Dialogue Basics – with Bob Rich, PhD

The power of dialogue

Bob Rich, Phd is a professional writer, editor, and proofreader

Bob Rich, PhD is a professional writer, editor, and proofreader

After action, dialogue is the second most powerful tool for bringing fiction to life. It is when characters are quoted while they speak to each other. However, dialogue is not a speech transcript, but a distillation. As an exercise, you might record a conversation between two or more people, then convert it to text. It will be practically incomprehensible, with long, rambling sentences, some of them incomplete or mixed with others. Little ums and ahs will pepper it, and people will speak over each other. By convention, written dialogue converts this to something a person can be expected to understand in one reading.

Here is a little extract [from You Can’t Escape Destiny, second volume of The Doom Healer series] to show the power of dialogue:

Mike said, “Don’t they have food in New York?”

“Life’s too busy to waste on eating, is all.”

“You need to look after yourself better.” They walked through a door, along a corridor to a large open place.

Matt sighed. “Claire used to…”

“That was five years ago. It’s time to build a new life for yourself. By the way, you still visit her murderer?”

“Poor bastard has no one else.”

They entered an elevator. “That’s why you’re on this team, bro. You do realize, 99.99% of people wouldn’t understand?”

“Of course. But hating him wouldn’t bring her back, and I’ve turned his life around.”

The few words the brothers say to each other are worth several pages of description and back story.

Also important is to realise that dialogue is ONE of four tools. These should be constantly interlaced with each other. The extract above contains three bits of action. These are low key, merely background, but break up what would otherwise be word ping pong.

You might enjoy reading an old post on that topic, What’s wrong with word ping-pong? In summary, it is where dialogue goes on and on and on, in a vacuum, typically delivered by the identical voice with different names attached.


This leads to the next point: a person’s voice.

Each person has different, unique habits of speech. Even though the actual mouth noises cannot be reproduced in print, such individual variations can. Here is a short extract from my From Depression to Contentment:

“So, let me understand this, Giles. When your mother dies, you intend to kill yourself. When was the first time you decided to do this?”

“When she had a mini-stroke, I can’t remember what the doctor called it.”

“A TIA?”

“That’s it. I realized, she is getting old, and won’t need me forever. This was before I met Shirley, and… before I lost her like I knew I would.” He looked ready to cry, but put on a calm face. “No one else cares the slightest whether I live or die, so, why not?”

“Are you certain? Surely you have friends?”

“Nah. Not a one.”

“If I did a survey of all the people who know you, what would they say?”

Shrug. “They don’t know the real me. Yeah, I’m of service whenever I can, because they matter.”

“THEY matter? You don’t?”

Another shrug, and a nod.

First, again notice the interweaving of dialogue with little actions from Giles, described as the therapist sees them. But also, Giles speaks like a working man, while the therapist like a professional, although you probably wouldn’t notice this while reading the book. The different choice of words, as well as the content, clearly identifies each speaker.

In a story I am writing, one character expresses agreement with “sure.” Others use different words. “Well…” “Now…” and similar words to start a sentence can similarly “belong” to a character. Readers probably won’t pick this up (unless they are editors), but it will still help to distinguish speakers.

One person might habitually speak in short, sharp sentences, while another will use longer, rounded ones.

How do you achieve this? The best is not by deliberately and self-consciously writing that way. Instead, use a little trick: BECOME the character in your imagination, and then it’ll come naturally. With practice in writing, this will be automatic and intuitive, but I describe a formal technique in A Magic Trick for Writing.


The writer’s job is to make reading as easy as possible. We want the reader’s attention to be fully focused on the story, not used up on wondering about things like, “Is George saying this aloud, or only thinking it?” or “Hang on, who said this?” One very frequent signpost to help with this problem is some version of “said.” That is, we use a word or two to attribute a quote to a character. Attributions are also referred to as “tags.”

