How To Write Past And Present Tense Dialogue

Past And Present Tense Dialogue

By Lisa Brown

For many writers, dialogue seems like such a tedious task.

Even though this type of writing is not straightforward, it is vital to creating characters and their surroundings.

You need to take the reader inside your head.


Although you have a good idea of your characters’ personalities and what they look like, you have to communicate this to your readers.

If you are new to it, there are some essential factors your dialogue should cover.

Make sure that you convey the character’s personality accurately. Think about having an actual conversation with someone.

You need to sound like a real person and not a robot.

Write the way you speak, while communicating your characters way of talking.

It does seem challenging at first, but once you put a personality to your characters, it should not be.

Let the reader become the character by building the surroundings and emotions into your dialogue.


Using dialogue tags

You do not have to explain the atmosphere in a speech form of writing, but rather through your dialogue.

You can use a lot of dialogue tags, but the most popular one would be the verb “said”. It is a safe tag to use because it does not take the reader’s emotions anywhere.

It is merely a normal conversation that is happening.

There are many other words for said like “screamed”, “observed” and “denied” to just name a few.

These are more specific to the emotion of the character when something is said.

Although tags are necessary to help us understand the dialogue better, there can also be overuse of tags. If two people are talking to each other, you might want to delete the tags of one person.

A general conversation can be communicated without too many tags.


Perhaps you can use the tag for the first person and then omit it when the other replies. It is less confusing for the reader.


Past and present tense dialogue

It does not matter if you are writing in the past or the present when it comes to dialogue.

Your use of the verb to say should still be used the same way. Your explanatory writing would determine if the story is based in the past or the present.

Your dialogue is still written in the present tense.

The conversation, if it happened before or is happening now, remains a conversation.

If you are paraphrasing paragraphs, you would pick up that most of your dialogue would remain unchanged if written in the present tense.


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 example:

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,” Lorrain said.

“I was so relieved that it was nothing too serious because I did forget to pick up the balloons”.

If you decide not to tag your dialogue, the reader would usually assume that it is being said by the last person to speak.

Let’s take the example above. After Lorraine spoke, I would need to respond, and a tag is not necessary. The reader would be able to follow the conversation without overusing the tags.

If you were writing a screenplay, the dialogue would still have tags.

It might be the character’s name or something similar. The character does not, however, read the tag, just the dialogue. When it comes to novels though, the characters are not seen.

This is why the writer has to guide the minds of those reading. As much as it seems complicated to write dialogue, all you have to do is read and understand it from the audience’s perspective.

Using a paraphrase service is always recommended to writers. You might not be able to write a sentence any other way, but these tools do come in handy.



Avoid Adverbs

When writing dialogue, it is always best not to use adverbs in your tags.

It comes across as amateurish, and you want to be seen as a professional writer. You should be able to communicate your message without the use of adverbs.

Leave something up to the reader’s imagination. Overemphasising a point is not what good writers do. Here are some examples of what to avoid.

She shouted loudly.

He told her intensely.

This is not good writing. Using the verb is enough to communicate your point in the dialogue. Be careful with the use of adverbs.

The safe way to do this is to completely stop using them in your dialogue. I have seen writers include obvious adverbs in their dialogues, like this.

“I just lost my mom,” she said sadly.

Readers might find this style of writing offensive. Believe that your readers are smart enough that the character is sad. Over-explaining is not necessary and can cause distraction from the flow of your dialogue.

The rule should be to keep your tags as simple as possible. Your storyline is sufficient for the reader to follow.



I know this can seem like a lot of information, but dialogue writing is very easy. Once you get the hang of it, you are going to enjoy the process.

When writing dialogue, you become the characters. Take yourself out of reality and live the story. The personality you created for your characters is now your own and the way they present themselves is how you do.

At that moment you escape life as is and transport yourself into the scene. When you do that, you stand a better chance of writing believable dialogue.

Once you become the character when writing, your readers will follow. Remember to write your first draft without overthinking all of the rules.

That is what proofreading and editing are for. Right now, you just write.


Lisa BrownLisa Brown works as a content manager. She is specialized in writing useful articles for writers, students and people who want to improve their writing skills. Her hobby is reading, travelling and blogging. Lisa`s life motto is “Never stop learning because life never stops teaching”.


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

  • September 1, 2019 at 11:38 pm

    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.

  • June 13, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    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’

    • June 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm

      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. “

      • February 12, 2020 at 3:11 pm

        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.

  • May 9, 2018 at 7:49 am

    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.

  • December 9, 2017 at 8:06 am

    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.


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