So, you want to use dialogue. Great! Dialogue is a wonderful way to add details and personality to your personal essay. But it’s good to know how to use dialogue correctly. It makes it easier on your reader and overall better for your grade. And that’s what’s really important here, isn’t it?

So why should there be any rules to dialogue? It’s just people talking. He said, she said should be enough, right? Well, see for yourself.

He said I have to go to the store. Do you want anything? he asked Why? she replied Because he said I’m going to the store. He walked to the table I need milk she said Oh, we need paper towels, too she said.

Now, how many people are in this conversation? Who said what? Did the first person ask, “Do you want anything?” or did someone else? Was “he said” ever part of the dialogue? Knowing the rules of dialogue helps clear things up.

Let’s start by looking at quotation marks. Spoken dialogue is placed inside double quotation marks. “Like so.” When a person stops talking and a new one starts, the quotation marks are stopped and started again.

Now our dialogue looks like this.

“He said I have to go to the store. Do you want anything?” he asked “Why?” she replied “Because” he said “I’m going to the store.” He walked to the table “I need milk, she said” “Oh, we need paper towels, too” she said.

Now at least we can see what is spoken and what is narration. That’s a start, but how many people are talking here? Is it just two people, the “he” and “she,” or are there several hes or several shes in this conversation? There are two things that make this easier to understand. The first is to use the proper names instead of pronouns when there is more than one man or woman in the conversation.

“He said I have to go to the store. Do you want anything?” David asked “Why?” Mary replied “Because,” David said “I’m going to the store.” Mark walked to the table “I need milk, she said” “Oh, we need paper towels, too” Susan said.

Now we have four people carrying on the conversation, but with it all squished in there it makes it hard to see who is saying what. This is where the second part comes in. Each new speaker gets their own paragraph. Even if it’s only one word, it gets a new paragraph.

“He said I have to go to the store. Do you want anything?” David asked.

“Why?” Mary replied.

“Because” David said “I’m going to the store.”

Mark walked to the table “I need milk, she said.”

“Oh, we need paper towels, too” Susan said.

Look at that, now who says what is obvious. Unfortunately, it’s still a bit messy. We need some more punctuation in there. In dialogue, whenever you use direct word like said, told, replied, anything that tells the reader this is referring to the dialogue, you need a comma after the said if the dialogue follows it or after the dialogue but before the final quotation mark if the said follows it.

If you don’t use those words and instead offer a person’s actions, then a period separates the action sentence from the dialogue. When a question mark replaces the period or comma, no extra punctuation is needed. Time to fix this up one more time.

“He said I have to go to the store. Do you want anything?” David asked.

“Why?” Mary replied.

“Because,” David said, “I’m going to the store.”

Mark walked to the table. “I need milk, she said.”

“Oh, we need paper towels, too,” Susan said.

Now doesn’t that look nice? What’s better, now that you know the rules of dialogue, you can play around with it. You don’t need to always have anything with the dialogue as long as only two people are in the conversation, but don’t leave it go too long or people will forget who’s talking.

“I just started watching Doctor Who today,” Mira said with a little giggle in her voice.

Nick rolled his eyes. “It’s about time. Where are you?”

“Just watched that one with the creepy kids and the gas masks.” She shuddered.

“Wait till you get to ‘Blink.’”

“‘Blink?’”

He nodded. “You’ll never look at angel statues the same way again.”

Extra tips!

  •  Single quotation marks: You might have noticed in the last dialogue that the word Blink was placed in single quotation marks. This is because it is the title of an episode and in normal prose that would get quotation marks of its own. Yes, you still have to follow all the other rules of writing. To do so without making the reader think that dialogue is ending, anything that would normally be given quotation marks outside of dialogue is put in single quotes. If this happens next to the beginning or end of dialogue, then you will have three quotes together.
  • Several paragraphs of dialogue: Let’s say you’ve got yourself a talker. He talks and talks and doesn’t shut up until you have three paragraphs worth of dialogue. Well you can’t just shove all that together; you’re reader will take one look at that, say, “Nope,” and toss the paper away. But every new paragraph is a new speaker, right? Well, there is a trick to that. Don’t close the quote at the end of the paragraph. You’ll still start the new paragraph with an opening quote, but by leaving off the closing quote until the speaker is completely finished, the readers knows that the same person is still talking.