He said, she said… Writing dialogue.

My writing is filled with dialogue. I’ve always played my stories out as films in my head and often wonder if they’d make good screenplays. After submitting some of my work for professional critique to a group of published writers and a couple of agents, I received positive feedback on the writing and on the dialogue in particular. The back and forth banter between characters should be natural, not stiff and formal. Sometimes the rules of grammar get bent or even broken! With that in mind, I decided to repost this short primer on writing dialogue for newer writers out there.  – Meg

In this post, I decided to cover a grammar topic that I had to brush up on when I began this writing journey. The stories I write tend to be filled with conversation and there are rules to follow closely and rules you can break with impunity. That’s the interesting thing about writing dialogue; it’s the one time it’s permissible to use bad grammar!

“What?!?” you ask, outraged. “How can this be?”

Well, let me explain.

You are aware, I’m sure, that in casual conversation, many of the rules of grammar are regularly thrown out the window. For example, your characters might use regional terminology, slang and/or colloquialisms. If you’re in South Philadelphia, meeting your friends at the baseball park, one of them might say in greeting, “Yo! How you doin’?” Translation: “Hello, how are you doing?” But you’d never write it that way. In Philadelphia you don’t “go to the beach” you “go down the shore,” and there are more.

Another situation is in the the use of “who” and “whom.” Unless you are an English professor, it’s likely that you would ask the friends headed to the beach: “who are you going with?” rather than the proper, “with whom are you going?” because really, who talks like that? (Sorry English professors.)

Those brief examples demonstrate how it’s perfectly acceptable to let your characters use bad grammar within their conversations. However, while the dialogue itself may venture outside the rules, the way you write the speech demands the use of proper punctation, especially when it involves quotation marks.  Let’s look at a few common rules to follow:

1. Periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points all go inside the quotation marks. The sentence doesn’t end with the speech if you add “he said, she said, they said,” or something like that to describe who is speaking. Here’s what I mean:

“Joni, you look beautiful tonight,” he said. OR “Joni, you look beautiful tonight.”

-In the first sentence, ‘he’ is not capitalized and a comma was used at the end of his speech instead of a period. That’s because the sentence didn’t end until after ‘said.’ In the second sentence, the writer assumes the reader knows who is talking so they don’t use ‘he said.’ In that case the speech ends with a period.

-Now this might seem weird, but if the speech ends with either an exclamation point or a question mark, and you use ‘he/she/they said’ or ‘he/she/they asked,’ it still doesn’t end the sentence and he or she should not be capitalized. Like this:

“Joni, is that you?” he asked.
“Of course, it’s me!” she said.

2. When a speaker says multiple sentences, quotation marks go at the end of the speech, not each sentence. If you break up a speech with another sentence, not spoken, then begin the second part of the speech with new quotes. Here’s an example:

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore. Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?” Joni asked.

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore.” Joni sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?”

3. Every time you change speakers, indent and start a new paragraph, even if the speech is only one word. This allows the reader to follow who is speaking to whom. Here’s how that would read:

“Joni, are you listening to me?”
“Well, say something, will you?”
“I think you’re wrong, Graham.”

-Notice how even without ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ you still know who is speaking. Quick, back-and-forth dialogue can be bogged down with too many descriptors. You don’t always need them as long as you start new paragraphs whenever you change speakers.

There are more rules about the use of quotation marks, ones that have less to do with speech and more to do with offsetting titles of books and such. I decided to exclude those here, although that might be material for another post.

I hope this was helpful and I wish you all productive writing and successful conversation!

59 thoughts on “He said, she said… Writing dialogue.

  1. I love writing dialogue. I think it’s my favorite thing to write. And I grew to hate the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ phrases. I try to make the content of the dialogue such that it’s clear who is speaking when so I don’t have to use those phrases often… and I think I succeed in that. (You’ve read my writing… I’m guessing I must be doing alright or you’d be totally confused by my work.) In fact, I sort of hate when I have two people of the same gender in a conversation because then, not only do I tend to need more ‘she said’ but I also feel like I have to overuse the characters names. Sometimes balancing that is tricky. Balancing is probably not the right word… but I’m sure you know what I mean.

    Oh… the stupid punctuation thing? I’ve got to say, I go British on some of that. Of course, if I write: “We’re going to the show because Joey said it was amazing.” I would punctuate as I did. But when I’m writing something like… When writing, I try to avoid the phrase ‘he said’. I hate putting the period before the quote. That feels wrong to me even though it’s grammatically correct. And apparently, this is the British way… which I discovered when I researched the rules online to find justification for what I do (even though I knew it wasn’t technically correct).

    Sorry… that was quite a speech. I will “shut up now”. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha! That was brilliant! You are an excellent dialogue writer. YOU should’ve written this post! 😉 But, I feel like dialogue is one of my strengths, too. When I started writing, I was always looking for alternatives to ‘he said and she said’ and then I read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing. His advice was to avoid using other descriptors than those two. That it wasn’t natural and actually distracted from the dialogue. I started paying attention to all the authors I read and lo and behold, that’s pretty much what all the best sellers do. With just a few minor exceptions, I’ve been trying to stick to that rule myself!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read the same exact thing — “His advice was to avoid using other descriptors than those two. That it wasn’t natural and actually distracted from the dialogue.”

        I think maybe the exception was whispered. But I try to avoid it completely if possible. If it’s a specific manner of speaking that’s important to the story, I might put that word in a different sentence.

        “[Something delicious.]” His whisper melted away any doubts I had.

        I like that better. [I kind of like that whole example… I’d better save it…] I don’t think anyone has trouble figuring out who’s speaking when I write dialogue. Once in a while I have to clarify, so I throw it in when necessary. I also have to throw it in more often with same gender conversations… and it can’t even be ‘she’… it has to be ‘[name]’… which starts to sound even more repetitive. So instead, I have a lot of someone’s mom saying, “Sandra, don’t be ridiculous.” So we know the mom is speaking… 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m now wondering whether I’ve managed to steer clear of these gaffes or not. I hope my MS has been cleaned of these and has the properly dialogue punctuation. Am always worried about some of these rules, specially where the exclamation mark and question mark come into play. And what about when they both come together?! Then just kill me!? 😛


    1. Well, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a stickler for the details. I’ve read books by accomplished authors that have glaring errors and I wonder what they’re paying their editors for!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Super helpful Meg! I did not realize that about ending your dialogue with a question mark or a comma means that the sentence isn’t actually over. Also, I am learning about the quick dialogue. Finding when and where to use it can be tricky. Some people get confused and I end up addding dialogue tags.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Kat's Review and commented:
    I have been working on a discussion about dialogue then ran across this blog by Meg Sorick. She said everything I was working with plus a few more items. Thanks, Meg, it was so good, I decided to reblog as I could never do the topic as well as you have,

    Liked by 1 person

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