As fiction writers our goal is to bring our characters to life.

Readers should be able to hear our characters speak to them as they read the words on the page and, in order to achieve that level of authenticity we need to give our characters lively and realistic dialogue.

Our first task is merely to format the dialogue according the conventions of American English.

Let’s begin with the simple line, ‘Hello, how are you.’

First we give it double quotes:

“Hello, how are you.”

Then it’s a question, so we’ll give it a question mark:

“Hello, how are you?”

Now we need a speaker, so we give it a tag:

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin.

(Note that the ’s’ of ‘said’ is lower case, as the question mark in this instance acts as a comma).

We could also format it thus:

“Hello, how are you?” Kevin said.

We could also write:

Kevin said, “Hello, how are you?”

(note the comma after ‘said.’).

Said Kevin, “Hello, how are you?” 

Sounds a little odd, but it’s technically correct. 

We can also place the tag in the middle of the line of dialogue:

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”


“Hello,” said Kevin, “How are you?”

Both are correct, but have a slightly different feel to them.

Can we change the verb used in the tag? According to most authorities we are supposed to prefer the verb ‘said’ for tags.

“Hello, how are you?” stated Kevin.

“Hello, how are you?” asserted Kevin.

“Hello, how are you?” reported Kevin.

Are not technically wrong, but are considered bad writing.

However we can use verbs that imply volume:

“Hello, how are you?” yelled Kevin.

“Hello, how are you?” whispered Kevin.

“Hello, how are you?” mumbled Kevin.

Obviously you want to be sparing with the use of volume related tags. Even in the middle of––say–– a battle or a hurricane it would get tedious for the reader if every line of dialogue was ‘yelled.’

And this holds true even if all of the dialogue really was yelled.


In real life our dialogue is seldom straightforward.

Obviously, the way we mostly choose to communicate with others is through words, but the words we use are frequently modified in their meaning through musicality and visual gesture.


Music can be viewed as sound modified by three elements:

1: Rhythm.

2: Pitch.

3: Timbre (pronounced a little like the latin dance, ‘SAMBA’).

One aspect of Rhythm is the speed with which the tune is performed. For example the hymn, AMAZING GRACE has a slower rhythm than the national anthem. 

Rhythm is also affected how the beats are grouped, for example, the National Anthem is a march, and tends to follow the two-beat (left-right) pace of a marching band. 

Amazing Grace is a lament, and has the pace of a slow, mournful dance.

Nursery rhymes and Christmas carols are mostly based around dances, and have a looser, more playful rhythm.

Pitch is simply how high or low the tones are. Generally speaking a flute is higher pitched than a trombone.

Timbre is hard to write about. It’s the quality of the sound. For example a violin has a different timbre than a piano or a set of bagpipes.

Let’s look at how MUSICALITY affects our simple line of dialogue: 


“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin. 

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”


“Hello,” said Kevin, “How are you?”

All have a different rhythm.


“Hello––how,” said Kevin. “Are you?”


“Hello, how are…” said Kevin. “You?”

Or even:

“Hello. How. Are. You?” said Kevin.

Perhaps Kevin is speaking to a very deaf relative, in which case it could be:

“Hello! How! Are! You!” yelled Kevin.

How about Robot Kevin?

“Hello-how-are-you?” said Kevin.


You will probably need to change the tag-verb to indicate pitch:

“Hello, how are you?” squeaked Kevin.


“Hello,” growled Kevin. “How are you?” 


As with pitch, you can change the tag-verb.

“Hello, how are you?” whistled Kevin.


“Hello,” trumpeted Kevin. “How are you?”

In all of these variations you can add modifying phrases to the tags, thus:

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin, as if he was giving an order.

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin, as if he was addressing a small child.

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin, as if I was three blocks away, instead of right next to him.

These modifying phrases can be great for genre fiction, such as humor or horror.

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin, as if from beyond the grave…

Gesture and body language are some of your most potent tools for giving underlying meaning––plus they allow you to drop the tags.

“Hello, how are you?” Kevin produced a pair of underpants from his satchel and blew his nose on them.

By placing the action adjacent (on the same line) as the dialogue, we attribute the dialogue to Kevin…so no need for a tag.

We could use tag and beat:

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin. He produced a pair of underpants from his satchel and blew his nose on them.

But it seems redundant now.

These actions are known as ‘beats.’

Beats can be used in any of the ways that tags can, but beats are always separated from the spoken dialogue by periods, whereas tags are normally separated by commas.

“Hello, how are you?” said Kevin. 

“Hello.” Kevin scratched his head. “How are you?”

“Hello.” Kevin winked. “How are you?”

“Hello.” Kevin leapt out of the plane. “How are you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u?”

And we’re still only on the first line.

So, let’s add a second line. It seems natural that a new character should respond to Kevin’s question, and remember to begin a new paragraph when a new character speaks:

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” said Andrew. “Thank you for asking.”

In reality though, we seldom respond to this question in such an appropriate and courtly manner.

Something like this might sound more natural:

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

“Hanging in there,” said Andrew.

The interesting thing is that the less straightforward the response the more we learn about the characters and their relationship to one another.

How about?

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

“Hanging in there,” said Andrew. “No thanks to you.”


“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

Andrew sputtered. “That’s a good question.”


“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

“Dying,” said Andrew, “but dying beautifully, nonetheless.”

We begin to touch on an elementary truth of creating stories.

There needs to be a logic in the way one idea follows another in the story, but too much logic can lead to plodding obviousness.

How illogical can you be?

“Hello,” said Kevin. “How are you?”

Andrew sputtered. “Wednesdays.”

“Bananas,” said Kevin.

At first sight these lines make no sense whatsoever.

But what if they actually do make sense in a way that’s revealed a few lines later?

Perhaps you can pique your readers’ curiosity with a little lack of logic, then explain later on what the heck was going on.

Finally, when your mom told you that actions speak louder than words, she may have a point. 

Sometimes no dialogue can be great dialogue.

Kevin pulled a joyless grin, and spread his arms as if he was about to hug Andrew.

Andrew hissed, spun on his heel, and marched towards the door.

Wordless Conversation Exercise.

Following on from the lines above, write a ‘dialogue’ scene between 2 characters, in which there is no actual spoken dialogue––or at least there’s no actual dialogue for at least half a page.

Go back and forth between the characters as if there was dialogue, but in this instance there will only be actions.

You may well find that after half a page of miming and gesturing your characters are desperate to actually speak, and you can eventually let that happen.

Perhaps there’s no logic to why your characters can’t speak, and that’s fine.

Here are a couple of logical scenarios:

1: Your characters are out of earshot of one another (maybe 100 yards apart). Perhaps they are jogging towards one another, but until they’re close enough they need to gesture their conversation.

2: Your characters are snorkeling underwater. They have to gesture to each other until they come to the surface.

3: Your characters are at a really loud dance party, where the volume of the music makes conversation impossible.

4: Each of your characters believes the other character doesn’t speak English, so they gesture to one another until finally one of the characters says something, and they realize they can actually speak to one another. 

POV and tense.

We’re going to look at point of view and tense next. Notice that all of the above examples are in 3rd person/past tense.

Naturally, there are other POVs and tenses that are absolutely correct, but I suggest you do this writing exercise in 3rd person/past.

3rd person/past is sometimes referred to as standard POV.