Formatting Dialogue: A Quick And Dirty Guide

Formatting dialogue correctly can trip up even the most talented writer. From the outside it can appear that formatting dialogue is a black box of contradictory rules. In this article I want to dispel this myth and detail a set of easy-to-use guidelines that will allow you to grasp the basic building blocks of dialogue formatting.

The best way to explain the rules of formatting dialogue is to use an example.

In this article we will follow the steps that are required to format the following section of dialogue:

Hi have you seen my cat said Bob. No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is. If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad. Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.

Formatting Dialogue: New Speaker, New Line

This is a pretty easy rule to apply. Each time a new speaker speaks you place the line of dialogue on a new line. This line should also be indented (assuming you are indenting new paragraphs). We can see how this applies to our example:

Hi have you seen my cat said Bob.

No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is.

If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad.

Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.

Formatting Dialogue: Adding Speech Marks

Our next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks. These can be either single (‘) or double (“), it’s your choice. However, keep in mind that if you use, say single (‘), you need to be using the opposite, in this case double (“) when you are reporting speech inside speech. I also like to use the opposite when a writer places thoughts within a text.

‘Hi have you seen my cat’ said Bob.

‘No’ said Bill ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’

‘If you see my cat will you let me know’ questioned Bob looking sad.

‘Of course’ replied Bill with a tone of concern.

Formatting Dialogue: Punctuation

When writing dialogue you will often use ‘tags’. These are verbs that link the spoken words with the remainder of the sentence. Commonly used tags includes said, asked, replied and many more. Without going into the technical detail, to correctly punctuate spoken words and tags you must link them using a comma. If you use a full stop the sentences are broken and it no longer makes sense. If we look at the second line of our example we see:

‘No’ said Bill

This is a single sentence and therefore must end with a full stop, giving us:

‘No’ said Bill.

The tag in this sentence is ‘said’ and this must be connected to the speech. If you added a full stop at the end of the spoken words, it would separate the tag and become incorrect:

‘No.’ Said Bill. [WRONG]

Instead we must link the spoken word and the tag with a comma, this gives us:

‘No,’ said Bill. [CORRECT]

If we apply this to the full example we get:

‘Hi, have you seen my cat?’ said Bob.

‘No,’ said Bill. ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’

‘If you see my cat will you let me know?’ questioned Bob, looking sad.

‘Of course,’ replied Bill, with a tone of concern.

Please note that in the first and third lines we have used a ? instead of a , since it is a question.

And that’s about it… As I said this is a quick and dirty guide designed to get you out of most tight spots. If you are interested in really delving into the murky world of grammar and punctuation, I suggest you check out The Chicago Manual of Style.

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  • Brian Clegg

    ‘Our next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks.
    These can be either single (‘) or double (“), it’s your choice.’ – Technically, according to most style guides (and most publishers), single inverted commas are the standard in the UK and double inverted commas are the standard in the US.

    When you then use inverted commas within the inverted commas, for example when someone quotes someone else (‘Did he really say “Happy Christmas,” I wonder,’ said Fred.) you use double in the UK and single in the US.

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    I 100% agree. However, our editors have noticed in the past year or so that many US writers are following UK rules and UK writers following US rules. The fact that many self-published writers are publishing, and more importantly, reading work from across the globe means that grammar rules are fluid at best.

    In fact, to deal with this problem we use an approach we call ‘manuscript override’. This approach sees our editors outlining the correct methodology to writers, but giving the writers the option of maintaining their own style. This has proved a popular approach, though I feel the more pedantic reader may be shuffling in their  chairs are they read this.

  • Frfr

    i seriouslly understood nothin!! :p

  • Gary Smailes

    Nothin at all?

  • http://www.sakhiseni.co.za sakhiseni

    writng a dialogue is nt as it looks bt ince u add attention on it too easely bt some people fail to write properly

  • Pingback: DIY Editing: Whose line is it, anyway? | Questions and Archetypes

  • http://twitter.com/AlyssiasTweet Alyssia Alexandria

    Thank you gary – I am are writing a series of books for My Darling Theo Foundation and this post helps thank you!

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    Glad it was useful.

  • http://kinkytails.blogspot.com/ Lindsay Niles

    Thank you! This is a very helpful refresher for writing dialogue.

  • Raman Sandhu

    Thanks Gary… This makes my job a little easier..

  • Brooke

    do you indent after someone’s thoughts?

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    There’s no hard and fast rule for internal dialogue. It is more important you are consistent.

  • Csgsofia

    I am writing a book and i put my dialogue this . Is it okay ?

    Sam: Crissy ! Is that why you
    wouldn’t tell me what was going on?

    Crissy: Yes Sam!

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    This is not ‘correct’. However, if this is the style you are adopting for your book then that’s ok. My question would be why you are not writing dialogue in the traditional manner?

  • Jasmist Days

    Thanks very much for doing this guide, its so hard to find simple concise examples like this (on any topic) on the web. :-)

  • TheMysteriousRaven

    Thank you, this will definitely help me a lot as I want to write better looking books.

  • Hey yo Noëlla

    if there’s ‘!’ how’d I punctuate it?

    “Hey Noëlla!” he said
    or
    “Hey Noella!” He said
    ?

  • http://bubblecow.net BubbleCow [Gary Smailes]

    “Hey Noëlla!” he said.

  • Lorissa Mudge

    Is this right?
    “What?” he asked confused.
    I rolled my eyes, “I said we should try it together.”
    He seemed to hesitate before letting out a huge sigh, “Alright.”

  • garysmailes

    I’d replace the commas with full stops…

    “What?” he asked confused.
    I rolled my eyes. “I said we should try it together.”
    He seemed to hesitate before letting out a huge sigh. “Alright.”