Marion Dane Bauer’s What’s Your Story? has a wonderful chapter on dialogue (as well as wonderful chapters on other elements of fiction writing.)

The pages that follow–taken with permission from her book–teach the basics of writing dialogue.


  1. Dialogue gives the reader information.

“I know I’m supposed to like to hunt, ” the cat said, ” but the truth is I find the practice quite disgusting. I nibbled a mouse’s tail once, but it tasted like rubber bands. ”

  1. Dialogue reveals character.

Jason turned around, clenching his fists. “You gonna make me? You and who else?”

  1. Dialogue moves your story forward.

“There’s gold out there. I know there is. And I’m the one who’s going to find it first!”

Punctuating Conversation

Three simple rules make punctuating dialogue easy:

  1. Every time a new person speaks, even if the last has said nothing more than, “Oh!” begin a new paragraph. That way, the paragraphing itself lets the reader know to expect a new voice.

“What is your name?”

“]ennifer Bradley.”

“Could you possibly be related to the Bradleys who

own the big department store downtown?”

  Separate the dialogue from the tag (the he or she said that identifies the speaker) with a comma, not a period. Use a question mark or exclamation mark when it is needed.

“Tom Bradley is my uncle,” she said.

Or, “Do you know Tom Bradley?” she asked.
Or, “Tom Bradley!” she exclaimed.

This rule applies no matter where the tag falls.

She said, “Tom Bradley is my uncle.”

Or, “Tom Bradley is my uncle,” she said, “my father’s brother .”

  If a sentence of description replaces the tag, each full sentence should stand alone.

”Tom Bradley is my uncle.” Jennifer turned to stare at the stranger. “He’s my father’s brother.”

Source: What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer, p. 81-82

To replace a tag with a descriptive phrase or sentence, drop the “said,” and add an action:

“Tom Bradley is my uncle, ” Jennifer said. 

“Tom Bradley is my uncle.” Jennifer turned to stare at the stranger. “He’s my father’s brother. ”

Making dialogue work: adding character feelings and thoughts.

” I saw you downtown yesterday,” Butch said. He was leering in an unpleasant way.

Amy studied his face. He seemed to be accusing her of something. “Did you really? Where was I?”

Butch hesitated. “Near the Seven-Eleven store.”

“But I wasn’t anywhere near there,” Amy replied, suddenly relieved.  “You must have mistaken someone else for me. ”

Source: What’s Your Story? by Marion Dane Bauer. pp. 80, 84.



Vary the placement of speech tags to keep the rhythm of your writing flowing. A conversation written like this will sound stilted:

“I saw you downtown yesterday,” Butch said.

“Did you really? Where was I?” Amy said.

“Near the Seven-Eleven store,” Butch said.

“But I wasn’t anywhere near there. You must have mistaken someone else for me,” Amy said.

Simply moving the Butch said and Amy said to different positions in the sentence would make this passage read better.

“I saw you downtown yesterday,” Butch said.

“Did you really?” Amy said. “Where was I?”

“Near the Seven-Eleven store,” Butch said.

Amy said, “But I wasn’t anywhere near there. You must have mistaken someone else for me.”

Varying the use of the word said can help the flow as well. Now, said is a perfectly good word. You don’t want to start replacing it with a lot of words that call attention to themselves: screamed; blubbered, panted, hissed, roared. There are moments for using strongly descriptive verbs like these to indicate the way dialogue is spoken, but they are rare.


Source:  What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer, p. 82

Identifying the Speaker

Most lines of dialogue will need identification for the readers to know who has spoken.

“I love you,” the elephant said. “Will you be my wife?”

“You love me?” the mouse squeaked.

When you have only two characters on the scene, however, the start of a new paragraph alone can sometimes be enough to let us know the other person is talking.

“Karen, watch out! That tree if falling!”

“Oh! Help me!”

If we know this scene is happening between Karen and a boy named Tom, when someone says “Karen” we know it must be Tom. And when someone replies, it has to be Karen. Identification tags aren’t needed every single time.

Source:  What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer, p. 83


Often beginning writers make the mistake of  leaving out dialogue in spots where it is really called for.  Try giving young writers a passage like the one below (from a legend by a 3rd grade student). Ask them to add dialogue to replace the italicized sentences in this scene:

One day Running Bear went out to pick berries because his mother was going to make a berry pie.  As Running Bear was going to the berry field, he ran into a baby raccoon.  It seemed to have hurt its paw, and Running Bear looked to see how bad the paw was. It seemed to him that really all it was, was a little sprained paw, not badly sprained though.

Example of one student’s revision:

“Oh, help me!” cried the baby raccoon.  “I’ve hurt my paw!”
“Can I look at it?” asked Running Bear.
“Okay,” sniffed the baby raccoon.  He lifted his paw for Running Bear to see.
“I think you’ve sprained it a little,” said Running Bear.


Here are some questions Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing, suggests writers ask themselves as they evaluate the effectiveness of the dialogue in their stories. (You may want to put these questions on a chart or a handout for students to refer to):

  • Is there turn-taking in the dialogue?
  • Do the characters react to each other or speak alone?
  • Are there distinctive elements of personality in the dialogue?
  • Is a character identifiable by the speech he/she/it uses?
  • Does the dialogue connect with the plot or does it exist as an excuse to have talking?
  • Does the writer use language to qualify the dialogue? (For example, “…he said angrily.”) Was the qualifier necessary?
  • Is the dialogue blended into the narrative?
  • Is it clear who is saying what?


From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams