How to Format Dialogue: A Comprehensive Guide
Introduction: What is dialogue, and how is it used?
First off, why am I writing this piece on how to format dialogue? In all of my time reading the work of writers who are new to writing fiction, I’ve found that a few issues are more common than others. Number one is comma placement. Every single writer I know, whether they write fiction, nonfiction, or work in a technical space, suffers from the occasional issue with comma placement — either lack of commas or too many commas.
But the biggest issue I’ve seen with the fiction writing of beginners is in their dialogue formatting.
I remember having issues with dialogue formatting myself when I was younger. For the longest time, I didn’t grasp that you were supposed to start a new paragraph with each new line of dialogue. I’d read tons of books with dialogue and tend to be pretty good at picking up information by absorption, but not that time! Dialogue is very tricky and very fidgety stuff. That’s why I’m writing this piece.
What is dialogue?
Simply put, dialogue is what results in the text when two or more characters have a conversation. Technically, a single character could also engage in dialogue with themselves — this would be the fictional equivalent of speaking to yourself. The main tool of dialogue formatting is the quotation mark, “, which is generally the indicator used to demonstrate a shift out of narration and into dialogue. Some countries use ‘ or even << (angular quotes), but for the sake of this write-up I’m going to stick with the quotation marks used in American English.
How is dialogue used?
I could write leagues and leagues about the uses of dialogue in fiction writing, but to name a few:
- To show conversations between characters in “real time”
- To tinker with pace
- To relate detail
- To characterize
Again, these aren’t the only uses of dialogue in fiction, but to me they’re the most important. First and foremost, dialogue is a mechanism for showing conversation, rendered as it would appear in “real time.” That is, a dialogue conversation between two characters should seem like a conversation you could have with your friend.
Second, dialogue is a good tool to play with the pacing within a scene. Good scenes often feature a mixture of narration — slow — and action — moderate — and dialogue — fast. Each of these, similarly, has a more-or-less “present” feeling to the reader. Narration feels like narration — something is being narrated. Action is a bit more immediate. But dialogue is most immediate of all, because it allows the reader to get right into the characters’ conversation.
Dialogue is also a wonderful tool that you can use to relate detail — any kind of detail — without getting bogged down in long paragraphs of narration. If you can work it into dialogue, backstory is less likely to be viewed as an info-dump.
Lastly, dialogue is an essential tool for characterization. In real life, you can learn a lot about a person by the way they talk. And it’s the same thing in fiction. You can learn a whole lot about a character by the way they talk.
Let’s dig into the technicalities and learn how to format dialogue.
How to format dialogue: The basics
Let’s learn the basics of how to format dialogue using an example passage.
“Welcome home, Bill,” said Mom. She smiled at Terri and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Rita.”
“Nice to meet you, Rita,” said Terri, shaking Mom’s hand.
“Welcome home, son!” came Dad’s booming voice from the stairs. A moment later, he appeared in the doorway. “Oh, this must be your girlfriend. Nice to meet you. I’m James. Has Bill shown you his teddy bear yet?”
Mom smiled. “Now, James, don’t be that way.”
“Why do you always have to embarrass me?” I asked, rolling my eyes. “And you wonder why I never bring people home…”
“Only teasing. Hey, did you — “
“I don’t want to hear it, Dad.”
Here’s the good news: In that brief passage, I’ve covered pretty much everything you need to know about dialogue. There are a few other little rules, but these are the basics.
First and foremost, as soon as a character is speaking — like Mom is in the first line — you introduce the line of dialogue using the opening quotation marks. In most fonts, the two sets of quotation marks — the opening and closing sets — look different. In the grand scheme of things, your quotation marks should look like they’re enclosing your line of dialogue.
Within the quotation marks, format text as you would normally, for the most part. You can take some grammatical “creative license” and leave out some commas, add ellipses, and do other tricks to express how exactly the character is speaking. But how to render realistic speech would be a topic for another time, so I’ll leave it at that.
Now, let’s talk a little about speech tags. Speech tags are the bits of text I’ve highlighted in red in the above example. They’re used to attribute or assign text to a given speaker. If you didn’t any speech tags at all, your readers wouldn’t be able to tell which character was speaking at a given time.
