By now, the rules of using quotation marks have probably been pounded into your head–use them when quoting a source or using dialogue, and know where to put your punctuation.
But don’t worry if they haven’t been pounded into your head. I’ll cover it later.
You may understand when to use quotation marks and even when to include quotes from outside sources, but what about dialogue?
That’s the one that always gets you, right?
You may not know the technical difference between quoting a source and using dialogue, or maybe you don’t know how to tell which to include in your essay, or how to properly incorporate dialogue into your essay.
Slow down. Take a breath. Just relax.
I’m here to answer these and other questions you may have about how to write dialogue in an essay. I’ll take you through the main what, when, why, how, and where of writing dialogue:
- What is dialogue?
- When is it appropriate to use dialogue in your essay?
- Why should you use dialogue?
- How to write dialogue in an essay
- Where can you get more information about using dialogue?
Dialogue: What It Is and What It Isn’t
In order for you to know how to write dialogue in an essay, you should know what exactly dialogue is first.
It’s really pretty simple. Dialogue is just a conversation between two or more people. It can be used in movies, plays, fiction or, in this case, essays. Dialogue should not be confused with quotations from outside sources.
Because quotation marks are used with both dialogue and quoting directly from sources, it’s important to know the difference between the two. Here are the main differences to help clear up any confusion you might have:
|Conversation between 2 or more people||Information from an outside source used word-for-word in your essay|
|Used as a hook or as part of a larger story||Used as a hook or to provide support for an argument|
A big point of confusion often comes from directly quoting dialogue. In this case, think about what you’re using that dialogue for–to demonstrate a point in your argument. Therefore, quoting dialogue would fall under the direct quote category.
Now that you know what dialogue is, it’s time to explore when to use it in your essay.
Knowing When to Use Dialogue in Your Essay and Why You Should Bother
As I mentioned before, dialogue is used all over the place, especially in movies, television, novels, and plays. For you and for the purposes of this advice, however, dialogue only really appears in one kind of essay–the narrative essay.
Why is this the case? It’s because other types of essays (i.e., argumentative and expository essays) aim to claim. In an argumentative essay, you are claiming that your point of view is the right one, and in an expository essay you are making a claim about how something works or explaining an idea.
Narrative essays, on the other hand, involve a more story-like nature. They tell readers of your past experiences. Many of those experiences include other people and the conversations you’ve had with them.
Using dialogue in argumentative and expository essays usually won’t add to your argument and may actually make it weaker. This is because your friends and family are probably not the best sources to get your support from–at least not for essays. Instead, it’s a better plan to directly quote or paraphrase from experts in the topic that your essay is about.
Using dialogue in narrative essays is a great technique. Dialogue helps move the story along, adds dimension to any characters you might have, and creates more interest for the reader.
Don’t believe me? Imagine reading a novel in which none of the characters spoke, or a movie in which none of the actors had a single line. Pretty boring, right? Well the same concept can apply to your narrative essay.
How to Write Dialogue in an Essay
Now that you understand when to use dialogue, we can get into the nitty-gritty of proper formatting. (That is, just in case your teacher hasn’t covered it, or if you need a little bit of a review.) The rules for writing dialogue in your essay break down into two main categories: proper use of quotation marks and where to put other punctuation.
Quotation Marks (U.S. rules)
There are three main rules about quotation marks you need to know. They’re listed below, followed by examples:
Rule 1: Use double quotation marks to indicate that a person is speaking in your writing.
Example: When I was young, my mother told me, “Follow your passion and the money will come.”
Rule 2: Use single quotation marks around a quote within a quote.
Example: “What did Benjamin Franklin mean when he said, ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest’?” Ms. Jackson asked.
Rule 3: If a person in your essay has more than a paragraph of dialogue, use the opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but use closing quotation marks only at the end of the dialogue.
Example: Sarah nodded and said, “I think you’re right. We can’t get very far on this project if we can’t work together.
“But now there’s hardly any time left. Do you really think we can get it all done by Friday?”
There are only a few basic rules you need to know about where to put your punctuation when using dialogue.
Rule 1: If the quotation is at the end of a sentence, ALWAYS put your periods inside the quotation marks.
Ricky cried, “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do”.
Doc explained, “The reason the time machine isn’t working is because the flux capacitor doesn’t have enough power.”
Rule 2: Put question marks and exclamation points inside the quotation marks only if they are part of what the person said.
The girl shouted, “Get that thing away from me”!
