Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Speaking of Dialogue

By Lisa Wroble
Lisa Wroble

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"

Who isn't familiar with Rhett Butler's famous line from Gone with the Wind? Or "Where's Papa going with that ax?"  --  Fern's question at the opening of Charlotte's Web? Dialogue is often the most memorable part of a story because it engages the reader. Carefully phrased dialogue shows what's happening. Even when writing memoirs or personal experience, dialogue helps break up blocks of narrative, making the story more accessible to the reader.

Basics & Punctuation

Dialogue is easier to read and follow when it's properly paragraphed. Start a new paragraph for each  speaker. Each speaker's paragraph is called a dialogue block.

                          dialogue                    tag line                               dialogue

"Kaia! Finally, I found you," said Bede. "We've been searching the crests and hollows for hours. Are you all right?"

Punctuation should also aid the reader. Use quotation marks to indicate words spoken by the character. Separate the dialogue from the tag line using a comma unless a question or exclamation concludes the dialogue segment.

"Never mind. I believe you," said Bede. He put on his nav helmet and adjusted the visor comfortably over his eyes. "Let me get back to the station and I'll send someone for you as soon as I can."

"Wait! What? Take me with you!" said Kaia.

Note that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, and commas are not used with question marks or exclamation marks. When the tag line interrupts the flow of dialogue, it is surrounded by commas:

"Goodness," she said, leaning a bit into the aisle, "it's taking an awfully long time for the colas to arrive."

The purpose of a tag line is to identify the speaker. The dialogue is the important element, though, so it's best to limit tag lines to "said" or "asked." If the reader knows who's speaking, his eye skims over "said." This doesn't happen when the author gets creative in using synonyms for "said." Synonyms drag down the story flow. Using action is another way to identify the speaker. In fact, it's a good idea to balance dialogue and action.

Tag Lines Vs. Actions

If dialogue is carefully phrased, it will show what a character is feeling and there's little need to tell in the tag line - she chirped cheerfully - for example. Drop the adverbs in the tag lines. They tell the reader how the dialogue is spoken. Use action balanced with dialogue to make the reader feel the character's emotions, such as disappointment, enthusiasm, or nervousness.

Ryan grinned and sat down, his own nervousness evaporating. "Not at all. When the waiter brings yours, I'll order a glass as well."

New writers often confuse actions (smiled, shrugged, laughed) with the spoken word. We can speak words, but not shrug, smile, or laugh them. The tag line includes with to show those actions:  Hayley said with a shrug. Action statements used to show who is speaking are punctuated like a sentence.

"Oh, Dad!" She laughed. "You take this too seriously. Dating is not like a job interview."


"Bede?" She turned back to him, but thought better of sharing what she'd just heard.

"I can't take you with me, Kaia. I promise to call for help as soon as I'm near enough for someone to hear me." The set of his mouth showed how torn he was, how apologetic, but the visor blocked her view of his eyes. She needed to see all they might reveal.

Thoughtful Dialogue

Thoughts and dialogue are great ways to follow one writing rule of thumb: "show, don't tell." Indirect dialogue, such as Tommy told him to get busy or they'd both be in trouble, is telling. In most cases it's best to use direct dialogue (complete with quotations and tag lines) and engage the reader in the story. Thoughts may be direct or indirect, though. Thoughts are not surrounded by quote marks (except when writing for beginning readers). Remember that quotation marks indicate words spoken aloud.

Direct thought using "wondered" as tag line:        

Chuck had commented that Donna had a laugh that reminded him of Calli's. Should I give the woman a call? Ryan wondered. It would certainly please the girls.

Indirect thoughts woven into narrative.

He entered his study and headed for his desk. He hoped he hadn't thrown Donna's number away. When he found it, he stared at it for a long time. Would she even remember what Chuck had told her about him? He finally decided the only way to find out was to give her a call.

Historic & Fantastic Dialogue

When writing fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction, keep vocabulary in mind. All stories wrap the reader in a cloak of imagination, transporting the reader to a specific time and place, and engaging her in the events and struggles of the characters. Any detail that causes the reader to stop and question something or  threatens to uncloak the reader breaks the suspension of disbelief, and the reader must work to re-enter the fabric of the story. Contemporary language in genre writing, especially, could break the reader's immersion in the story. Words and phrases that are too modern (such as "shut up!") or too American (such as excessive use of "like" or "just") break the reader's suspension of disbelief.

Be careful about merging contemporary expressions into genre fiction. For example, in a story set in Colonial times, "Hold your tongue" or "Quiet!" might be replacements for the modern "shut up,"  which would catapult the reader out of the cushion of the historic setting.

Avoid the Bantering of Talking Heads

Dialogue needs to serve a purpose. It needs to move the story forward, provide background details, or reveal something about the characters. When dialogue offers information for the reader that helps her understand the story, it adds to the story. Bantering -- the back-and-forth dialogue common in everyday speech -- makes the story drag.

Good dialogue should sound realistic without reading like a court transcript. Note how published authors use dialogue to advance the plot. How do they use tag lines? Are you having difficulty following who is speaking when tag lines are dropped (as in "Hills Like White Elephants," by Ernest Hemingway)? How are actions woven between dialogue blocks? You'll learn more when you read and study what published authors have done well.