Most stories feature some amount of dialogue, and well-formatted dialogue is critical for readability.
Most dialogue should be tagged, that is, the speaker should be named. Not all dialogue needs a tag, but tagging is one of the easiest and most straightforward ways to tell the audience who’s talking.
“Hello,” said Bob.
In the above example, “said Bob” is the dialogue tag.
Dialogue tags are made up of a verb and an identifier. The verb need not be “said” and the identifier need not be a proper noun; “said the man” is also valid, as is “muttered Bob,” or for that matter, “Bob muttered.”
The speaking verb can be “said” or another verb indicating speech, such as “muttered,” “shouted,” or “spat.” Verbs can also be a literal description of what the speaker is doing with their dialogue, such as “asked,” “explained,” “insisted,” or “coaxed.”
Questions should never be tagged with “said.” If you want to use a neutral verb when a character asks a question, use “asked” instead.
Due to dialogue tags’ prevalence in writing, common tags — particularly “said” and “asked” — are virtually invisible to readers. It’s fine, even expected, to repeat these tags over and over. Replacing them with more specific, descriptive forms is acceptable when you want to make a point about how a line was spoken, but don’t change up tags every time someone talks. There’s nothing wrong with repeating “said” and “asked.”
If you want to explain what a character is doing while they are speaking, you can extend a tag with a participle phrase.
“You shouldn’t have come back here,” she said, brandishing her gun.
This tells the reader that the character is speaking while simultaneously threatening someone with a weapon.
If you want an action to take place between lines of dialogue, it should be described in a separate, complete sentence.
“I can’t believe it.” Tom rubbed his eyes in disbelief. “It actually worked.”
In this case, Tom isn’t rubbing his eyes while he’s talking, as that would look awfully silly. Instead, he spoke the first sentence, then rubbed his eyes, then spoke the second sentence.
This can be combined with a tag, although it’s not necessary, as it’s clear from context who is doing the talking.
“I can’t believe it,” Tom said. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. “It actually worked.”
It’s important to note that dialogue can only be part of another sentence if it is tagged.
|“Hello,” Bob walked into the room.||Invalid. “Bob walked” is not a dialogue tag.|
|“Hello,” Bob said, walking into the room.||Bob said “Hello” while entering the room.|
|“Hello,” Bob said. He walked into the room.||Bob said “Hello,” then walked into the room.|
|“Hello,” Bob said, and walked into the room.||Bob said “Hello,” then walked into the room. (Alternate)|
Whenever speech is tagged, it functions both as dialogue and as part of a parent sentence (the sentence containing the tag). This affects how the dialogue is punctuated.
Interrogative and exclamatory sentences are straightforward. Questions always end in a question mark, and exclamations always end in an exclamation mark, regardless of whether they are tagged or not.
“Holy cow!” he exclaimed.
“Where is she?” Julia demanded.
Things get more complicated when dialogue ends with a period.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Izzy said.
The complete sentence would be “It’s nice to meet you.” However, because it’s tagged, the dialogue is written with a comma at the end. However, this doesn’t mean that the dialogue itself ends in a comma.
When you see or write a comma in dialogue, it represents either a comma or a period depending on context. If the parent sentence ends before additional speech, the last sentence in that dialogue is read as a complete sentence ending in a period.
“Well,” he said, “that could have gone better.”
If the parent sentence does not end, but instead goes on to include more speech, the last punctuation in the initial phrase remains a comma. In the above example, the spoken sentence would be “Well, that could have gone better.”
“Well,” he said. “That could have gone better.”
In contrast, this parent sentence does end, so the dialogue being spoken is two separate sentences: “Well. That could have gone better.”
“Well,” he said, gasping for air. “That could have gone better.”
While the parent sentence in this example does have a comma before its participle phrase, it still comes to an end before the next piece of dialogue. So the dialogue spoken is still two separate sentences: “Well. That could have gone better.”
Switching between speakers
You should start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. This makes it clear when someone else starts speaking. It also allows you to provide actions for context rather than tags and still keep it clear who’s talking.
Amy stared at her feet. “I didn’t think you would find out.”
Accordingly, it’s important for the speaker to remain the grammatical agent for other sentences in the same paragraph. There are some situations where this restriction can be relaxed for stylistic or clarity reasons, but you should always err on the side of starting a new paragraph whenever you switch active characters, even if one of the characters isn’t saying anything.
“How could you do this to me, Mittens?” I asked, picking up the shattered remains of my favorite mug.
Mittens, true to form, offered no reply.
“Well? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
If you’ve established through at least three tags that two characters are talking back and forth, it’s acceptable to forego tags for a few lines and let the dialogue work standalone. It’s not advisable to do this for a long time, or if the dialogue itself is very long, as readers can lose track of who’s who.