Billy was so ecstatic that he screamed, “I passed! I passed calculus!”
Rule 3: If the quote is part of a larger question or exclamation, put the punctuation after the quotation marks.
Did you hear Leo scream, “I’m king of the world?”
Did he just say, “The bird is the word”?
Rule 4: Use commas after said, asked, exclaimed or other similar verbs if they fall before the quote.
My brother said “I’m going to get you for this, sis.”
Mom always says, “Don’t play ball in the house.”
Rule 5: Place a comma inside the quotation marks if those verbs come after the quote.
“It’s getting dark. Come back inside” our mother called.
“Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes,” Mrs. Perkins said.
Rule 6: If a quoted sentence is broken up, put commas after the first part of the sentence, and after said, asked, exclaimed, etc.
“Yeah” she shrugged “I guess you’re right.”
“No,” she said, “I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”
Proper use of quotation marks and punctuation is not some random thing that you have to learn for no reason. These rules make your sentences easier to read and understand. Without them, your dialogue may turn into a headache for your reader, or for you when you go back and edit your writing.
Where to Find More Resources for How to Write Dialogue in an Essay
If you need some further clarification, you can use the links below for more examples and explanation on how to write dialogue in an essay.
Quotation Marks with Fiction, Poetry, and Titles – Purdue Owl
Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom
Writing Story Dialogue
How to Write Dialogue – Grammar Girl
Dialogue in Narrative Essays
In addition, the Kibin personal narrative essay examples can show you what dialogue looks like incorporated into a complete essay.
If you don’t think you quite have the hang of it when you’re done writing, you can send your essay to the Kibin editors for advice on how to fix it.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
Learn How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction Writing
Nothing marks a beginning fiction writer faster than improperly punctuated dialogue. Because most academic papers do not use dialogue, many students don't learn the proper dialogue punctuation and grammar until taking a fiction writing class.
The Dialogue Punctuation Rules
Get ahead of the game! Learn these rules, and you'll avoid obvious mistakes:
- Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line (the words used to identify the speaker: "he said/she said"):
"I would like to go to the beach this weekend," she told him as they left the apartment.
- Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks in American writing (the Brits have slightly different rules); other punctuation -- semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points -- goes outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes, as in this example from Raymond Carver's short story "Where I'm Calling From":
"I don't want any stupid cake," says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. "Where's the champagne?" he says, and laughs.In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted:
Did he say, "We should all go to the movies"?Also note that the sentence ends with only one mark of punctuation: the question mark. In general, don't use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. (Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods. Think of it as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, if it helps.)
- When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case, as in this example from Flannery O'Connor's story "Greenleaf":
"That is," Wesley said, "that neither you nor me is her boy..."
- To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes:
"Have you read 'Hills Like White Elephants' yet?" he asked her.
- For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent.
Do I really love her? he thought.
- If a quotation spills out over more than one paragraph, don't use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is done speaking.
"...and in the end I didn't even love her.
I did think of marrying her, though."
Common Punctuation Dialogue Mistakes
Incorrect dialogue punctuation and formatting is very common amongst beginning fiction writers. The most common mistake is the use quotations outside of the spoken word. Remember: only the words that the person says should be inside the quotation. But here are two more common dialogue mistakes to avoid.
Punctuation and Spacing
"Surely she has gone mad" ! she said.
"Surely she has gone mad!" she said.
See rule number two above.
Commas Between Two Sentences of Dialogue
Another way that people incorrectly write dialogue is by putting a comma between two sentences instead of a period.
"I have made up my mind," she said nodding, "I do not want to marry him."
"I have made up my mind," she said, nodding. "I do not want to marry him."
While rule number 1 above might lead you to believe that the first example is correct, remember that two spoken sentences are still two separate sentences and need a period.
More Tips on Using Dialogue
- Interested in writing dialogue but unsure how to make it work within a more action-oriented narrative? Having trouble adding dialogue to a certain genre? Read Writing Dialogue in Action Scenes.
- Grammar mistakes are not the only way your writing can suffer. It is just as important to make your dialogue sound believable. Read How to Write Realistic Dialogue for tips on writing realistic dialogue.
- How do people really talk in fiction? Read How Do People "Talk" in Fiction? for tips and exercises on eavesdropping and making your dialogue authentic-sounding in your prose.
- Want to take it to the next level? Review the editing checklist to make sure you've got other aspects of grammar covered as well.