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Conversation is the thing I have most difficulties with while writing stories. How do I write a conversation so it will be clear who said what, and in a way that's not like a court transcript?

Should I start a new line with each sentence of dialog? Just one paragraph? Should I use quotation marks?

Should I indicate the speaker's name after every sentence? If not, how do I make it clear who is the speaker? The major problem is when I need a fast pace, like in an argument. It looks like calling the speaker's name every time just slows the scene down.

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Generally accepted structures, which are used for clarity:

  • Each time the speaker changes, you start a new paragraph. The speaker may start and stop, and you can have narration and action tags, but as long as that person continues, it can be the same paragraph. You may start a new paragraph with the same speaker if it's clear that the person is continuing to speak, like if the person is giving a long speech.
  • Dialogue gets some kind of punctuation to set it off from narration. This punctuation varies from country to country. Americans use double quotes ", Brits use single quotes ', the French use guillemets «, and I've seen various dashes and hyphens.
  • You should add some kind of tag, speaker or action, any time it's not clear who is speaking. I wouldn't go more than four or five exchanges without a tag of some kind, but you might be able to go longer if for example, there are two people speaking two different languages. When in doubt, use a tag, and then ask your beta reader or editor if any can be removed.
  • Tags can be "he/she," a name, or a descriptor (the doctor, the detective, the woman, the younger man, the captain, the Vulcan, the Southerner).
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    Another thing that can be very helpful is to make sure your characters have distinctive styles of speech. Some may use contractions, some not; some may use longer or more archaic words, some may use more slang; some may have verbal tics (though these can easily be overdone, when used in moderation they can be very helpful to identify speakers); etc. Another trick is to have characters refer to each other within the dialogue itself, thus identifying the speech as coming from someone other than the person named. – Watercleave Feb 16 '15 at 16:23
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    +1 Good answer. I would add only the convention that when one person speaks more than one uninterrupted paragraph, all the paragraphs have opening quotes, but only the last one has a closing quote -- see this post english.stackexchange.com/questions/96608/…. It's an odd rule, but one that is standard in English. – Chris Sunami Feb 16 '15 at 20:21
  • @ChrisSunami You are absolutely correct; I just didn't want to overwhelm the OP with details if this person didn't know the basics. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Feb 16 '15 at 22:40
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    The "tag" can also be bits of action that are unambiguous. For example, if the dialogue is between a man and a woman, instead of "he said" you can say "he paused, pacing across the floor" or "she fiddled with her hair" or "he took a sip of his now-cold coffee". – Monica Cellio Feb 16 '15 at 23:31
  • Thank you! You have been very helpfull. Could you refer to the last question? How do you write a fast pace conersation? – Nimrod Feb 17 '15 at 22:40
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I've wrestled with this too.

Easy part: If you're writing in American English, what the character is saying should be enclosed in double quotes ("). Whenever the speaker changes, start a new paragraph.

I think the hard part is making clear who is speaking. It gets tedious if you constantly write, "Bob said ... Then Mary said ... Then Bob said ..." etc.

Some writers try to vary this up by using words other than "said". Like "Bob said ... Sally replied ... Bob insisted ..." This can work to an extent, but if overdone it starts to look like a gimmick. Especially if you start running out of ways to say "said".

A technique I like is to mix action in with the dialog. This gives you an excuse to identify the speaker while simultaneously breaking up a long string of quotes. Like:

"Did you clean the garage?" Mary asked. Bob tried to look busy. "Yes, dear." "You know it's very important that the garage be clean when the realtor arrives." Mary looked stern and concerned. "I'll clean it now," Bob said sheepishly.

Etc.

Having different speaking styles can work too. The catch to that is if it's too subtle the reader can miss it, and if it's too pronounced, it can look like a gimmick. I've read stories where one character is always sprinkling his statements with Latin or someone is always quoting Shakespeare, and I think it gets stale pretty quickly. You can give a character a distinctive nationality or occupation and use that to dictate how he talks, like the scientist is always using technical terms or the surfer dude is always using beach slang or whatever. But again, if overdone it can get tedious.

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When in a continuing, back and forth dialogue, use boldface everytime you reference the speaker in question (additionally you can secure good formatting by always using NBSPs per speaker reference):

Sailor/Pirate: Hello, scout! Where are you headin', matey?

Ziska: Oh! I was just walking along the pier here to look down at the water.

Sailor/Pirate: Nothing dere to see in these old waters; dead fish, maybe two.

(Just ignore the space formatting that is used above, and imagine them pressed together)

Some people express sentiment of characters this way too (e.g., "Oh! -surprised- I was just walking along the pier here to look down at the water.). Another way you can mix it up and make it less repetitive is by writing it out from a narrative perspective sometimes, and referencing characters as if from a speaker rather than elaborately directed to you (e.g., "You could never do that," said Jane).

Most books do not have a long, endless string of dialogue between characters, so mixing it up is a must.

@Jay's answer here expresses a perfect example of conversation dialogue that's easily confusable.

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