Looking at the dialogue is the fastest way for an agent, an editor, or a reader (even if it’s just subconsciously) to assess the skill level of a writer. This also makes it an effective way to quickly improve a manuscript.
Follow Punctuation Conventions
Dialogue tags are attached to dialogue with commas, whether the tag comes before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue. The first word of the tag is not capitalized unless it begins the sentence or is a proper noun.
She said, “Because I said so. That’s why.”
“Because I said so. That’s why,” she said.
“Because I said so,” she said. “That’s why.”
If the tag is placed in the middle of a sentence, it is surrounded by commas.
“I hope you don’t actually think,” she said, “that I gave him the book out of the goodness of my heart.”
This is useful when a line of dialogue is long and you don’t want to make the reader wait until the end of it to find out who is speaking. If dialogue needs a tag and it’s too long to place the tag at the end, place it either before the dialogue or at the first natural pause. Notice the difference between the last two examples. If the tag interrupts a sentence, you can use commas and lowercase. If a new sentence begins after the tag, the tag ends with a period, and the new sentence starts with a capital letter.
Don’t use a comma at the end of dialogue if another punctuation mark, such as a question mark or an em dash, is used.
“When?” she said.
Em dashes are used for interrupted speech. If a tag is necessary, it must come before the em dash, not after. This is because whatever is interrupting the dialogue needs to immediately follow the em dash.
“I know that,” he said. “But why would—”
The phone rang.
If a character is self-interrupting with an action in the middle of the sentence, the em dashes surround the action outside of the quotation marks.
“But why would”—he took a breath—“she think that?”
Watch those quotation marks, though. Microsoft Word likes to switch the opening quotation mark after an em dash to a closing quotation mark.
Ellipses are used for trailing off.
“I just don’t know . . . ,” she said.
“I just don’t know . . .” she said.
The Chicago Manual of Style says to include the comma after ellipses, but the house style of most US publishers omits it.
Use “Said” Most of the Time
The function of a dialogue tag is mostly mechanical. “Said” is often the best dialogue tag because readers are so used to seeing it that they don’t notice it. Showy speech tags should be avoided. These are tags that repeat the mood conveyed through the dialogue, convey the mood that’s lacking in dialogue, or can’t produce speech—“snarled,” “nodded,” “grinned,” or “laughed,” for example.
Other tags such as “whispered,” “yelled,” “asked,” or “replied” can be used if necessary, but they should be limited because nothing beats the invisibility of “said.”
This same logic applies to adverbs added to tags. In general, if the dialogue needs an adverb, an adverb won’t help it. On the flip side of that, many times the adverb is redundant because the dialogue has already conveyed what it needs to.
“Don’t you dare touch me,” she said.
“Don’t you dare touch me,” she said angrily.
“Don’t you dare touch me,” she growled angrily.
Use Action Beats Instead of Tags
Dialogue shows character personality. Yet if there is too much of it and it isn’t grounded in the environment occasionally, it can feel like it’s taking place in a void. This is referred to as “talking-heads syndrome.”
Action beats are short descriptions that come before, between, or just after dialogue. They enrich characters’ voices by showing us their emotions, their movements, and their intentions while they’re speaking. Action beats break up speech and ground dialogue in the environment. They can tell us who’s speaking and whether their speech is reliable or not.
Don’t overuse them, though. They shouldn’t be attached to every line of dialogue. It’s also key to avoid clichés and repetition. But they can be used as a tool to reduce the number of dialogue tags you need.
Use only as many tags as are necessary to clarify who is speaking. Conversations between only two characters typically need fewer dialogue tags. Tags can also be cut if there is an action beat within the paragraph that demonstrates who is speaking.
“I guess you’re right,” he said. He rubbed his forehead.
In this case, the dialogue tag can be cut because the action beat clarifies who is speaking.
“I guess you’re right.” He rubbed his forehead.
Just make sure the dialogue ends with a period, as the action beat is a separate sentence.
Avoid Excessive Vocatives
Vocative expressions (a person’s name, title, term of endearment, or nickname) can be useful when you need to indicate who’s being addressed. They can also be a natural part of speech.
However, it can be tempting to overuse these. Natural speech doesn’t incorporate direct forms of address as much as you might think. Using them too often can make the dialogue feel labored and stilted.
Watch Out for Maid-and-Butler Dialogue
Don’t use dialogue as a place to slip in backstory unless the character being spoken to doesn’t know the information. Doing so is referred to as maid-and-butler dialogue. This is when characters tell each other things they both already know only so that the writer can tell the reader backstory. It causes the speech to sound inauthentic, but it can be solved by moving the backstory into the narrative. As long as the narrative sticks to what is relevant in that moment, it won’t be disruptive.
Keep It Real, but Not Too Real
Dialogue needs to sound real, but not so real that it’s mundane. Dialogue doesn’t copy real speech. It just pretends to. Real speech written down word for word would be boring, filled with “um”s, “oh”s, greetings, and predictable niceties.
Skip the pleasantries and the throat-clearing words such as “well” and avoid anything too on-the-nose (an unsurprising, direct response).
Strong dialogue includes voice (how the characters talk), mood (how the characters are feeling), and intention (what they want or the subtext of their speech).
Have you ever read a book where you could tell which character was speaking just by what was said? This is voice. Characters should sound different from each other, depending on their background, life experiences, age, gender, education, vocabulary, etc. Do they use pet phrases? Do they use terms related to their work environment? Use contractions, fragments, run-ons, or imperfect grammar where it sounds natural for each character. For example, even if “whom” would be the correct choice, consider whether the character would use it.
Accent, dialect, and idiom will sometimes come into play, but don’t overdo it. The aim is to convey voice without creating a parody, causing offense, or rendering the speech inaccessible and to do so in a way that will be perceived as authentic. Generally, an occasional nudge will be enough.
Great dialogue skips the boring bits, avoids repetition, and doesn’t force readers to spend time trying to figure out who’s talking. Great dialogue also makes for less narrative clutter because dialogue tags are kept to a minimum instead of being used to convey additional emotional nudges and action beats are used to complement speech rather than to make up for flat dialogue.
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King
The Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction by Amy J. Schneider
The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke