Sunday, September 9, 2012

Write Right: How to Format Dialogue Like a Pro

New Writer + Dialogue = Frustration

Nothing screams 'amateur' to a publisher like improperly formatted dialogue. And unfortunately, one of the most challenging things for a beginning writer (if I remember correctly) is how to punctuate dialogue.

You know there's quotation marks, commas, periods, and sometimes even dashes and ellipses involved, but trying to figure out what their proper places are can be confusing.

I didn't have a clue what I was doing when I first started writing dialogue. I felt a little something like this:

If this is you, I feel your pain. It took me forever to figure out how to properly use quotation marks, commas, etc. But fear not! I'm going to share with you the mysterious, elusive inner-workings of dialogue punctuation, and by the time you're done reading this you'll be a master!

How To Use Quotations

Quotation marks "  " are placed around words that a character is speaking out loud. Do not use quotation marks for characters thoughts. The punctuation mark, whether it is a period, exclamation point, or question mark, always goes inside the quotation marks. Example:

"Wait for me!" Mary shouted.
"Why aren't you coming?" he asked.
"This is stupid."
NOT: "This is stupid".

Simple, right?

The Intimidating Comma

Most often, a comma is used at the end of a character's dialogue. For some reason, figuring out what to do with this comma is intimidating to beginners. Relax! It's actually really simple. Just like other punctuation marks, the comma also stays inside the quotation marks. Like so:

"This isn't going to work," he said.
NOT: "This isn't going to work", he said.

If you put a speech tag (he said, she said, etc) after the characters words, you always use a comma at the end of the dialogue, not a period. (But you can use an exclamation or question mark instead of a comma. Just no period.)

"Well that sounds silly," he said.
NOT: "Well that sounds silly." he said.

Also acceptable: "What are you doing?" he asked.
But don't do this: "What are you doing?," he asked.

One punctuation mark is more than enough x]

 Ellipses and Dashes

An ellipse is three dots ... that can be used in dialogue to signify a character's words trailing off. A dash -- on the other hand, signifies an abrupt stop. These can be great tools to add emotion to your dialogue, but don't overuse them. Like commas and punctuation marks, they also go inside the quotation marks. Like so:

"Oh no..." he said quietly.
"This isn't going to--"

DO NOT put a comma after an ellipse or dash. It is unneccessary and looks weird. I see this sometimes in published books and it's one of my pet peeves.

NOT: "Oh no...," he said quietly.
NOT: "This isn't going to--,"

He Said, She Said

Now, what about what's outside the parentheses? The 'he said' and 'she said' as I already mention above is what is referred to as speech tags. Or who is saying what.

When using a proper noun (a character's name) at the end of a line of dialogue, it is of course capitalized. However, any improper nouns (he, she, they, it, etc.) at the end of a line of dialogue are left in lower-case. Like so:

"This is so exciting!" she said.
"I don't know what to do," he said.
"Are you confused?" she asked.

NOT: "That is so exciting!" She said.
NOT: "I don't know what to do," He said.
NOT: "Are you confused?" She asked.

In-between Lines of Dialogue

One of the most confusing things about dialogue is how to punctuate it when it is broken up. Observe:

"That is never going to work," he said, shaking his head. "You should just give up now."

When you have a speech tag (he/she said) followed by a description of action (in this case, shaking his head), you end it with a period. BUT, you could also do this:

"That is never going to work," he said, shaking his head, "you should just give up now."

Do you see the difference between the two? The first is the most commonly used, but you can use either as long as you use correct punctuation. In the first example the dialogue is two separate sentences: That is never going to work. You should just give up now. But in the second it is one sentence: That is never going to work, you should just give up now.


Paragraphs and Dialogue

Alright, hang in there we're almost done! Now, whenever a character is speaking, you should start a new paragraph. This character's actions, whether described before or after the dialogue, should also be in the same paragraph. Like so:

Amy picked at her nails. "So, are you going to ask him out?" she asked without looking up.
Natasha flipped her hair over the shoulder. "No way."

If you decide you need to create a paragraph within a character's dialogue, it gets a little weird. You don't close the quotations at the end of the paragraph, but you start them again in the new paragraph. Example:

"I can't believe he actually ditched me," she said. "I spent hours getting ready and doing my make-up and I had to beg my mom to let me drive her car so I could meet up with him and then he didn't even show! Who does that?
"I mean, what did I do to deserve that? I can't believe he could be so rude. I don't ever want to see him again!"

Yes, I suck at typing example dialogue >.< But do you get the point? lol.

Now That You're Sufficiently Confused...

Make sense? Yes, no, maybe so? Don't worry, dialogue becomes easier with practice, and one day it will become second nature and you won't even give it any thought at all.

Next time you're reading a book, pay close attention to how the dialogue is punctuated and formatted. How did I teach myself how to punctuate dialogue? By studying the dialogue in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. No joke. Harry Potter taught me how to punctuate dialogue. Who would've known?

Hopefully you found something here helpful and I didn't make you even more confused! x]
What is your greatest challenge with punctuating dialogue?

Happy writing!


  1. Oh my!! Kaitlin, that pic was totally me when I tried to write my own stories. I actually used periods like this:

    "I want food." she said

    I wrote like that *facepalm*

    ~Ariella @ A Sprinkle of Books

    P. S. How do you make a post signature..

    1. haha I did the same thing x] Sometimes I look back at my old writing and all I can do is shake my head (or beat it against my desk lol).

      I don't know if other people make post signatures differently, but here is how I made mine:

      1. Open up paint and make a plain white rectangle. Save it.
      2. Go to (or any photo editing site/program) and upload your white rectangle.
      3. Choose whatever text you like and type your signature onto your rectangle. You can change the size and color of the font, and they have 'stickers' you can use as well. (Like the heart on mine.)
      4. When you got it how you want it, save it.
      5. Upload it onto your blog posts! Yayyy! :D

      My background is white so I used a white rectangle, but if your blog background is a different color you may want to try to get it close to that color. (Unless you don't mind it being white).

      Hope that helps!

  2. "I really didn't know how to correctly punctuate dialogue," I said, sighing with stupidity, "before you posted this."

    That's right, right??

    Cool post!!! I always wanted to know this but was too lazy to go looking for it!

    1. Haha yep you got it! A+! ;]I'm glad I could be helpful!


I love comments :D

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