If you write a short story, a novel, or fiction, you’ll probably have to write dialogue at some point.
Not every story features dialogue, but most do, and if you intend to write more than one piece, then at some point on your writing journey, you’ll be tasked with writing dialogue.
Understanding the details and requirements around formatting dialogue can be tricky – where does the comma go, when do quotation marks start and stop, and is the question mark inside or outside the quotation marks?
You may have many questions about dialogue as a writer, but that’s why this article is here. Even experienced writers sometimes struggle to remember the rules.
Below we’ll explain essential rules and requirements around how to format dialogue to help you craft a perfect piece of writing.
Over time and with consistent writing practice, these rules will come as second nature, and you won’t disrupt flow by wondering about commas, spacing, and question marks.
Types of dialogue punctuation
Exclamation mark: !
Question/interrogation mark: ?
Quotation marks – (‘…’) or (“…”)
Dialogue tags – said, replied, cried, screamed, whispered, yelled, shouted, explained
How to format dialogue
The following are some basic dialogue rules around writing direct dialogue. Learn these rules through memory but understand that reading and repeated use is the best way to learn.
The more you write and use the rules outlined below, the easier they will be to remember.
When to use quotation marks
Quotation marks are key to writing dialogue. They let us know that a text is a dialogue, not a general narrative. They surround the phrases spoken by characters. They begin at the start of the dialogue and follow the full stop.
Many writers are confused about whether to use single quotation marks (‘…’) or double quotation marks (“…”).
American English generally uses double marks, while British English uses single.
Example of American English quotation marks:
“Hi, one cappuccino please.”
“One cappuccino, coming up.”
“Do you have almond milk?”
“Sorry, sir, today we’re out of almond milk. Is soy milk ok?”
“Ok, no problem. Soy is fine.”
New speaker gets a new paragraph
One of the essential rules of dialogue is to start a new paragraph for another speaker’s turn in the conversation.
If you don’t add a new paragraph for each new speaker (which includes an established speaker speaking again), the text becomes dense and hard to read.
Readers should be able to discern between speakers easily.
Let’s use an example. The first example is the text in the same paragraph, and the second gives a new paragraph to the new speaker.
“Do you have a favorite color?”, he asked. “No, I don’t have a favorite anything.” “You don’t have a favorite anything?” “I’m not a child,” she said dryly.
“Do you have a favorite color?”, he asked.
“No, I don’t have a favorite anything.”
“You don’t have a favorite anything?”
“I’m not a child,” she said dryly.
Dialogue tags help the reader establish who is speaking at a given moment.
Tags also help to establish a tone of voice. ‘Said’ and ‘replied’ are common but don’t offer much in terms of tone.
“Hi, one cappuccino please,” said James.
“One cappuccino, coming up,” replied the young girl.
This above example is neutral in terms of emotional intensity, so ‘said’ and ‘replied’ work just fine, but let’s see what happens if we use a more emotionally charged scene.
“Peter! Peter!” called Mary excitedly.
“What is it, sweetheart?” Peter answered curiously.
Here we can hear the tone of voice Mary uses before telling Peter the big news and also understand that Peter doesn’t know what’s coming next.
Other common examples of affective dialogue tags include: ‘yelled,’ ‘screamed,’ proclaimed,’ ‘shouted,’ ‘whimpered,’ ‘croaked’, and ‘whispered,’ to name just a few.
Quotation marks, commas, and dialogue tags
What happens to quotation marks when phrases don’t end in a full stop but instead use a comma?
We can explore this rule through dialogue tags. As explained, dialogue tags are elaborations on the source of dialogue, typically attributing a given piece of dialogue to a speaker.
‘Said’ and ‘replied’ are common dialogue tags. As you can see in the cappuccino example above, a comma precedes a dialogue tag, and the comma is included before the quotation marks. Let’s look at it again.
‘Hi, one cappuccino please,” said James.
Note that we don’t use a comma when a dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, and the following tag remains lowercase.
“Peter! Peter!” called Mary excitedly.
The following tag is naturally capitalized if the first word is a name. For example:
“Peter! Peter!” Mary called excitedly.
