This chapter is a short overview of the general rules for actually writing dialogue on the page. With dialogue, you need to consider two steps.

  • Communicate what is being said ( = the line of dialogue)
  • Communicate who is saying it ( = the dialogue tag)

Double Quotes

Each line of dialogue should be put between double quotes (").


“What are you doing?” she asked.


“To be or not to be, that is the question,” he said.

There are countries or formats in which single quotes (') are also acceptable. My home country (Netherlands) is one example of this, as we have no words or constructions that use single quotes. English, however, does (e.g. “can’t”), so always use double quotes there.

Additionally, it is very easy to miss a single quote and misinterpret a line. This has caused me to default to double quotes in every language, even Dutch.

I’ve also read books that indent dialogue and/or put a dash (-) in front of it instead. I’m not a fan, but it’s regarded as a viable option.

Dialogue Tags

The dialogue tag can come in many forms. Its sole purpose is to clearly tell the reader who is saying this line of dialogue. To make a dialogue scene flow better, you usually want to vary the forms you use.

After the line

Most commonly, it is added after the line. To do so, a comma (,) is placed before the final dialogue tag.


“I like pasta,” she said.


“Maybe we can figure something out,” James said.

You can also replace the comma with a question mark (?) for questions or an exclamation mark (!) for, well, exclamations.


“Do you like pasta?” she asked.

The simplest dialogue tag is simply the name of the speaker + said. This will suffice most of the time. You can obviously find synonyms (asked, muttered, pondered, yelled, pontificated, …) and use them were applicable.

But simple “said” is preferred because it is “invisible”. Readers will skip over it and simply remember who said the line. Using another word means more work for the reader and makes them slow down.

You might also be tempted to add adverbs. (For example: “he said loudly”) This isn’t great.

  • Firstly, to “say loudly” is just “to yell”. Pick the stronger (and shorter) verb where possible.
  • Secondly, It’s more immersive to indicate what’s special about the dialogue through the words itself and strong description.

Before the line

You can also add it before the line. In that case, the comma is placed before the first dialogue tag.


He said, “What would you like for desert?”

In this case, though, most writers opt for a double colon (:).


He said: “What would you like for desert?”

In between a line

You can, of course, combine these two techniques to place the tag in the middle of a sentence. This is great for conveying a pause or hesitation, as you put space between the two parts of the dialogue line.


“Maybe,” he said, “things aren’t so bad.”

Its own sentence

You mention the speaker in a new sentence before or after the line of dialogue. Prefer doing so before, however. Otherwise the reader reads the line not knowing who speaks … until they continue reading. Using this technique, you can weave dialogue and action together, and you don’t need the “said” (as it’s implied).


James kicked the door open. “Hands in the air!”


“What if we made a deal?” The seductive woman flashed a smile and reached for the contract papers on the table.

Left out entirely

As a writer, you want to get to a state in which dialogue tags can almost entirely be left out.

  • Your characters speak in such unique ways, that the reader knows who’s speaking without a dialogue tag.
  • Most dialogue scenes are between two people taking turns speaking. Once you’ve introduce them, the reader needs no reminder anymore.
  • Or dialogue is woven together with action and description so well, that you always know who’s speaking (thanks to the technique from the previous section).

In one of my books, I have a character who likes to add “darling” to the end of sentences. “Don’t be so grumpy, darling.” Once I’ve established this, by repeating it three times, I often don’t need to add dialogue tags anymore for this character.


Another way to do this is by making somebody say something only they would know or say. For example, two characters are speaking, and only one of them has a wife. If they say “My wife was upset yesterday”, you know who says it, without the need for a dialogue tag.

General Rules

New Speaker = New Line

You want a new line when there’s a new speaker. If possible, don’t even introduce a possible different speaker without a new line.


BAD: “Come here,” she said. He shuffled towards her. “Is it true?”

In the example above … who says the second line? She or him?


“Come here,” she said.

He shuffled towards her. “Is it true?”

Simply start on a new line whenever the speaker changes. And check your paragraphs to see if you accidentally made it unclear who is speaking, then find a rewrite to clarify.

Long, long dialogue

What if somebody says so many words that you need to create multiple paragraphs? Do you add quotes for every one of them? Or only at the start and end?

In general, it’s recommended to just not do this. If somebody is speaking for that long, it’s not a dialogue, it’s a monologue. You’re probably just dumping information on the reader, which is often both boring and overwhelming!

Break it up. Chop the dialogue into smaller bits, short lines and single paragraphs. Then the speaker changes or you add some action/description in between.

If you really need this long piece of dialogue, the common technique is to …

  • Leave out the closing double quote on all paragraphs
  • Except the last one

“Blabla long dialogue.

“Yes, really, really long dialogue.

“But here it finally ends.”


Now you know how to write any dialogue on the page. How to mark what’s being said and who says it.

Let’s continue this course to learn the actual words you want to make your characters say.

Continue with this course
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