How To Write Dialogue In A Narrative Essay

When composing a narrative essay, you have to tell a story. In telling a story, it’s always more effective and engaging to tell the story in recreated scenes. In scenes, you’ll have people, and those people have to talk. Writing a scene where people talk to each other sounds simple, however, writing dialogue can be complicated. Do you include author tags, like he said/she said? If not, how can you tell who is speaking? If more than one person is speaking, how do you format the interchange between two people? How do you format the interchange between three or four people? What if you’re just talking to yourself? (I talk to myself all the time, but I wouldn’t want to put it in quotes!) Is talking to yourself considered dialogue? Are you confused yet?

Formatting with Speaker Tags

When beginning with the speaker tag:

John said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Note that in this example, a comma is placed after the speaker tag. The first word in the dialogue is treated like the beginning of a sentence, so the first word is capitalized. The quote is ended with a period which is placed inside the quotation marks.

When the quotation ends with speaker tag:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said.

Here, use a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence of the quotation. A comma is placed at the end of the quoted dialogue, inside the quotation mark, before the speaker tag. A period completes the sentence, but after the speaker tag.

When the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:

“I’ll call you,” John said, “tomorrow.”

In this example, a capital letter begins the quoted sentence. A comma is used inside the quotation mark preceding the speaker tag, and again after the tag, before the quotation mark that completes the quote. A lower case letter indicates the second part of the quotation is a continuation of the first part of the quotation.

When the speaker tag separates two complete quoted sentences:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

A capital letter indicates the beginning of the sentence, and a comma ends the quoted sentence before the speaker tag, followed by a period after the tag. The quoted sentence after the tag is again capitalized just as any sentence would be.

Note that the second part of the quote remains on the same line. This indicates that the same person is speaking. If a different person was speaking, the second piece of quoted material, “Have a nice day,” would go to a new line/paragraph.

Formatting Two (or more) Speakers

When two or more people are speaking, each line of dialogue must go to a new line or paragraph. It’s a new “paragraph” because each time a new person speaks, the line must be indented.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

“But I thought you might stay,” Diane said.

“I can’t. I have to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” Diane’s daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the lines are short, they each must begin on a new line. Note that two exchanges have no speaker tags. In this example, it is clear who is speaking, as each person’s name has been given previously, and the order of exchange established. Only drop the tags when it is clearly evident who the speaker is.

In the final quoted dialogue, notice that the quote ends with an exclamation point. The exclamation point (to indicate yelling) is placed inside the quotation mark, and no other punctuation is used until the end of the tag.

In this example, if the tag did not happen to include a proper name, you would not capitalize the first word, as in the following example:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” her daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the quote ended with an exclamation mark, the tag is not capitalized, as it is not a complete sentence. If it were a complete sentence, it would be capitalized, as in the example below:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” The young daughter, tucked in her bed, never went to bed without at least one request for water.  

Also note in this example that the tag remains on the same line as the dialogue, as the “action” described in the speaker tag is related to the speaker who has been quoted on the same line.  If any action needs to be described of John or Diane, that action would be placed on a new line.

Final thoughts

Even though we’ve all spent a lifetime reading, until we actually have to write dialogue, we don’t often realize the intricacies involved. How do you decide where to place a dialogue tag? That’s often a stylistic choice, and not necessarily any hard and fast rule. I often incorporate the tag where it seems least intrusive. A speaker tag, when necessary, should be as “invisible” as possible so as not to detract from a smooth reading.

Next week, we’ll delve further into writing dialogue, and discuss the secrets to effective dialogue.

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Published by E. Mack

Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is the written conversational exchange between two or more characters.

How to Write Dialogue

Conventional English grammar rules tell us that you should always start a new paragraph when someone speaks in your writing.

“Let’s get the heck out of here right now,” Mary said, turning away from the mayhem.

John looked around the pub. “Maybe you’re right,” he said and followed her towards the door.

Sometimes, though, in the middle of a narrative paragraph, your main character needs to speak.

Mary ducked away from flying fists. The fight at the pub was getting out of control. One man was grabbing bar stools and throwing them at others, and while she watched, another one who you could tell worked out regularly grabbed men by their shirt collars and tossed them out of the way. Almost hit by one flying person, she turned to John and said, “Let’s get the heck out of here right now.”

John looked around the pub. “Maybe you’re right,” he said and followed her towards the door.

In my research, I couldn’t find any hard and fast rules that govern how to use dialogue in the middle of a narrative paragraph. It all depends on what style manual your publisher or editorial staff follow.

For example, in the Chicago Manual of Style, putting dialogue in the middle of paragraphs depends on the context. As in the above example, if the dialogue is a natural continuation of the sentences that come before, it can be included in your paragraph. The major caveat is if someone new speaks after that, you start a new paragraph and indent it.

On the other hand, if the dialogue you’re writing departs from the sentences that come before it, you should start a new paragraph and indent the dialogue.

The fight at the pub was getting out of control. One man was grabbing bar stools and throwing them at others, and another one who you could tell worked out regularly grabbed men by their shirt collars and tossed them out of the way.

“Let’s get the heck out of here right now,” Mary said, turning away from the mayhem.

John looked around the pub. “Maybe you’re right,” he said and followed her towards the door.

Punctuation for dialogue stays consistent whether it’s included in your paragraph or set apart as a separate paragraph. We have a great article on how to punctuate your dialogue here: Where Does Punctuation Go in Dialogue?

It’s often a stylistic choice whether to include your dialogue as part of the paragraph. If you want your dialogue to be part of the scene described in preceding sentences, you can include it.

But if you want your dialogue to stand out from the action, start it in the next paragraph.

We’d love to hear in the comments how you handle dialogue within narrative paragraphs. Share your examples below.


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