• [Creator Tutorial] Dialogue 101 for Novelists

    Apr 23, 2021

Dialogue 101 for Novelists

Dialogue in writing is something that is often both cursed and praised by writers and readers alike, but it can be difficult to get a handle on. Consider this a crash course on dialogue basics for novelists. We’re going to start with formatting, and then I’m going to offer some quick tips and tricks on integrating dialogue into scenes that can boost your writing, no matter what level you’re at.


Properly formatting dialogue is important to keep your readers engaged with the story. Whether we realize it or not, we know what dialogue is supposed to look like written, and misplaced quotation marks or loose commas can toss a reader out of the world you want them to inhabit.

Construction & Punctuation

When writing, the dialogue sentence typically consists of two parts. There is the part that is spoken and the dialogue tag. A dialogue tag is the part of the sentence that indicates who is speaking. 

Any punctuation at the end of dialogue goes inside of your quotation marks.

“It’s the most basic of constructions, really.”

When adding tags and actions, the same holds true. The dialogue itself is part of the sentence, but it isn’t the whole of it. A “tag” isn’t something that is added to the end of an existing sentence, it is a part of the sentence itself. My trick is to think of spoken dialogue as a nest inside of a sentence.


In the above example, the “whole” would be the complete selection. The spoken dialogue, which is “nested” inside of the sentence, is in teal, while the tag is in orange. 

For a full dialogue statement (the kind of sentence that will end in a period), add a comma before your closing quotes and end the full sentence, including the tag, with a period (as seen above.)

Dialogue that ends in other types of punctuation is a bit different, but the “nesting” technique still holds true. 

We’ve kept the same color scheme in the above example, with the spoken dialogue in teal and the tags in orange. Here, you see the “nest” idea at work. The spoken dialogue (teal) has an independent ending punctuation, but the sentence itself (which includes the dialogue tag) is terminally punctuated with a period.

Another thing to note, as in the example above, is that a new paragraph is inserted for each additional speaker.

“Why should I do that, Lina?” you ask.

“Simple,” I say. “Not only is this a grammar rule, but also starting a new paragraph is a signal to the reader that someone else is talking. This will also help when you have conversations with just two people because you can avoid using excessive tags since the reader will know who’s turn it is to speak.”

“Like this?”


The Power of Said

Keep dialogue tags basic. 

Said, asked, and replied should be the default, go-to for writing. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the audience who is speaking. That is what it is there for. Said and its companions melt into the background, which is exactly what a dialogue tag is meant to do. 

Many people cringe at the idea, thinking that it will be too repetitive. In a way this is true, but only if every sentence is tagged in the same exact way. Again, dialogue tags are a functional aspect of writing and are there to remind the reader who is speaking. They need to be clear and simple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to your advantage.

Integrating Dialogue into Scenes

Once you’ve got a handle on formatting and the function of a dialogue tag, you then have to integrate dialogue into your story. Even if dialogue is the main component of the scene, it still needs to be given a place among the whole of your story. So I’m going to give you some of the quickest, simplest tricks I have on how to integrate the talking bit with the rest of it.

For this part of the tutorial, let me set a scene: we’ve decided to continue our conversation in my favorite coffee shop, Lif Cafe. It’s a busy but not too busy corner cafe, probably a bit warm on a hot day so let’s aim at some time around fall.

Tag Placement and Interruption

As we settle into the corner, I struggle to get out of my jacket. The sleeves are too tight, and have been that way since I bought it, but I couldn’t be bothered to return it.

“You were saying something about using dialogue tags to my advantage,” you say.

“I did,” I reply. “It’s all about where you put them.”

I pull my second arm from the coat, turning the sleeve inside out to do so, and drop it next to me. Some cat hairs drift off of it and catch the light. 

“Let’s start with the easiest trick,” I say. “One of the things I notice beginner writers use a lot are ellipses. That’s those three little dots to indicate... a pause. They’re unnecessary.”

“Then how do I show a pause?”

“Glad you ask,” I say. “Move the tag where you want the dialogue to pause. I’ve been doing it this whole time. When you read, you still read the tag. As long as it’s just indicating who is talking, it will create a pause in the mind for the dialogue. 

“Once you’ve cleaned your dialogue tags to be simple indicators, you can move them anywhere in the sentence. Beginning, end, or even in the middle.”