When you’re using a speech tag, keep in mind that the line of dialogue and the speech tag belong in the same sentence. Think of it like this: Your sentence will have three parts, a subject, a verb, and an object. The subject is the speaker. The verb is the tag — like “said.” And the object is whatever the speaking is saying. All of these parts belong in the same sentence together.
For this reason, when you’re using a speech tag, if you would normally close the line of dialogue itself with a period, use a comma. Follow the comma with your closing quotation marks, then add your speech tag. To reiterate, the comma falls inside the closing quotation marks. Look back to my example above. In paragraphs one and two, in the blue, you can see two examples of this practice.
Exclamations and questions
What about if you’re using a speech tag, but you need to end the line of dialogue with either an exclamation point — ! — or a question mark — ? — ? (Wow, that sentence is a little confusing! But I want to make sure that everyone matches the technical names of each punctuation symbol to the correct symbol.) In these cases, you should go and do just that — end the line of dialogue with your exclamation point or question mark, followed by the closing quotation marks. Again, the punctuation — the exclamation point or question mark — falls inside of the closing quotation marks. You can see working examples of this in my paragraph above, indicated in purple (paragraphs three and five).
Going without speech tags
Okay. What if you decide you’ve already established who the speakers are in a conversation, or you’re using a piece of action to establish speaker identity, and you no longer need to use speech tags? How do you format the dialogue then?
In the green, in the fourth paragraph, there’s an example of this. Mom has just smiled. We can judge, based on her action and based on the words of the dialogue that follow, that she’s speaking. That’s a very “Mom” thing to say, don’t you think? I’ve played up a stereotype for the purpose of distinguishing the speaker. And we actually do this kind of thing all the time in our writing, though it’s mainly subconscious and a bit awkward to analyze, like we’re doing now, because we realize that we have these innate biases and generalizations that we tend to draw. Okay, I digress.
The takeaway is that when you’re formatting a line of dialogue, unattached to a speaker tag, you use that period you were probably itching to use in that first example. Yeah, it takes time to get used to using a comma at the end of a complete sentence instead of a period. But remember, you should think of that complete sentence, in that case, as an object! What did he say? “Go home,” he said.
Trailing off and interruptions
The last two little things, which I’ve put in golden-yellow in the example up there, are the uses of ellipses — … — and the em-dash. You can use a regular dash, too, I just like the way the em-dash looks on the page. —. Ellipses are used when someone trails off or when their voice becomes lower and lower (volume-wise) throughout the course of their line of dialogue, until they can’t be heard at all. In this case, the point-of-view character Bill (poor Bill!) is looking at the floor, shaking his head, muttering, “And you wonder why I never bring people home…” A line later, his dad begins to interject with another smart remark, but Bill cuts him off. “I don’t want to hear it, Dad,” he says. We use a dash or an em-dash at the end of a line of dialogue, inside the closing quotation marks as always, when one speaker cuts off another.
One last little thing
Phew! Those are most of the basics of how to format dialogue. But hold your horses, there are a few more little things. Take a look at this example below.
Bill and Terri went to the bakery the next morning.
The baker came out to serve them. He said, “How many rolls do you want?”
Bill said, “We’ll take three.”
Highlighted in red is another way of using speaker tags. You can lead with the speaker tag. And in this case, the deal is always the same. Your sentence will look like this: Speaker said, “Whatever the speaker said.” After the said (or whatever other tag you’re using) comes a comma. Then a space and the opening quotation mark, then the line of dialogue, then the end punctuation followed by the closing quotation mark. That’s it. Now you know the basics of how to format dialogue!
A word or two on speaker tags
There’s not a real difference between the two placements of speaker tags. I tend to use the one I introduced first more often than the one I introduced second, but I use both from time to time, depending on how I want my passage to flow. I tend to try to avoid speaker tags as much as I can, though. They become redundant after a while.
