Lesson 1: Dialogue

Lesson 1: Dialogue

A Lesson by Jasper

The basics of dialogue.



Dialogue sits in the forefront of any fiction writing and remains one of the critical elements that publishers and literary agents most often review in the first chapter of a manuscript when deciding they if they want to invest their time into reading the entire piece. An understanding of basic terminology about dialogue Includes dialogue tags, beats, and action lines.


A dialogue tag comprises the identification of a speaker and a short action word directly following a quotation mark. (When a dialogue tag is used, the final period preceding the closing quotation mark turns into a comma. However, a question mark or an exclamation point does not change.)

Example: "I love this," he said.

The most common dialogue tags include: "he said," "she said," "he asked," or "she asked." They go almost unnoticed to the reader's brain because they appear on nearly every page of fiction writing and remain the safest dialogue tags to get the job done. Active dialogue tags, such as "she yelled" or "he argued," spice up the writing, but overusing active dialogue tags can cause a piece of writing to come across as too dramatic and over the top. It is always best to vary or disperse the standard dialogue tags with active dialogue tags throughout any dialogue. Also, 19th and 20th century writers often inverted the speaker and the tag (e.g., "How marvelous!" said Jane); it is best for 21st century writers not to invert them to avoid sounding pedantic.

Example 1:

"I found it," Mr. Smith shouted.
"How can that be?" his wife argued.
"You lost it, didn't you?" he accused her.

Dialogue tags serve the purpose of primarily identifying the speaker. If it is clear who is speaking, a dialogue tag will generally be unnecessary. Too many dialogue tags can cause the dialogue to seem too heavy. On the other hand, not enough dialogue tags can frustrate the reader. Who hasn't read an entire page of dialogue with no dialogue tags and has had to reread it (or even worse had to count down the number of lines) just to figure out who said what? As a general rule, a writer should go no more than three lines without using a dialogue tag or a beat so that the reader can keep track of who is speaking.

Example 1:

Mr. Smith rolled his eyes. "You are ridiculous."
"Who? Me?"
"Yes, you. Who else?"

Example 2:

"This is the best party ever, don't you think so, dear?" Mrs. Jones said.
"Superb. When can we go?"
"When you stop acting like a big baby."
"It's going to be a long night then," he said.


A beat consists of the identification of a speaker and often a short action in sentence form that may precede or follow dialogue. Although beats generally precede the dialogue, whether they precede or follow will depend on the chronology of events; that is to say, does the action precede or follow the speech?


Mr. Jones raised his glass high. "Cheers."
"I'll drink to that." Mrs. Jones took a sip from her glass.

An important piece of information to remember is not to include too many characters into a single beat since it has the potential to confuse the reader. After all, who is speaking?


Sally threw a handful of peanuts into her mouth while Susan blew her nose. "This sucks."
"Why? It's not that bad." Susan glanced at Sally, who also glanced back at her.
Both women cried. "We shouldn't have come here."


The action line consist of any speech, dialogue tag, beat, or a combination of speech, dialogues, or beats within a single line. Action lines serve primarily to identify the speaker.


Mrs. Smith stared at her hand. "It's never felt like that before."
"In thirty-three years of marriage I've never even seen you have a cold."
"Good genes, I suppose" she said. "But this doesn't feel like an ailment."
"Psychosomatic then?"
"It can't be all in your head if not," he said with encouragement, "but I still think you should see Dr. Montgomery about it."

The key to action lines is not to jumble speakers and actors action lines or to confuse your readers by mixing actors and speakers together. Plus, jumbling actors and speakers speeds up the pace often too quickly for readers to process. As a general rule, only one character should be present per action line.


"I can still see you," I said. Mr. Jones sat down.
I gave him a dirty look. "Then don't look over here," he remarked.

Something like this should be revised to read:

"I can still see you," I said.
Mr. Jones sat down.
I gave him a dirty look.
"Then don't look over here," he remarked.


Although plenty more can be said about dialogue, these tips can give writers something basic to work with. Happy writing!


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Added on October 1, 2016
Last Updated on October 9, 2016
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Dallas, TX

I adore the fantasy genre, especially urban fantasy, magic realism, and supernatural. By trade I write and review legal decisions and enjoy teaching, cooking, and art exhibits. I also have my undergra..