I sit back in my seat, looking self-satisfied. “Go ahead and try it with your work,” I say, waving my hand toward you. “Find a place where you’ve used an ellipses, and see what happens if you move a clean dialogue tag there instead.” I cross my arms. “I’ll wait.”

Avoid Dialogue Chunks

“Second big tip.” I hold up two fingers. “Avoid large chunks of dialogue from a single character.”

“That’s not always possible,” you say. “Sometimes, I have people in my story that are giving speeches. And you’re lecturing me. Right now. In this scene.”

“You’re right, I am,” I say. “But I prepared for it. First, I introduced you as an active character in the scene. Then I brought you here, to a setting that has an environment to play off of.”

I lean back into the cushioned bench, looking over the cafe. The light outside the windows is starting to slant in, glinting off the stainless steel bar in front of the espresso machine. 

“Use your setting to interrupt a speech,” I continue, “and if you run out of that, fill with an interruption that suits the environment.”

The sound of crashing dishes startles the cafe patrons, who turn their heads in search of the source.

“Sorry,” a muffled voice calls from a room behind the bar.

The male barista doesn’t look up from his phone. “You’re doing a great job,” he calls back.

The woman behind the counter turns to him. “Is he, though?” 

Still not looking up from his phone, the other barista shrugs.

I look back to you. You look at me.

“Wait, what was I saying?” I ask.

“Interrupt speeches with action,” you remind me.

“Right,” I say. “But you do have to be careful.” I lean forward and put my elbow on the table. “If the interruption goes too long or is too distracting, the reader can forget what was happening before it.” I turn my nails back, studying them. “Nonverbal cues are another good way to interrupt things.”

“What’s a nonverbal cue?” 

“Nonverbal cues are ways of communicating without speech. If you watch a politician’s speech, you’ll find plenty of them. Body language and orientation, facial expression, and moving objects around while talking are all different nonverbal cues you can use,” I say. I then sit back and drop my hand under the table. 

“Make your scenes play double duty. Nonverbal cues can give your reader a sense of a character just as well as dialogue. For instance,” I indicate my fur covered coat with its one arm inside-out. “I’m a bit chaotic, and I have a cat.” 

I point back to the male barista. “I bet you can figure out a few things about that character, as well, just from the short amount of time he was active.”

The male barista continues scrolling through his phone.

“That actually leads me to my next trick.”

Give Your Characters Something To Do

Our drinks arrive, delivered by the previously bodiless voice from the kitchen. I reach to the center of the table and grab a sugar packet, flicking the contents with my finger so they settle.

“Give your characters something to do,” I say. I rip open the sugar packet and pour it into my drink, then select a new one. 

“That guy is just looking at his phone,” you say. “That’s not really doing anything.”

“We’re just messing with our drinks,” I say. “‘Something to do’ doesn’t have to be something big.” I stir my drink, then try it. Frowning, I grab two more sugar packets.

“I actually learned this trick when I had to get over my nerves about public speaking. One way to stay grounded while speaking is to hold something in your hand, like a pen. It helps to focus when you have to talk for a long time.” I upend two more sugar packets into my drink, then stir it once again. “What your character chooses to hold and what they do with that thing can add layers to a scene. It can tell the reader about the character as well as the world they inhabit.”

“Like the fact that you like your drinks sweet,” you say.

“Not really,” I reply. “But it’s something to do. It can be something like this, or you can even take it further into something that recurs in your story.” 

I drop the used stir sticks onto my saucer, then bring my drink up to my lips. I swallow, frown, and replace the mug before continuing. “In Shadow’s Prey, I gave my characters cards. Different games can be played with these cards and they can be used in groups or individually. Sometimes, they’re just something for a character to hold while they are talking. They can symbolize different things at different times, but it’s nice to always have a go to if I’m lost on what to make a character do in a scene.”

You nod, then your brow wrinkles.

“What did that last part have to do with dialogue?”

“Nothing directly,” I say. I stand up from my place in the booth and drape my coat over my arm, “but we did the basics so I wanted to give you a parting trick.”

“Oh,” you say. “Thanks, I think.”

“No problem,” I reply, backing away. “You’ve got the check, right?”

“I don’t think we agreed on that.”

“Good luck with the writing!” I call behind my shoulder as I duck out of the cafe door.

About The Author

linaket is the author of the female led fantasy series Shadow’s Prey, which is ongoing and free to read on Tapas. Follow her on Twitter @bylinaket.