Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people in a narrative work. As a literary technique, dialogue serves several purposes. It can advance the plot, reveal a character’s thoughts or feelings, or show how characters react in the moment.
When an author writes dialogue with careful word choice and alternate spellings to mimic unique speech patterns and accents, such dialogue can reveal the setting and help to establish the character’s social and educational background. This is called dialect.
Dialogue is written using quotation marks around the speaker’s exact words. These quotation marks are meant to set dialogue apart from the narrator’s voice in a literary work, which is written as standard text.
There are several things to remember when formatting dialogue in your writing. There are special rules for using indentations, commas and quotation marks to make sure your writing is correct and easy to follow.
Quotation marks (" ") are the key to writing clear dialogue. Place them around the exact words that your character says, but not around any tags that identify the speaker. For example,
"I love French toast."
This use of quotation marks lets the reader know that someone said "I love French toast" out loud.
While it is fine to have only the spoken words in quotes, too many sentences like this can become confusing. Who just said what? You may wish to add extra information to let the reader know who is speaking. For example:
"I love French toast," my mother said.
Note that only the words spoken aloud by the mother are in quotation marks. The informative tag at the end is not part of what she said, so it does not get quotation marks. You can also put the tag before a line of dialogue:
After helping herself to three slices, my mother said, "I love French toast."
If you choose to add a tag that identifies the speaker, you’ll also need to use a comma to connect your tag to the dialogue.
When the tag comes first, it is followed by a comma. After the comma is a space, followed by the quotation marks for the dialogue. Note that the punctuation at the end of the dialogue comes before the closing quotes. This is the order that dialogue punctuation always uses when the tag comes first. For example:
Susan asked, "When will Daddy come home?"
Bill exclaimed, "But I thought Santa Claus was real!"
Examining her scratches Mary said thoughtfully, "I guess the cat wasn’t that friendly after all."
Johnny cried, "Look out, everyone!"
When you choose to place your tag after the line of dialogue, the comma comes at the end of the spoken words, before the closing quotation marks. In this case, following the dialogue with a comma lets the reader know that there’s more information to come. After the comma comes the quotation marks to end the dialogue, then a space, then the tag, followed by a closing period to complete the sentence. For example:
"We are having a lovely dinner," said Michael.
"I will never make that cheese soup again," promised Diane.
"We’re going to Cape Cod for the whole summer," explained Jacob.
"The city looks so beautiful at night," Stella whispered.
The only exception to the use of the comma before the tag is when your quotation must end with a question mark or exclamation point. In this case, that punctuation replaces the comma:
"How many days until our vacation?" asked Margaret.
"I hate homework!" William cried.
You must begin a new paragraph each time a different character begins to speak. For example:
"I don’t want to go home," said Julia. "I like it here at the zoo. The animals are all so funny." She began to cry and then wailed, "I didn't even get tot see the elephants!"
"I know," replied her father, "don’t worry. We’ll come back another time."
"The zoo is now closing. Please make your way to the exit," came the announcement over the speaker.
Note that when Julia’s father speaks, a new paragraph begins and again when the annoucer speaks. This makes it easier for the reader to keep track of who is saying what because the indented line is a strong signal that someone else is talking.
The only exception to this rule is when a character makes a long speech. In this case, you may wish to break up their dialogue into paragraphs as they change subject, just as you would in standard writing. When you do so, you begin each new paragraph with quotation marks to remind the reader that someone is still speaking, but you don’t use closing quotation marks until the speech has ended. For example:
"I want to make sure everyone is ready for the field trip next week," the teacher said. "That means you’ll need to pack your lunches the night before and make sure that you bring plenty of water and a bag that is comfortable to carry.
"It will be hot the day of the trip, so wear light, comfortable clothing and layers that you can remove as the day goes on. You will also need sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
"Finally, make sure you have fun!"
In the example above, the teacher’s long speech is broken into paragraphs to keep topics well organized. Notice that only the final paragraph of her speech has quotation marks at the end of the paragraph. When a paragraph of dialogue does not have closing quotes, it lets the reader know that the same person is still speaking.
Adding dialogue to a narrative can really bring the story and characters to life. Descriptive passages are great for setting the scene, but a few lines of dialogue can provide as much information about the characters as a whole page of description.
Though at first formatting dialogue may seem tricky, you’ll find it becomes second nature with practice. Once you learn the rules, you’ll see that they apply in many situations, and it’s only the words you change to make your writing interesting — never the formatting. The more you read books with dialogue and practice writing your own, the easier writing your own dialogue will be.