of the most common issues in student writing that I encounter is the
writing of dialogue. Most of you have never written stories before,
and haven't read many stories, so when it comes to writing dialogue,
most of you don't know where to begin. The following dialogue is
taken from the film "A Few Good Men," to illustrate how some of you
write your dialogue, and how it can be improved.(Yes, I have
actually seen dialogue written like this. I've seen entire stories
written like this):
You don't have to answer that question! I'll answer the
question. You want answers? I think I'm entitled to them. You want
answers? I want the truth! You can't handle the
Here we don't
know anything about this conversation; who is talking, and when? How
many people are talking? Who are they talking to? How and with what
intents are the words being spoken? In fact, we can't even be sure
that this is a
RULE #1: Use quotation marks to indicate words which are
spoken by characters.
"You don't have to answer that question!" "I'll
answer the question. You want answers?" "I think I'm entitled to
them." "You want answers?" "I want the truth!" "You can't handle the
know that these words are spoken, but by whom? Before we can answer
that, we have to make this look right by putting each line and
speaker in its own paragraph.
RULE #2: Always start a new
paragraph when changing speakers. You cannot have two people
speaking in the same paragraph.
"You don't have to answer that question!"
"I'll answer the question. You want
"I think I'm
entitled to them."
"I want the
"You can't handle the
can identify who is speaking. Also, remember that punctuation marks
at the end of a quotation go inside the
quotation marks. If the sentence within the quote ends with a period
(.), change it to a comma (,). If it's a question (?) or an
exclamation (!), leave it the way it is.
RULE #3: Identify the
RULE #4: Use correct punctuation, capitalization and
here for a detailed lesson)
have to answer that question!" said the Judge.
"I'll answer the question. You want answers?"
"I think I'm
entitled to them," said Kaffee.
"You want answers?" said Jessop.
"I want the truth!" said Kaffee.
"You can't handle the truth!" said
OK, this is
grammatically correct, but what's the trouble with it? This brings
us to the four guidelines
for writing dialogue, to make it more interesting and
GUIDELINE #1: Vary your verbs. There are hundreds and hundreds of
verbs that indicate speaking, besides "said." Try to find one that
accurately reflects how the
person says it.
GUIDELINE #2: Use descriptives. Try to use adverbs or descriptive
phrases to enhance the verbs themselves.
GUIDELINE #3: Vary your
always identify the speaker in the same place; you can do it at the
beginning, in the middle, or at the end. And, if the quotation is long
(more than one sentence or clause), don't identify at the
end; do it at the
beginning, or at the first punctuation stop.
GUIDELINE #4: Use narrative to
show action. Don't
just show the reader what's being said; that's like watching a movie
with your eyes closed. Show us what's happening as
Here's an example of the same dialogue using all four
The Judge turned swiftly
toward the stand and declared to the witness, "You don't have to
answer that question!"
answer the question," Jessop asserted coldly, fixing his eyes on
Kaffee. He asked the defense attorney, "You want answers?"
"I think I'm entitled to them," Kaffee
Jessop asked again,
more forcefully, as if scolding an errant recruit, "You want
"I want the truth!"
Kaffee shouted, banging his fist on the counsel table in defiance of
Jessop's intimidating presence. The court members sat in stunned
The colonel leaned
forward, rising to his feet, and thundered, "You can't handle the