How to Format Dialogue: A Guide for Authors

If you want to be a professional writer, present your stories, and have them taken seriously, you’ve got to understand how to format dialogue correctly. That means punctuating in the right places.

As someone who reads, you’ve probably picked up on how to do this in a general sense – but there are a few things you’ve missed. So, let’s check out what it takes to format dialogue correctly from the simple (commas and dialogue tags) to the slightly more complex (dialogue interruptions with actions).

Writing this is me, Rosie, a cozy mystery author who has years and years of experience with pesky dialogue formatting.

In this article, you will learn:

  • How to properly punctuate dialogue
  • An easy way to format interruptions
  • The rules of using dialogue tags

Step 1: Understand What’s Dialogue and What’s Not


All right, now this might seem like a pretty simple step, but you’ve got to understand the difference between spoken and told dialogue. Or direct and indirect dialogue.

Direct dialogue is written between inverted commas or quotes. This is someone actually speaking the words you’ve written down. It looks like this:

“Hello, my name is Dave,” he said.

Indirect dialogue is basically you telling someone about what another person said. It looks like this:

He said hello and that his name was Dave.

Note that no quotation marks are required because it’s not a direct quote — the speaker is paraphrasing.

However, most of the formatting and punctuation tips we’ll be working with in this article pertain to direct dialogue.

Step 2: Place Commas, Periods, and Speech Marks Correctly

Here’s a simple trick to remember when formating dialogue. If the speech is tagged with a ‘she said’ or ‘he said,’ you’ll use a comma inside the quotation marks.

“I love writing books,” he said.

If the speech has no dialogue tag (he said or she said) or if it’s followed by an action, there’s no need for a comma before the quotation marks.

“I love writing books.” He scratched his nose with the end of his pen.

That’s because the action isn’t a dialogue tag at all.

Here’s another important point: Never place a comma or punctuation mark outside of the quotation marks.

So don’t do this:

“I love writing books”.

Or this:

“I love writing books”,

Or even this:

“I love writing books”!

All the punctuation that belongs to the dialogue or the sentence between the quotation marks should be in there too. When formatting punctuation like question marks or exclamations, the dialogue tags outside of the sentence remain in lower case as follows:

“Do you love writing books?” he asked.

“I love writing books!” he shouted.

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Step 3: Understand Dialogue Tags

formatting dialogue tags

Fortunately, dialogue tags aren’t as simple as just ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ If they were, we’d have a lot less variety to work within our stories or to read in the books we love. And they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Dialogue can be many things. It can be fast and choppy, between two characters who don’t want to talk, or it can be long and flowing, as a character tries to explain themselves or over-explains under pressure.

Using just the simple dialogue tags might limit you, so let’s explore your options.

The formatting basics for a tag are as above. The comma directly after the spoken sentence, then the quotation mark, followed by the tag and a period. The word ‘he’ is never capitalized but Proper Nouns and ‘I’ will be.

“I love writing books,” he said.

“I love writing books,” Dave said.

“I love writing books,” I said.

And what if you have two characters talking? A continuous ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ list of tags next to each line of dialogue will be repetitive and, in some cases, downright annoying. That’s why you can leave tags out if you need to.

“I love writing books,” Dave said.

“Why is that?”

If you don’t put a dialogue tag after the line, you close the sentence inside the speech marks, as above.

For even more variety, you can add an action next to a dialogue tag. That would be as follows:

“I love writing books,” Dave said, rubbing his hands together.

As you can see here, you’d place the action after the ‘Dave said’ or ‘he/she said’ — separating it from the tag with a comma. You can also do this before the dialogue.

Rubbing his hands together, Dave said, “I love writing books.”

In this case, you would use a comma after the ‘said,’ start your dialogue as usual and end that dialogue with a period this time.

Weird rules about dialogue tags:

  • Each sentence of dialogue from each different speaker must be separated out onto a new line.
  • They can be actions in their own right, but they are never fully written out action sentences. Example: “I like cake,” he laughed. This is because the speaker is laughing as he says that he likes cake. If the speaker is laughing after he said he liked the cake. It would be, “I like cake.” He laughed.

Step 4: Use Actions Outside of Quotation Marks

If you wanted to show your character performing an action while speaking, you can do that without using dialogue tags as follows:

“I love writing books.” Dave rubbed his hands together.

Both sentences are separated from each other–they’re equal sentences that stay on the same line because the action is helping the reader identify who spoke the words. The same rule applies here as it would for dialogue tags. If you use too many actions consecutively, it can get annoying.

“I love writing books.” Dave rubbed his hands together.

“Why is that?” Kyle took a sip of water.

“Because I enjoy being creative.” Dave drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

“Then you’d better get to writing.” Kyle left the room.

It gets pretty irritating reading that extra information after every sentence. You can vary how you format your dialogue sentence after sentence, as long as you remember to separate out each speaker onto a separate line, always.

“I love writing books.” Dave rubbed his hands together.

“Why is that?” Kyle asked.

“Because I enjoy being creative.”

Kyle nodded. “Then you’d better get to writing.”

Remember this: Actions are always separated into another sentence. Your speech must be closed with a period and a quotation mark.

Step 5: Learn to Format Interruptions

punctuating interruptions

In dialogue, as in life, there are interruptions. Unfortunately, I can’t teach you how to format interruptions in your everyday activities, but I can advise you on how to format them in your writing.

If dialogue is interrupted by a tag and action…

You can format it in two ways. First of all:

“I love writing books,” Dave said, rubbing his hands together, “but I don’t like editing them that much.”

In this first example, you write your starting dialogue, tag, and action as usual, but instead of finishing the sentence with a period, you place a comma, open a new quotation mark and continue the sentence with a conjunction. At the end of that sentence, you’d use a period and close the speech.

But you can also format that interruption by separating the spoken pieces into two separate sentences as follows:

“I love writing books,” Dave said, rubbing his hands together. “But I don’t like editing them that much.”

Here, the sentence ends after Dave has rubbed his hands together. Because of that, when you start your new line of dialogue, you format it with a capitalized ‘But’ and end it with a period.

If dialogue is interrupted by just an action…

Say your speaker is being erratic, or just doing something that would interrupt his speech, like taking a sip of water or coughing uncontrollably, you wouldn’t have a well-planned and inserted interruption. The text would look broken because the dialogue is being broken by the action.

You’d format that as follows:

“I love writing books”–Dave took a sip of water–“but I’m not a fan of editing them.”

Note: The em dashes are outside of the dialogue for this type of formatting.

Final Thoughts

That’s about it. Formatting dialogue doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck–you can bookmark this article and come back to it anytime you need a reminder. I know, I’m always double-checking whether I’ve gotten something right, and I’ve been writing for a while.

Also, for further reading, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk Jr, is a book I recommend. It covers a lot of the questions you’ll have about formatting dialogue, punctuation and sentence structure.

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