When you start to learn how to write dialogue, it seems very simple. All you need to do is add a reporting verb or dialogue tag.
You probably learned this at high school. When a character speaks lines of dialogue, you put a double quotation mark at the beginning and end.
But how do you punctuate dialogue correctly?
Also, how can you incorporate the correct tense in reported speech when it is part of the written dialogue?
What’s the difference between dialogue writing and reported speech?
When you write dialogue, you are using direct speech. You are using the exact words that the character says, and then adding a dialogue tag to say who spoke the words.
“I’m going into town this morning. I should be back before dinner,” she said.
The reporting verb is almost always in the simple past verb tense. It is generally the rule for fiction writing.
It doesn’t matter which tense the dialogue is actually using. It can be present continuous, present perfect or present simple.
“I’m having friends over for dinner tomorrow night,” he said.
“I’ve had friends over for dinner quite often,” he said.
“I have friends over for dinner all the time,” he said.
You can also use the present simple tense in some circumstances. It is when you want to say that someone says something quite often or all the time.
“When I get older, I think I’ll travel the world,” she says.
“I’m going to buy a Ferrari one day,” he always says.
But you wouldn’t use the present form in most fiction writing.
In reported speech or indirect speech, we may not necessarily use the exact words of the speaker. It is often used to convey small talk or gossip about what other people said.
It is also often used to paraphrase long speeches or extended discourse.
We can use both past and present forms. But again, the past is much more common.
She said she was going into town that morning and that she should be back before dinner. Past form
He always says that he is going to buy a Ferrari one day. Present form
You need to format dialogue with punctuation and quotation marks. But you write reported speech as a standard sentence.
You include the attribution and reporting verb without punctuation.
When you use the past form, you always need to pay special attention to the tense shift. No matter what tense the original utterance used, reported speech always uses the past.
This is because it is something someone said in the past. It is an action that occurred in the past, so we refer to it as a past event.
Compare the difference between these direct and indirect sentences.
I want to go to Norway.
He said he wanted to go to Norway.
She will pass her exam for sure.
He told me that she would pass her exam for sure.
They wanted to buy a new house but didn’t get the loan.
Tom told me that they had wanted to buy a new house but didn’t get the loan.
The general rule is that active speech in present or future tenses shift back to past simple.
If active speech is in present perfect, it shifts back to past perfect.
For past simple active speech, it can shift back to past perfect, or stay in past simple.
In all forms, the relative pronoun, that, is optional.
Using reported speech within written dialogue
When you incorporate reported speech within a speaker’s dialogue, you need to keep the tense shift.
“Have you seen Jillian lately?”, Mary asked.
“Oh, yes. I saw her yesterday, and she told me that she was going to France next month,” Anne replied.
“I didn’t feel well this morning, so I called my boss to let him know. There is an important meeting this afternoon, but my boss said that it was okay and that he would get someone else to take the minutes. I still feel guilty, though,” Jane said.
As you can see in these two example dialogues above, the parts that are reported speech retain the correct form. The rest of the dialogue can be in any tense or form the speaker uses.
Punctuating your dialogue
There are five basic aspects for good dialogue punctuation.
1. All punctuation is inside the quotation marks.
These include full stops (periods), commas, question marks and exclamation marks.
Jim said, “I’m not aware of it”. Wrong
Jim said, “I’m not aware of it.” Correct
“I don’t know what to think”, she said. Wrong
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. Correct
“Where did he go”? she asked. Wrong
“Where did he go?” she asked. Correct
“Get out of here”! he shouted. Wrong
“Get out of here!” he shouted. Correct
2. When to use an em dash or ellipsis.
We use em dashes to indicate a speaker was interrupted. You add an ellipsis when a speaker’s words trail off, or an utterance is incomplete.
“I was planning on buying–” she started.
“No way! I told you we need to save money,” he said.
“It’s funny when you think about things and well …” Anne said.
“You think too much, Anne,” Mary said.
3. Start a new paragraph for a new speaker.
It is very confusing for a reader if the dialogue runs on in the same paragraph.
Always start every new speaker in a dialogue in a new paragraph.
4. Quotation marks for long dialogues
Dialogues are usually short and sharp.
But sometimes you might have a piece of dialogue that is more an oration, and you need to divide it into paragraphs.
You can simply use an opening and closing quotation mark for the whole dialogue.
Another option is that you can add one opening quotation mark at the beginning of each new paragraph and then close the final paragraph.
5. Never mix quotation mark styles.
It is up to you whether you use curly or straight or double or single quotations.
In his book, Cloudsteet, Tim Winton uses no quotation marks at all for the dialogue. But it is still great dialogue.
Generally, readers won’t mind what your choice is. But they will be distracted or even confused if you mix different types of quotation marks.
It is not an easy check, even when carefully proofreading. Luckily, there is an easy way to make sure you are consistent.
Try using an online writing app to help you.
If you use Prowritingaid, you can check your whole manuscript by ticking Dialogue Tags Check in your combo settings.
For Grammarly users, you can find any errors in your Correctness tab. It will show you any quotation mark inconsistencies.
Once you know how to write active dialogue and reported speech, it is easy to combine the two into reported dialogue.
Just remember that dialogue is active speech. But reported speech is indirect, so it always needs to use backward tense shift into the past.
The most critical part of good dialogue writing is always your use of correct and consistent punctuation.
When you get it right, a reader doesn’t notice it. They become blind to it.
But if you have inconsistencies, it stands out badly and can become very annoying.
More reading: Can you use question tags in fiction writing?