How to Format Dialogue
By Beasley Nester
If you’re writing a novel, short story, or personal essay, then you need to know how to format dialogue properly. Even for writers with a knack for good grammar, formatting dialogue can prove challenging because there are many elements to consider. Below is a quick and simple guide to formatting dialogue along with examples. We’ll go into greater detail and more examples in another lesson.
What is Dialogue?
Dialogue is anything the people or characters actually say in your writing. You should use dialogue whenever you’re wanting to indicate that someone is speaking in your story, personal essay, or novel. In creative writing, there are many ways to allude to something a person or fictional character said, but we’ll only cover the basics here: Anything that shows between quotations “ ”. If you want to help the reader feel fully engaged and immersed in your writing, adding dialogue often makes this possible.
Rules to Format Dialogue
- Use Quotation Marks. Anytime someone speakers in your writing, you should surround those sentences in quotation marks. This doesn’t include internal thoughts, which may use italics or nothing at all. Opening and closing quotation marks are probably the most important part of dialogue. It allows a reader to know when someone speaks.
Without quotation marks, you’ll leave your reader frustrated and wondering if someone is speaking in a scene or if it’s the narrator talking.
“How are those pomegranates coming along?”
- Indent each new line of dialogue. The same way you indent a new paragraph because it helps the reader understand that you’ve moved on to a new idea, you should also indent each new line of dialogue by half an inch by pressing the tab key.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mike said.
“Well,” Kim said, “it’s not your problem.”
The indentation signals to the reader that you’ve moved on to another character who’s speaking.
- Use dialogue tags. A dialogue tag simply let’s the reader know which person or character is speaking each line. He said, she said, Jack said, are all considered dialogue tags. If two characters are having a long conversation down an entire page, it’s okay to skip a line here and there, as long as the reader understands which character is up next.
“This is not what we talked about,” Jim said.
“I know,” Lynn said.
“Then why are we doing it?”
“Because it’s better.”
“Better than what?” Jim said.
“Better than getting fired,” Lynn said.
Notice how I dropped the tags once I established that the conversation takes place only between two characters. Remember, the dialogue tags exist only to let the reader know who’s talking. Once you’ve established the order of things, you’re free to drop a few tags and only add them as needed for clarity.
Notice how I only use the simple tag of said for each of these lines of dialogue. You may have seen other verbs used as dialogue tags such as replied, laughed, exclaimed, shouted, yelled, etc.
Don’t do this ever!
While the old creative writing industry standard used to accept tags like the ones above, things have changed over the last few years. As a writer, your goal should always be to immerse the reader into your writing. The reader should forget they’re reading a story and, instead, feel as if they’re part of it. Using the simple he said/she said dialogue tags, allows the reader to move through dialogue more easily.
Try reading the following:
“Hey!” Angela shouted. “Bill!”
“Oh, what’s up, Angela?” Bill questioned.
“I thought that was you,” Angela replied, seductively. “Love the new haircut.”
“Gee, thanks,” Bill laughed.
“It looks great!” Angela exclaimed.
Did you find that more challenging to read than the earlier samples? I bet you did. Any reader might easily become overwhelmed with all the meaningless verbs that steal the focus from the dialogue between the characters. Do your readers a favor and stick with say/said/says.
- Quotes inside of quotes. Occasionally, you might have a character speak about something another person said within your dialogue. Don’t worry, this is less complicated than it sounds. If your character needs to quote another character, you can differentiate this using the single quote marks ‘ ’.
“I asked mom if I could go out tonight, but she said, ‘you have to do chores first.’”
- Actions that occur before or after dialogue go in a separate sentence. Remember that what your character says and what your narrator says are two completely different things. Even if your character’s actions happen on the same line of dialogue, you should put this in its own sentence.
Beasley shouted. “Don’t do that!”
“Oh, no!” Beasley covered her mouth.
It some cases, you might slide by with the action attached to the dialogue sentence as long as it’s on the shorter side.
“I’m so tired,” Beasley said, rubbing her eyes.
- Punctuation stays inside the quotation marks. When it comes to dialogue, punctuation remains inside the quotation marks at all times. If someone asks a question or shouts, the ? and the ! both live inside the quotes.
“How dare you?” he said.
“Oh my God!” she said.
Punctuation marks within dialogue carry the same importance as they do in exposition because they let the reader know how a character might have said something. It communicates to the reader when a sentence ends and also gives a clue to the pacing of what’s being said.
“Oh my God, Jess!” Margie said. “I just bought fresh apples that taste like candy.”
“Really, Margie?” Jess said.
Notice how the highlighted punctuation told you how to read the dialogue.
- Think of the dialogue and the tag as the same sentence. When deciding to choose between a comma, period, or other punctuation, consider where your sentence actually ends. When it comes to placing periods and commas in a line of dialogue, remember that your dialogue tag is part of the dialogue too.
If the character asks a question in dialogue, the first letter (besides a name, obviously) remains lowercase because the line of dialogue is not complete until after the tag, therefore, the period goes after the tag.
“I think I see the pumpkin patch!” she said.
Notice how, even with the exclamation mark, I use a lowercase s for the dialogue tag. This is because you must consider the dialogue tag and the dialogue itself as a single sentence.
Sometimes a dialogue tag better serves the dialogue in the middle of the speech. In this case, you may use commas to indicate short breaks, and the final punctuation marker will complete the sentence.
“Hey, Jenny,” Kerry said, “you like pumpkins soup, right?”
- If you’re narrator interrupts the dialogue, use lowercase on the first letter of that section. Sometimes it’s necessary for the narrator to give a bit more description about how the character is speaking the dialogue. For example, if the character is stammering, coughing during a sentence, or something similar, the reader will want to know this information.
“Listen carefully,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “we won’t make it out.”
Remember that your line of dialogue and the tag or narrative descriptor are part of the same sentence, therefore, I begin the narrative fragment with a lowercase s.
9. If the character’s dialogue lasts more than a paragraph without a break, use an additional opening quotation to begin the next paragraph, but don’t use a closing one until they’re done speaking. This is something that shouldn’t happen often, but when it does, at least you’ll be prepared. If your character is a long-winded kind of talker, he might ramble for an entire paragraph without the narrator intervening.
Check out the image to get an idea of what this should look like.
Hopefully these tips will help improve your dialogue and creative writing as a whole. If you want to learn more about dialogue or other aspects of creative writing or grammar, check out our other articles or YouTube channel.