Nothing beats dialogue for bringing characters to life. There are, however, certain conventions as to how it should be presented. If you follow these it will always be clear to readers who is speaking.

The normal format is:

            ‘I wish we didn’t have to go,’ Alan said.

You can use double or single quote marks – it doesn’t really matter as long as you are consistent. Single tends to be more common these days. Note the comma at the end of the direct quote. This is all treated as one sentence, a sentence which tells us what Alan said. By the way, you can use Alan said or said Alan, according to taste. But never said he; always he said.

If Alan is going to make a longer speech, it is best to put the Alan said at the end of his first line. Then follow with the rest. Every bit of direct speech in the same paragraph is assumed to be said by the same character.

‘I wish we didn’t have to go,’ Alan said. ‘I’d much rather stay here with you. Alone. What do I care about Jeff and Rosie’s new house?’

If another character is answering, you must change the paragraph.

‘I wish we didn’t have to go,’ Alan said.
‘I’d much rather stay here with you,’ she agreed. ‘Alone. What do I care about Jeff and Rosie’s new house?’

The verb that you use to indicate who is speaking (aka the ‘speech tag’) will nearly always be said. Don’t panic about repeating yourself. Readers simply glide over the word said and don’t notice it. Its invisibility is its strength as it allows the dialogue to flow smoothly. As soon as you start using other words, such as he joked, she teased, he grumbled, she sniggered, your dialogue will be less natural. What you want is for readers to listen to the conversation as if it’s being spoken at real time speed. You don’t want to slow things down with extra words.

Consider the difference between these two scenes:

‘When will I see you?’ she sniffed.
‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘Soon.’
‘Will you call me?’ she begged.
‘Of course,’ he snapped.

‘When will I see you?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. Soon.’
‘Will you call me?’
‘Of course.’

The second is much zippier. The only trouble with doing without the speech tags altogether is that it can become confusing as to who is speaking. Normally you can get away with no more than three in a row before you need to throw in a marker to keep the reader on track.

Another thing you can do is use action instead. Compare:

‘Are you awake?’ Jean asked and poked George in the ribs.
‘Are you awake?’ Jean poked George in the ribs.

The second is more efficient and lean. We know it’s Jean who is talking because she is the subject in the next sentence. It is assumed that all dialogue pertains to the character who is the subject of the sentence. (The ‘subject’ is the person or thing that is doing the verb. The ‘object’ is the person or thing that has the verb done to them. In the above sentence Jean is the subject and George is the object.)


‘I never know what to make of these people.’ Octavius shook his head at the crude offerings left at the shrine. ‘They try so hard to fit in. But do it so badly.’

Octavius is the speaker throughout the paragraph.


Copyright - Edinburgh Writers' Club