Dialogue is conversation in written form. There are a few conventions that you should follow when creating dialogue.
Every time the character speaking changes begin a new paragraph.
“Mom, Jenny invited me to go swimming,” Carrie said. “Can I go?”
“Which pool, the one at the park or the one at the gym?” her mother asked.
A description about the character who has just spoken usually stays in the same paragraph as the dialogue. However, if the narrator is describing a different character than the one who was speaking, that description goes in a new paragraph.
“She’s not going to the pool,” Carrie replied, staring at the floor instead of looking at her mother’s face. “Jenny and a couple of her friends want to swim in the old quarry.” She slowly raised her head to look her mother in the eyes, hoping that the expression she was expecting would not be there for once. Carrie was sorely disappointed.
Her mother’s eyes had narrowed and her lips were the thinnest that Carrie had ever seen them. “You want me to let my thirteen year old daughter go to the quarry alone with her friends?” Carrie’s mother said in a cool, calm voice.
At the beginning and end of your character’s spoken words--which can be anything from a single word to multiple paragraphs--a quotation mark is used.
“Yes,” Carrie said.
The entire line of dialogue in the above example, including the tag line, is considered one sentence. Periods are replaced with commas right before the closing quotation mark and all other punctuation remains the same. When the tag comes before the dialogue, a comma is used to separate them.
“Then you must think I am an idiot,” Carrie’s mother retorted, her tone getting icier by the second.
Carrie was a full four inches taller than her mother, but right at that moment she felt like she was only two inches tall. She mustered her courage and asked, “Why can’t I go?”
“Because I said so!” her mother yelled, finally releasing the anger that had been lurking underneath the surface. “Now go to your room!”
Interruptions, Trailing off, and Asides
Em-dashes (indicated by two hyphens, “--”, in a manuscript) and ellipses (“…”) are nifty tools that add an extra level of realism to your dialogue. When one character is cut off by another’s words or an action, use “--”.
“I said go to your room!”
An em-dash can also be used for asides (a digression from the main subject).
Carrie ran up the stairs, went into her room, and slammed the door. She picked up her phone and dialed Jenny’s number.
“Hello?” a sleepy voice answered.
“Hi, Jenny,” Carrie said. “I’m sorry if I woke you from your afternoon nap--I really don’t understand why your mother still makes you take them--but I just have to tell you about the fight I had with the Ice Queen.”
In real life, people tend to trail off leaving their sentences or thoughts unfinished. Ellipses are used to portray this.
“This isn’t Jenny, it’s her father,” a person with a much deeper voice than Jenny said.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Frouge…”
“Hold on a second. I’ll tell Jenny to pick up the extension in her room.”
“He said” and “she said” are examples of dialogue tags. When using them, it is unusual to have the verb before the subject (for example, “said Carrie”). Generally, you should employ the verb-first construction sparingly and save it for a rare change in pace or flow.
It is not necessary to add a tag to every single line of dialogue. Use a tag when a character first speaks to identify him or her. After that, you should only need to use one again when you need to remind your reader who is speaking after a particularly long or confusing exchange. You should also include a tag when you wish to describe a character or add a character’s actions.
Carrie heard a click and then the high-pitched voice of her best friend came on the line.
“What happened this time?” Jenny asked.
Carrie knew Jenny hated it when she gave more details then necessary, so she kept her account simple. “She flat out said no when I asked if I could go to the quarry. No reason why I couldn’t go, just no.”
“Did you ask your dad?”
“I can’t, he’s out of town at a convention. This is so unfair.”
There was a rustling sound on the phone, as if Jenny had sat up or something. Jenny said, “I could help you sneak out…”
“But we both know that my mom watches me like a hawk,” Carrie finished where her friend had left off. She plopped down on her bed and sighed. “I guess I will just have to miss out on the fun once again.”
“I promise to take plenty of pictures.”
“Thanks, Jenny, but that is not the same as being there.”
“Okay, I guess I will see you in school on Monday then. Later.”
“Yeah, bye,” Carrie said weakly. She hung up the phone and buried her face in the pillows.
Do’s and Don’ts
1. Overuse of modifiers (adverbs and adjectives like quietly, quickly, softly, loud, soft, hard, etc.) is annoying and often a crutch for poor dialogue. An occasional modifier can spice up your writing, but the key is to use them in moderation. In addition, be wary of overusing verbs like shouted, exclaimed, whispered, and cried. Usually a simple “he said,” “she said,” or even no tags at all will do.
2. When creating your characters put some thought and research into how their real-life counterparts would talk. The best dialogue is as close to real speech as possible without making the piece difficult for your readers to interpret.
3. Dialogue that does not move along the plot and give your readers insight into the characters is known as filler or, sometimes, idle chatter. It is best to get to the point in as few words as possible. If you are ever over your word limit and looking for things to cut, filler should be among the first to go.
4. Unless it has something to do with an odd trait your character has, you should avoid having that character do the following things: saying another character’s name back to them as a means of establishing identity, explaining the plot, and repeating information that has already been revealed for the benefit of your readers.
5. Some things are best shown through dialogue. However, when you forecast that information in the preceding narration the dialogue looses its impact. Study other writers to learn when to use narration or dialogue to disclose key plot points.
6. Dialogue is a useful tool for condensing back-story but you need to weave it skillfully into the flow of the story. Otherwise, it becomes painfully obvious that the info is there only to fill the reader in and does not truly belong.
If you would like to read more about the uses of dialogue, the following articles are a good place to start.
Writing Dialogue by Elizabeth Rose, Part One
Writing Dialogue by Elizabeth Rose, Part Two
12 Exercises for Improving Dialogue by John Hewitt is also a worthy article that you should spend some time looking through.
Information Courtesy Of
Members: eleutheromaniac, TempterOfFate, Joseph, Ozmandius, Nazareth
Offsite References: Writing Dialogue by Elizabeth Rose, Part One
Writing Dialogue by Elizabeth Rose, Part Two
12 Exercises for Improving Dialogue
Writing Dialogue Notes
Dialogue Tags - A Study in Common Errors in Writing Dialogue by Jennifer Turner
"On Writing" by Robert J. Sawyer - Speaking of Dialogue
Books: Essentials of English: A Practical Handbook Covering All the Rules of English Grammar and Writing Style
Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (an online version can be found here)