Let’s Talk Dialogue

Formatting dialogue can be less straightforward than it sounds. There are a lot of considerations to be made when deciding how someone is saying something. First, let’s take a look at some of the basic rules.


The part of the sentence that indicates who said what is called the speaker tag. In the following examples, the speaker tag is bolded.

“The seas are rough tonight,” said the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain said, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate said, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

The speaker tag usually gets separated from the dialogue by a comma. If the speaker tag follows dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation marks, as in the first and second examples above. Speaker tags can also be separated by other forms of punctuation.

“I don’t want to walk the plank!” exclaimed the boy.

“Why does he have to walk the plank exactly?” asked the first mate.

In these cases, the first letter of the speaker tag is still lowercase.


Okay, I’ll say it. ‘Said’ is old and tired. It drives me crazy to read a manuscript where every speaker tag uses the same word. “Let’s go sailing today!” Laura said. “I don’t think there’s enough wind,” Bob said. “I think there might be,” said Laura. This repetition is tiresome. Let’s take a look back at the first three examples we used and see if we can’t spice them up a little.

“The seas are rough tonight,” asserted the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain growled, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate muttered, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

See how much more meaning we can pack into those sentences? This elevates your writing and removes the need for you to explain in another sentence how the speaker said what they said. (Check out this list to see some ideas for words to use in place of ‘said’.) Make sure, however, that you choose the right word for the verb in your speaker tag. Don’t make a mistake like this:

“I don’t think these are the trade winds,” questioned the lad.

“What other winds would they be?” asserted the deckhand.

The first bit of dialogue wasn’t a question and the second wasn’t an assertion. Be choosy in your word choice!


Sometimes a speaker tag is not required, and the person speaking can be implied. Check out this example:

The dockworker was brought up short. “What do you mean there are no more barrels?”

We can assume that the dockworker was the one to ask about the barrels. One of the things that indicates who the speaker is has to do with paragraph construction. Even in complicated situations like the one below, we know who must have said what.

“What is your favorite constellation?” asked the captain.

“Orion, sir,” replied the first mate.

“Aye, it is mine as well.”


“Indeed it is.”

We know that the first mate said “really” because we began a new paragraph when he spoke. Generally, if one person has already spoken within a paragraph, a new paragraph needs to be started when the next person speaks. One person, however, can have dialogue at different points within the same paragraph without a new one being required.

“I don’t like the sound the engine is making,” the engineer whispered. Indeed, the entirety of the boat was vibrating, an ominous thrumming emanating from belowdecks. “I’ll go check it out.”

This also saves us from needing a second speaker tag. We can assume the engineer said he would go check it out because a new paragraph wasn’t started for that line of dialogue.


Additionally, if a character is speaking enough to move on from one topic to another within a single section of dialogue, a paragraph break can be used to indicate the change of subject while keeping the two sections of dialogue together.

“I checked on the engine. I don’t think the problem is mechanical.” The engineer heaved in a breath. “There is something living down there. That vibration is the sound of it breathing.

“I tried to reach a hand into the pipes to pull it out, but it nearly tore my arm off. I’m not sure what to do at this point, captain.”

Notice that there are no closing quotation marks on the first paragraph, but there are opening ones on the second. This is the proper formatting for this construction.


Now that we understand the basics of putting speech into a sentence, let’s talk getting fancy. Dialogue is special because you can make your characters say whatever you want, often without having to worry about the rules of proper grammar. Characters can have accents:

“I don know watcha mean, laddie.”

They can stutter:

“The-the s-s-sails—they’re going to tear!”

They can sound drunk:

“I thin I fundwere the skippr was ahidn eh rum.”

They can speak in incomplete sentences:

“Ten-four, captain. Whale there, port side. Eyes sharp.”

Or basically speak in gibberish:

“I think, I can’t— I mean, I thought it was a mermaid, but then again, siren—no, wait! Yes! A siren!”

Notice that however strange the speech of a character may get, it doesn’t excuse you from correctly punctuating and formatting it. These special forms of speech are often much harder to write correctly than their more plain counterparts. But if you think you have a handle on how to write dialogue, go ahead and give something fancy a shot.

“Power to yer!”

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