Speak Up! Six Tips for Perfect Dialogue in Your Narrative

dialogue-bullesYour instructor has assigned a Narrative essay, and one requirement is to include a scene or an exchange of conversation between characters. You know exactly what you want your characters to say, but when you sit down to type it out, you are bewildered about all of the decisions you have to make. Do I indent every line? Where do the commas go? Does punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks? Where do quotation marks go? Do I need a tag? What’s a tag?


Although creating realistic dialogue can be daunting, below are some basics to remember when formatting and creating the spoken word.

1.    A comma is needed to set off a dialogue tag (the tag is the he said/she said that attributes the spoken words to a person:

“In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back,” said Charlie Brown.

Notice the comma is placed inside the quotations marks. When using a tag, you will always need a comma.

2.     A period is needed to set off a physical action when it does not describe a way of speaking:

Sondra laughed. “There’s a spider on your head!”

This one is tricky. Laughed shows action, but doesn’t necessarily describe how the sentence is spoken.

3.     Exclamation and question marks do not need additional punctuation.

Correct: “There is a spider on your head!” cried Sondra.

In this example, the exclamation mark acts as the end punctuation before the tag.

Incorrect: “There is a spider on your head!,” cried Sondra.

Here, the comma is not needed, even though a tag follows. Note also that cried is not capitalized, as it is the continuation of the sentence or quote.

4.     When inserting a tag in the middle of a sentence, you’ll need to set it off with commas on both sides.

“He is not,” she said, “your brother.”

Note the first comma inside the quotation marks, and immediately after said. Also note that your is not capitalized, as it is a continuation of the sentence or quote.

“No, I am,” he said, “Your brother.”
“No, I am,” He said, “your brother.”

5.     Each time a new character speaks, it should be placed in a new paragraph or on a new line. Each line should be indented, just as a new paragraph is indented:

“What’s up, buddy?” he says, thick-tongued and edgy.
“Sky’s up,” I answer, playing along.
“And don’t forget prices,” he grumbles.
(Scott Russell Sanders, “Under the Influence”)

6.     If you really want to impress your instructor, show them you know how to use dialogue. Is your dialogue doing more than one thing? Does it not only say words, but does it show the speaker’s personality? This is a line I’ll attribute to my grammy:

“If the Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see y’all Sunday next,” grammy said as she spat tobacco from the stoop of her front porch.

What would a reader infer from this dialogue? The voice is Southern or rural lower Midwest, so she’s obviously not from Boston. Grammy probably is not an Ivy League graduate. The tag shows that Grams chews tobacco and doesn’t care who knows it, which shows her personality. We also can infer the weather to a certain extent. Grammy is on the front porch, so it isn’t the middle of winter. This particular author tag also shows class or social status.

When incorporating dialogue into your narrative, remember that the way we talk is actually quite boring, so make the dialogue count. Get rid of the “How are you?” –  “Good. And you?” exchanges. If it is not essential, cut it. If you feel the spoken words are essential to your narrative, the words should be working on several levels.

And one last bit of advice from my grammy: actions speak louder than words.


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