How tags should be used, if at all, is one of the never-ending controversies of the writing world. I find such arguments to be rather silly. The criterion is whether communication is clear, and the language “invisible.” You can read about invisible language here.

If my use of tags enables my reader to become immersed in the story, it’s fine. If it attracts attention to the language rather than to the content, it needs to be changed.

Another little essay, Better dead than said? discusses this in detail, with examples. In summary, only use a tag if otherwise there may be confusion about the identity of the speaker. Make the tag as unobtrusive as possible.

A different tag problem handicaps many inexperienced writers: location. When you do use a tag (as infrequently as possible without loss of clarity), it can be at the front of the sentence, or at the end, or in the middle. It will be coupled with a name or pronoun, and again, it can come before or after it:

Jill said, “I don’t know where I’ve put it.”

“Have you looked at its proper spot where it’s supposed to be?” asked Harry, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sally said, “Mother put something in its proper place?”

“I wish you two didn’t always gang up on me!” Jill rushed out the door and slammed it behind herself.

The point here is that the location of the tag should be varied. Having it always in the same spot very quickly becomes obviously repetitive. Once a reader notices such a pattern, the story is spoiled.

Dialogue conventions

English is actually several languages, which differ from each other in both obvious and subtle ways. Presentation of dialogue is all too obvious to people in the book trade, and probably invisible to everyone else.

Here are the conventions that apply to every version:

  • Do not use quotes for thoughts that are quoted word for word. It’s best to put them in italics instead. Some experts are against the use of italics for this purpose. I don’t know why — signposts of any kind are good, because they reduce reading difficulty.
  • When you have a person do something and say something, keep it all in the same paragraph. Do not have a line break before the speech.
  • When you switch to another person, start a new paragraph.
  • Do not ever have two single quotes (‘’) side by side instead of a “.
  • Minimize the use of tags (he said, or the equivalent). Certainly don’t have more than one in the single sample of speech.
  • Minimize adverbs (descriptive words) in tags. They are a form of telling rather than showing. So, “he said excitedly” or the like is not much good.
  • When a character makes a long speech so that you need to quote more than one paragraph, start the first paragraph with a quotation mark (typically, “). Start each of the succeeding paragraphs with a “ as well. However, only end the last paragraph with a “.
    Because this can lead to misreadings, it’s a good trick to break it up so there is something between succeeding paragraphs, for example the current witness’s thoughts about the speech. Then, each paragraph of conversation can have quotes at both the beginning and the end.
    An alternative is to signal such a block quote by using a suitable formatting device, such as a left margin indent.

American conventions

  • Use double quotes for speech.
  • Punctuation marks go inside the quotes.
  • When you have quotes inside quotes, have the outside ones double (“) and the inside ones single (‘).

Rest of the English-speaking world

Places outside the USA are more flexible and forgiving:

  • Either double quotes (“) or single quotes (‘) are acceptable to indicate dialogue, but you need to be consistent within the one document. Since the single quote is the same symbol as the apostrophe, translating from English to American is a pain, so I use double quotes.
  • If you use single quotes, a quote within a quote is a double quote.
  • Punctuation marks can go inside or outside quotes. Outside is more logical, but again, there is the translation issue.


Read a novel, any novel, and study how the author deals with the various aspects I’ve covered. Mind you, even famous authors can follow unwise practices. For example, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt has not a single quotation mark within it. Spoken words and thoughts are just there as plain text. I found this very hard going for the first couple of chapters, then I got used to it. All the same, this is a strong negative. Why not make the reader’s task as easy as possible?

Did you find this essay interesting?  Read more by Bob Rich at his blog page


  1. Thank you for publishing my essay, Victor, and so quickly. I’ll publicize it in the January issue of my newsletter, Bobbing Around, and establish a permanent link to it.
    I wish everyone at Loving Healing Press, including your many authors, a great 2019.

  2. Pingback: Dialogue Basics | Bobbing Around

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  5. Yeah. It is pretty good! Thank you for the reminder!
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

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