How To Write Past And Present Tense Dialogue

Past And Present Tense Dialogue

Dialogue writing for new fiction authors can sometimes pose a small challenge, to begin with.

But in fact, writing dialogue is easy as long as you follow a few simple rules.

All you need to do is to make sure that you are consistent in your tense usage and punctuation.

Yes, it is possible to write dialogue in both past and present tenses.

What is dialogue?

You want to show your readers what your characters think and feel.

Your dialogue will communicate the personality and emotions of your characters.

The general rule of thumb is to write the way people speak so you have your character speaking in the most natural voice possible.

Each one of your characters will have their own voice, and this will help you create unique character profiles in your story.

If you are new to dialogue writing, one of the best pieces of advice is to read your dialogue aloud.

It is the easiest way to make sure that what you write sounds natural and that you have the right emotion in your words.

 

Dialogue tense

he said she says

The most common form you see is dialogue using past tense.

This is the standard he said, she said style that you see in the majority of fiction novels or even short stories.

However, it is possible to use simple present tense dialogue.

All that changes is the dialogue tag which becomes she says, he says.

While past tense dialogue is the most common, it’s up to you which one you use.

There is an extra possibility when you use reported speech within your dialogue.

This form incorporates the use of the past perfect.

Of course, once you decide on a tense form, you need to use it consistently and not mix your tenses.

 

Present tense dialogue examples

Standing at my friend’s birthday party and we are just having so much fun.

“Hey, Kate,” says Lorraine.

“How is your birthday going so far?” I ask.

“It’s going great, and I just want to thank you for all your help,” Loraine replies.

 

Past tense dialogue examples

Last week I was at Lorraine’s house for her birthday party.

We had so much fun, and at the end of the party, Lorraine called me aside and said we needed to talk.

“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“I just wanted to thank you for all your help with the party,” Lorraine said.

“Oh, it was nothing. All I did was pick up the balloons,” I replied.

 

Dialogue tags

Instead of explaining through your narrative, you can create emotion, feelings, and atmosphere with your written dialogue.

You can use a lot of dialogue tags, but the most common one is the verb say.

While it is non-emotive, it is a safe tag to use to mark changes of dialogue from one character to another.

Readers tend to read through this tag without noticing.

But there are many other words for said, such as screamed, observed, cried, and denied to just name a few.

Your word choice can help you be more specific about the emotion of the character when they say something.

Tags are often necessary to help readers understand the emotion of dialogue, but you should avoid overusing tags.

If only two characters are talking, you might want to omit the tags.

But if there are three characters in the conversation, you definitely need to use tags to identify who is speaking.

 

No dialogue tags

If you decide not to add a tag to a line of your dialogue, the reader must be able to assume who is speaking.

“I’m not sure if I should apply for this job,” Ryan said.

“Is it a good salary?” Mary asked.

“Yes, it’s much more than I am getting paid now.”

“Well, what are you worried about? Apply for it is and see how you get on.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

In this example, there is no need for tags after the first two lines.

Once the two characters are identified, it is clear who is speaking in the conversation.

As long as each utterance starts on a new line, it is easy for a reader to follow.

 

Avoid adverbs

In good dialogue writing, it is always best to avoid adding adverbs to your tags.

It is a very common writing fault for new writers of fiction.

Stephen King famously said, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Whenever you use an adverb, find a better way to communicate the emotion you are trying to show.

She said quietly. Poor

She whispered. Better

He shouted loudly. Poor

He bellowed. Better

She said sadly. Poor

She moaned. Better

You can almost always communicate your message without the use of adverbs.

Trying to over-explain in a dialogue tag is weak writing and can cause distraction from the flow of your dialogue.

The best rule is to keep your tags as simple as possible. Your storyline should be more than enough for your reader to follow.

 

Dialogue punctuation

There are a variety of punctuation rules for dialogue.

However, one basic rule is easy to follow. In dialogue, the comma is inside the quotation.

You always need to include any punctuation within your quotation marks.

“That’s all I need right now.”

“What are you doing?”

“Don’t do it!”

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he said.

As you can see, when you use a question mark, exclamation, period (full stop), or comma, they are always before the closing quotation mark.

If you use a tag before an utterance, the same rule applies. However, there is an extra comma after the tag.

Haley said, “I’m ready to go now.”

Michael asked, “How much is a ticket to London?”

Lee screamed, “That’s it, I quit!”

 

Quotation marks

This is a personal choice for writers.

While many prefer to use curly double quotation marks, others prefer double straight.

You can also use single quotation marks. These are becoming popular in ebooks, especially.

Lastly is the choice to use no quotation marks. In Tim Winton’s book, Cloudstreet, he uses no quotation marks at all in the dialogue.

I must admit it was a bit disconcerting when I first started reading the book.

But after a while, I quite enjoyed the change and had no problem understanding the dialogue.

 

Summary

Writing and punctuating dialogue is not a difficult task at all, even for a new fiction writer.

All you need to do is follow the basics. You will probably choose to write your dialogue using past tense.

However, you can experiment and try using dialogue in present tense or even present continuous.

When you are writing, don’t worry too much about the rules.

You can always check and correct issues when it comes time to read and edit your manuscript.

But you can save yourself a lot of time by remembering to include any punctuation before the closing quotation mark.

Make it a habit, and your writing will flow more easily.

By far, the most vital part of great dialogue writing is to use it to show your story rather than telling it in your narrative.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

6 thoughts on “How To Write Past And Present Tense Dialogue

  • September 1, 2019 at 11:38 pm
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    I think the use of present versus past (especially in dialogue) depends on when it is happening or what or when the speaker is referring to something. Otherwise, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice page 1 needs a rewrite! Even her first and last sentence on this page are in different tenses. And it is considered a past tense novel per Spark Notes. Please see below for her opening words.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
    However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
    Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
    “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
    Mr. Bennet made no answer.
    “Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
    “You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
    This was invitation enough.

    Reply
  • June 13, 2019 at 7:01 pm
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    How do you know if you’re mixing up tenses? For example should it be:
    ‘Where was that little boy now? I wondered for the billionth time’ or ‘Where is that little boy now? I wondered for the billionth time’

    Reply
    • June 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm
      Permalink

      I would go with the first. The past tenses agree.

      For the second, it would need to be, “where is that little boy now? I wonder. “

      Reply
      • February 12, 2020 at 3:11 pm
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        It should be “‘Where is that little boy now?’ I wondered for the billionth time.” You are direct quoting what you thought/said in the past. If you are talking about what was said on your wedding day, you wouldn’t change the tense to be “I looked deeply into his eyes when he said “I did” with all his heart.” – he said “I do” would be correct.

        Reply
  • May 9, 2018 at 7:49 am
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    Thank you for this, Lisa. I was just looking for a subject verb agreement rule in dialogues and I’m glad your article also led me to other pages in this website that might be a big help in my proofreading stage.

    Reply
  • December 9, 2017 at 8:06 am
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    Thank you for sharing. I needed the refresher. I had no trouble with the dialogue in my current novel on Amazon, but finding it more difficult with this next novel. This helped. Wish I could reblog.

    Reply

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