And when you’re using speaker tags, use “said” as much as possible. This probably flies in the face of advice your third or fourth grade teacher gave you once. But I promise you, if you pick up a book that was published in the past five to ten years, you’ll find a whole ton of “saids,” a ton of “askeds,” a few “whispereds,” maybe some “shouteds,” and not much more. I strictly confine myself to the follow dialogue tags: said, asked, whispered, shouted, muttered, mumbled, and burst out (although you could use “exclaimed” in the place of that last one). You’d be hard-pressed to find another tag in my writing.
Why do I use these tags? Because for me, each expresses something slightly different about the speaker’s pitch and manner of speaking, and because these ones don’t stand out. “Said” is the all-purpose tagged, used probably 70% of the time. “Asked” is for questions. “Whispered” and “shouted” are for whispering and shouting situations. “Muttered” and “mumbled” are kind of similar, but for me “muttered” is for use when someone’s being snarky, sarcastic, or bitter, while “mumbled” is for someone who’s feeling a little shy or tongue-tied. And burst out is for sudden exclamations. Compared to wacky tags like “interjected,” “interrogated,” and even “ejaculated,” the tags I use tend to blend into my writing a whole lot better.
Using adverbs with speaker tags
In general, use adverbs sparingly. (I just used an adverb! I just used two! Three!) Speaker tags are a place where many beginning writers are sorely tempted to use adverbs. (Okay, I’ll stop using the adverbs now.) Still, it’s tempting to use an adverb to express something about how the character says something. Like: “Bill, come downstairs!” Mom shouted loudly.
I chose an example where it’s obvious you shouldn’t use the adverb. Because, one, Mom is shouting, so she’s being loud. You also have an exclamation point in your line of dialogue that implies loudness. So cut that loudly out!
What about something like this, though? “I don’t think we should do this,” he said softly.
A couple choices here. One, you could leave the adverb. And oftentimes, when I’m using “softly” or “quietly,” I do leave it.
Or you could substitute “whispered,” “mumbled,” or “muttered,” if the situation calls for it. It’s up to you. It’s okay to use adverbs in moderation. They exist in the language for a reason.
You can also use adverbial phrases. Not to get too grammatical, but an adverbial phrase in place of “softly” might look something like: “I don’t think we should do this,” he said in a low voice. In this case, “in a low voice” describes the manner in which the character is speaking.
Okay. Now, really, you know the basics of how to format dialogue. It’s time to move on to a perhaps more important question — How can you improve your dialogue formatting skills?
How to format dialogue better: The answer is, in some ways, obvious. Practice, practice, practice.
But suppose you’ve been planning on writing a novel for a long time now. And you don’t want to write a first draft in which you’re essentially practicing dialogue. What can you do to practice before the fact?
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with practicing in-draft. So if you’re comfortable doing that, do that. Your dialogue skills will improve, the more you use them! Just make sure to refer to a handy guide like this one whenever you begin to forget a certain rule.
But a big thing you can do for your dialogue skills, regardless of whether you go ahead with that draft or not, is READ. And you don’t even have to read a whole novel. Just grab a book that you know contains dialogue, open it up to a random page, and observe how the dialogue is formatted on the page. Absorb the knowledge. Hear the character’s voices in your head. See how the author uses dialogue tags, and where he or she omits them.
Then, practice your dialogue skills by writing small scenes composed out of dialogue. Like my example above! You can even continue my example, or rewrite it with your own characters. Once you practice for five or ten days, you’ll have the rules down pat. You’ll be used to them and you’ll know how proper dialogue looks on the page.
You can send your hard work to me, if you’d like someone to check that you’re doing everything right. It might take me a day or two to get a critique to you, but I will help you improve your writing. I very much enjoy working with people who are starting out writing fiction — it’s very rewarding to see their development and what they come up with. So please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help, and you think I can provide that help.
Like I said, if you’re hesitant about that draft, practice five to ten days on dialogue only. Write five hundred or a thousand words of dialogue a day. And by the end of those five to ten days, you’ll be ready to move forward. Tougher challenges await you: how to integrate dialogue into the narrative and how to use dialogue effectively. Perhaps we’ll talk about those challenges another day!
I hope that this lesson on how to format dialogue was helpful to you. Again, don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help!
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