.  

Dialogue is the conversation that happens between characters in your story when they are communicating with each other. If a character is relaying their inner thoughts and not speaking out loud to someone, it is referred to as internal dialogue.

When dialogue in fiction novels is well done, it blends seamlessly into the background and moves the story along. As a writer, though, you’ve probably discovered that writing effective dialogue and punctuating it correctly is not easy.

Effective dialogue:

  • Allows you to reveal your characters’ personalities and motivations, bringing out the uniqueness of each. You’ll want each character’s voice to align with their characteristics.
  • Moves the plot forward or assists in creating conflict between characters. Dialogue needs to serve a purpose and shouldn’t just be small talk between two people.
  • Provides a mechanism to weave in your story’s theme subtly.
  • Helps you balance the pace of your story by using dialogue scenes for balance after scenes of high action.

Mastering Dialogue by Studying People

To develop your dialogue writing skills, pay close attention to the way people interact in conversation, whether in a coffee shop or on your favorite TV show. Rather than focusing on what they are talking about, watch closely for dynamics that we typically ignore.

  • How much is being said through non-verbal communication?
  • How are they gesturing?
  • What facial expressions do they have?
  • How do they interrupt each other?
  • Do they drift off without completing sentences, or do they banter back and forth?

Mastering Dialogue by Studying Books

A book’s genre can dictate the amount of dialogue. For example, literary novels typically rely on more narrative, whereas a murder mystery could be dialogue-heavy.

As you read books from your favorite fiction authors, pay close attention to how they write dialogue. Do they use a balance of dialogue, physical action, setting, and non-verbal clues?

When you read a truly great piece of dialogue, write it down in a notebook. Use your notebook as inspiration in your future writing.

Our Composed Lotus writers and editors think authors Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Connelly are masters at using dialogue to show character.

Basic Punctuation Tips

There are some key regional differences when it comes to punctuating dialogue, most notably in the use of double or single quotation marks and the placement of punctuation in relation to the quotation marks. The advice in this blog is geared to North American fiction.

  • A dialogue tag refers to the short phrase that tags the dialogue to who is speaking (e.g., “She is here,” said Bill.) A dialogue tag must be a “verb of utterance.” Verbs of utterance include said, explained, stated, replied, responded, remarked, or rambled, as examples.
  • An action beat describes an action that a speaker takes and is often used instead of a dialogue tag, e.g., “Here.” Nancy pointed to the corner. “It’s right here.” In this example, pointed is not a verb of utterance.
  • Writers often combine dialogue tags and action beats.
    • “She must not be coming,” Nancy said, pointing to the door. (The comma after “said” is a style choice.)

When dialogue is preceded by a dialogue tag (like “said” in the examples), there is a comma after the tag but before the dialogue.

  • Betty said, “Why did they do that?”

When dialogue is followed by a dialogue tag, the comma appears directly before the closing double quotation unless the dialogue includes a question mark or exclamation mark.

  • “She needed to go,” said Betty.
  • “Did she really need to go?” said Betty.
  • “I can’t believe he did that!” said Betty.

If dialogue is broken up by a dialogue tag, whether the second piece of dialogue is capitalized depends on the context or tone you are after. In the first example, the second piece of dialogue is not a sentence on its own but rather a continuation of the dialogue prior to the dialogue tag “said.” In the second example, the dialogue that continues after the dialogue tag is capitalized because it is a full sentence.

  • “She needed to go,” said Betty, “because she was going to cause trouble.”
  • “She needed to go,” said Betty. “She was going to cause trouble.”

When dialogue is being introduced by an action beat (“shook his head” in the examples) rather than a dialogue tag, a period is required after the action and before the dialogue.

  • Sam shook his head. “He is never around when you need him.”

If the action beat appears between two pieces of dialogue, the first dialogue ends in a full stop, as does the action.

  • “He isn’t there any longer.” Sam shook his head. “I have no idea where he is.”

Numbers are typically spelled out in dialogue, with a few exceptions that are better shown in numerals. How numbers are displayed in dialogue is a style choice and not a hard rule. Numerals may work better in dialogue for years, brand names, specific amounts of money, or specific times on a clock.

  • “She said the clock showed 10:32.”
  • “She is at the 7-Eleven.”

    There are many more nuances around punctuating dialogue, including inner thoughts, interruptions, the speaker trailing off, and stuttering.

    Want to learn more? Visit our website and check out our services. While you’re at it, browse our extended article on Mastering Writing and Punctuating Dialogue in our online store.