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.
Dialogue is written using quotation marks around the speaker's exact words. These quotation marks are meant to set the dialogue apart from the narration, which is written as standard text. Together, let's explore some dialogue examples.
Quotation marks (" ") are the key to writing clear dialogue. You'll want to place them around the exact words your character speaks, 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's 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's 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:
Susan asked, "When will Daddy come home?"
I rolled my eyes at the thought of having to answer this question for the millionth time. "Soon, baby," I offered in my most soothing tone.
"But, he said he would be home for dinner," she wailed, "and it's past dinnertime!"
"In life, you'll learn there are many things that are out of our control," I retorted through the massive wails. I continued, almost to myself, "But, we have to just carry on."
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 were having a lovely dinner," Michael prompted.
Doug made a short, chortling sound. "Yeah, until he showed up."
"What's the matter with Scott coming around?" I asked, rather astonished.
Michael dropped his fork and aimed daggers at me. "Are you kidding me, Jill? He's a miserable, sarcastic punk."
I blinked at him, astonished. "Well, yes," I said. "I know that. But you two always carry on with him like you're best friends."
"Girl, please," Doug retorted. "We thought you wanted us to keep the peace. Now that we know the misery he's caused you…" He paused, seeming to search for the right words. "He'll never walk through those two doors again."
Note that the only exception to using a 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.
"Way too many!" William cried.
You must begin a new paragraph each time a different character begins to speak. Paragraphs are your friend for dialogue between two or more people. 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 to 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. Another paragraph is introduced when the announcer speaks. This makes it easier for the reader to keep track of who is saying what because the new paragraph is a strong signal that someone else is speaking.
"You must know I'm very upset," I snarled. "I even paid extra to insure the package!"
"Ms. Sullivan, please lower your voice," the agent drawled. "I'll search the system now."
"Sheila Sullivan? Is this your package?" I didn't know where the man appeared from, but I wanted to reach over the counter and give him a big, fat kiss. I'd never been so happy to see a cardboard box.
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.
"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 quoted text. When a paragraph of dialogue does not have closing quotes, it lets the reader know that the same person is still speaking.
Let's take a moment to enjoy dialogue examples from some of the literary greats. No novel would be complete without an interesting volley between the main characters.
This is a great example. Watch L'Engel intertwine scene description with dialogue. Also, the main character, Meg, has dialogue written for her that continues with a tag in the middle.
Calvin licked his lips. "Where are we going?"
"Up." Charles continued his lecture. "On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems. You know that, don't you, dear sister?"
"No," Meg said.
"Oh, yes, you do. You've seen at home how true it is. You know that you're not happy at school. Because you're different.
"I'm different, and I'm happy," Calvin said.
"But you pretend that you aren't different."
"I'm different, and I like being different." Calvin's voice was unnaturally loud.
"Maybe I don't like being different," Meg said, "but I don't want to be like everybody else, either."
Here's a classic, straightforward block of dialogue.
"Now he is here," I exclaimed. "For Heaven's sake, hurry down! Do be quick; and stay among the trees till he is fairly in."
"I must go, Cathy," said Heathcliff, seeking to extricate himself from his companion's arms. "I won't stray five yards from your window…"
"For one hour," he pleaded earnestly.
"Not for one minute," she replied.
"I must--Linton will be up immediately," persisted the intruder.
Now, let's enjoy a block of dialogue that's blended beautifully with ample description for the scene at hand. We're instantly drawn in and then the dialogue picks up speed and lures us further into the story.
"Hi, Richard," she said, and spit out a mouthful of toothpaste. She was wearing cut-off jeans that had bizarre, frantic designs drawn on them in Magic Marker and a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff.
"Hello," I said, setting to work on my tie.
"You look cute today."
"Got a date?"
I looked away from the mirror, at her. "What?"
"Where you going?"
By now I was used to her interrogations.
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 much more information about the characters.
At first, formatting dialogue may seem tricky. However, 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 it'll be to write your own dialogue. For an in-depth dive on this skill, check out How to Punctuate Dialogue.