In-speech quotes use single quotation marks
Whether you use single or double quotation marks for general dialogue, in-speech quotations will always use single quotation marks.
For example, consider a character-defining a word to another character.
“Hey Bill, what does ‘loquacious’ mean?” asked James.
“We use the word ‘loquacious’ to describe someone who talks a lot,” explained Bill.
When to use em-dashes
An em-dash is a punctuation mark that serves a similar purpose to commas, colons, and semicolons.
It’s typically used stylistically to show that another speaker or a new thought has cut off a character’s speech or dialogue.
Example using another speaker:
“I was thinking about the time you told me that embarrassing secret of yours, you know, that time you-“
Hey! Laura interrupted. ‘Maybe don’t mention that here?
Example using another thought:
“I just wanted to tell you – and I don’t mean to be a sap – that you looked very pretty last night.”
When to use ellipsis in dialogue
In dialogue, we use an ellipsis to convey a character’s trailing thoughts, as though something changes during speech. A character may forget what they will say next or experience hesitance or resistance to continue speaking.
An ellipsis can also replace an unnecessary explanation when the meaning is clearly understood.
“I’ll be here all day, and dinner’s going to be ready at 6, so if you change your mind you can come back and have dinner with us. “
Let’s look at how a simple ellipsis might change this sentence.
“I’ll be here all day, and dinner’s going to be ready at 6, so if you change your mind…”
Ellipsis also ends a sentence when a character decides not to finish it.
“Can you clean up after yourself?”
“I know, I’m just saying…”
Capitalize mid-sentence dialogue
When a dialogue occurs in the middle of a sentence, it begins with a capital letter. This can seem counter-intuitive, but this is the formatting rule. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel.
Brian turned back to the customer behind him in line and asked, “Excuse me, can you give me some space?”
Lowercase letter when action interrupts dialogue
If a dialogue is interrupted by action, the rest begins in lowercase.
“Pass me the water,” John croaked, “my throat is parched”.
Different quotation mark rules for long speeches
Generally, a dialogue begins with an opening quotation mark and ends with a closing quotation mark.
The exception is the rule of a long speech. If a character has a long speech – they speak long enough that second, third, or fourth paragraphs are needed, then quotation marks are included at the start of each paragraph but don’t close until that dialogue ends.
“I have a dream that – one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Though Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech spans more than a single paragraph, we only see closing quotation marks once.
Each new paragraph begins with opening quotation marks but ends in a full stop, and the closing quotation mark is used only after the final line.
The following are examples from famous literature that illustrate well-formatted dialogue.
If you’re stuck on a given piece of dialogue and wondering how to format it, refer back to these examples and apply the following style to your writing.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?”
Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder. “S-s-s-s-s,” hissed Gollum. “It must give us three guesseses, my precious, three guesseses.”
“Very well! Guess away!” said Bilbo.
“Handses!” said Gollum.
“Wrong,” said Bilbo, who had luckily just taken his hand out again. “Guess again!”
“S-s-s-s-s,” said Gollum, more upset than ever.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
“There’s another little thing,” he said uncertainly, and hesitated.
“Would you rather put it off for a few days?” I asked.
“Oh, it isn’t about that. At least —” He fumbled with a series of beginnings. “Why, I thought — why, look here, old sport, you don’t make much money, do you?”
“Not very much.”
This seemed to reassure him and he continued more confidently.
“I thought you didn’t, if you’ll pardon my — you see, I carry on a little business on the side, a little side line, if you understand. And I thought that if you don’t make very much — You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?”
Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
Tips for writing dialogue
Writing dialogue can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be so hard.
Follow some basic dialogue rules, listen intently to people speaking in real life, avoid repetitive dialogue tags (he said, she said, he said), and read as much as you can.
Like fiction writing, the best dialogue comes from a mind that has read much of it.
It takes time to get the hang of formatting dialogue, but the more you practice, the more it becomes second nature.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to learn about proper dialogue formatting is to keep reading.
There are basic, obvious, and more subtle rules, and it may take a lot of effort to sit down and learn them individually.
Reading, writing, and speaking your dialogue aloud make it easier to understand and apply these dialogue formatting rules and ultimately craft a story that engages readers without disrupting their flow.