Write Like a Pro! Master The Rules of Dialogue in Writing

Publish date:

Some of this is Grammar 101, but you’ve got to master the rules in this section for an editor to take you seriously. If these rules are elementary to you, skip them. For everyone else, type them up, print them out, and nail them to your computer monitor.


Rule #1: When a new speaker speaks, start a new paragraph

Right: “Did you hear what happened to Mary last week?” Joseph asked.

“No. Do tell!” cried the little drummer boy.

Wrong: “Did you hear what happened to Mary last week?” Joseph asked.

“No. Do tell!” cried the little drummer boy.

Rule #2: Keep dialogue brief

I’m a devotee of nineteenth-century Russian literature, and one of my favorite chapters is the Grand Inquisitor section of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The success of such a chapter carries with it an assumption that no longer holds true today: One speaker can tell a long story, without interruptions, and his audience will be rapt throughout the telling.

In the age of television, the Internet, e-mail, and even books (remember them?), the art of oral storytelling has gone nearly extinct. Yes, we all still run across the occasional person who can hold a dinner party spellbound with his telling of a story, but there will nonetheless be interruptions, interjections, and asides. In our twenty-first-century world, in fact, no one gets to go on as long as nineteenth-century characters could, so dialogue in which someone speaks without interruption feels awkward and stilted to us.

If it’s necessary to your narrative for someone to give a long speech, there are a number of possible solutions.

1. Make it a real speech.
2. Have him write a letter.
3. Break it up with interjections that further the narrative and/or develop character or relationships at the same time.
4. Consider why it’s necessary for this information to be imparted this way. If it’s important, perhaps it should be done in a scene. (If doing such a scene presents a point-of-view problem, have someone who’s there write a letter.)

Rule #3: Always put terminal punctuation (commas, periods) inside the quotation marks

This one’s simple. Note where the comma and period appear in each example and then commit the above to memory.
Right: “I wonder,” she said, “if he is going to show up.”
Wrong: “I wonder”, she said, “if he is going to show up”.

*This excerpt is from Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook.

Buy it now!


New Agent Alert: Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Timothy Miller: The Alluring Puzzle of Fact and Fiction

Screenwriter and novelist Timothy Miller explains how he came to write historical fiction and how research can help him drive his plot.


Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido: Entertainment and Outrage

Authors Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido explain how they came to co-write their novel and why it's important to them that the readers experience outrage while reading.


Incite vs. Insight (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use incite vs. insight with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


Jane K. Cleland: On Writing the Successful Long-Running Series

Award-winning mystery author Jane K. Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series and offers expert advice for the genre writer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: #StartWrite, Virtual Conference, and New Courses

This week, we’re excited to announce free resources to start your writing year off well, our Novel Writing Virtual Conference, and more!


20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.


Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.