Dialogue is one of the most ever-present components of writing, especially in fiction. Yet even experienced authors sometimes format dialogue incorrectly.
There are so many rules, standards, and recommendations to format dialogue that it can be easy to get lost and not know what to do.
Thankfully, this article will help you know exactly what to do when formatting and writing dialogue, and we’ll even mention a tool that will make the whole process a lot easier, but more on that later.
- The basic rules for good dialogue
- Grammar rules for effective dialogue
- The difference between curly and straight quotes
- Common stylistic choices
- And other recommendations
Table of contents
- Basic Dialogue Rules
- Dialogue Punctuation
- 1. The Correct Use of Quotation Marks
- 2. The Correct Use of Dialogue Tags
- 3. The Correct Use of Question and Exclamation Marks
- 4. The Correct Use Of Em-Dashes And Ellipses
- 5. Capitalization Rules
- 6. Breaking Dialogue Into Multiple Paragraphs
- 7. Using Quotation Marks With Direct Dialogue vs Indirect Dialogue
- Using Quotation Marks With Direct Dialogue vs Reported Dialogue
- Curly Quotes or Straight Quotes?
- Best Practice: Dialogue Tags
- Best Practice: Formatting Interruptions
- Best Practices: She Said vs. Said She
- Best Practice: Using Beats to Break up Your Dialogue
- Best Practice: Formatting Inner Dialogue
- Other Tips for Formatting Dialogue
- Final Thoughts on Formatting Dialogue
Basic Dialogue Rules
There are some basic rules that most people are aware of, but still need to be mentioned in an article about formatting dialogue.
The following are some of the very basic instructions you will need to follow:
- New speaker, new paragraph: whenever a new person speaks, you should start a new paragraph. This is true, even if your character is alone and talking out loud, or even if all they say is one word.
- Indent each paragraph: as with any paragraph, you should indent it. There are small exceptions, such as at the beginning of a chapter or scene break.
- Quotation marks go around the dialogue: use quotation marks at the beginning and end of your character's dialogue. Any punctuation that is part of the dialogue should be kept within the quotes.
Now that you have these basics in mind, let's dive into the specific rules of grammar and punctuation for formatting dialogue.
To punctuate dialogue correctly, there are a few rules you should know:
- The correct use of quotation marks
- The correct use of dialogue tags
- The correct use of question and exclamation marks
- The correct use of em-dashes and ellipses
- Capitalization rules
- Breaking dialogue into multiple paragraphs
- Using quotation marks with direct dialogue versus indirect dialogue
- Using quotation marks with direct dialogue vs reported dialogue
Let's dive into each of these one by one…
1. The Correct Use of Quotation Marks
For American writing, you will use a set of quotation marks (” “). These are placed directly before and after the dialogue spoken by your character.
Furthermore, the quotation marks are placed around any punctuation, such as a comma, question mark, or exclamation mark.
“I love writing books!” said John.
You can use the same set of quotation marks around more than one sentence.
“I love writing books! It makes me feel so accomplished.”
Note: the double quote is used heavily in American writing and in some other parts of the world, with single quotes used to quote dialogue within a larger quote. However these roles are often reversed outside of American writing, and some cultures even use angle brackets instead (<< >>).
2. The Correct Use of Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is simply a phrase at the beginning or end of your dialogue that tells us who is speaking. Dialogue tags are optional, but should be used when there are multiple people speaking and it is not clear which dialogue belongs to whom.
Your dialogue tag should use a comma to separate itself from the dialogue. If your dialogue tag appears at the beginning of your quote, the comma should appear after the dialogue tag and before your first quotation mark. If your dialogue tag is after your quote, the comma should appear after the dialogue, but before the closing quotation mark.
John said, “I love to write books.”
“I love to write books,” said John.
If a sentence of dialogue is interrupted by the dialogue tag, then you should use two commas that follow the above rules.
“I love to write books,” said John, “every single day.”
3. The Correct Use of Question and Exclamation Marks
If you are using a question or exclamation mark, those are placed within the quotation marks, just as a comma would be.
“You like to write books?”
If you are following up the dialogue with a dialogue tag, you do not need to capitalize the first word of the dialogue tag.
“You like to write books?” said Lucy.
“You like to write books?” Said Lucy.
4. The Correct Use Of Em-Dashes And Ellipses
Both em-dashes and ellipses are used to show incomplete dialogue, but their use is very.
Em-dashes should be used when dialogue is interrupted by someone else's dialogue, or any other interruption that leads to an abrupt ending.
Note that the em-dash is contained within the quotation marks, and replaces any punctuation. If the em-dash appears at the start of the quote, the following word should not be capitalized.
“Have I ever told you—”
“Yes, yes you have.”
“—that I love writing books?”
Ellipses are used when the dialogue trails off, but there is not an obvious interruption.
“What was I saying just…
5. Capitalization Rules
In most cases, you should capitalize the first word of your dialogue. This is true, even if the dialogue does not technically begin the sentence.
John said, “But I love to write books!”
John said, “but I love to write books!”
The exception to this is if you are starting in the middle of your character's sentence, such as after an em-dash, or anytime the first quoted word is not the first word of the character's full sentence.
Lucy rolled her eyes, ready to hear again just how much John “loved to write books.”
6. Breaking Dialogue Into Multiple Paragraphs
If you have especially long dialogue, you might want to divide that dialogue into multiple paragraphs.
When this happens, place the first quotation mark at the beginning of the dialogue, but do not place a quotation mark at the end of that first paragraph.
You also place a quotation mark at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph until the dialogue ends. The last paragraph of dialogue has a quotation mark at the beginning and the end.
John said, “I can't explain to you why I love writing books so much. Perhaps it has something to do with my childhood. I always loved writing books as a child and making up stories. My mom told me I should be playing outside, but I preferred writing.
“Or maybe it was in college when I started learning the rules of good creative writing and saw my characters come to life in a way that I had never seen in my youth. It excited me more.
“Or maybe I'm just weird.”
7. Using Quotation Marks With Direct Dialogue vs Indirect Dialogue
Before we get into the specifics of how to use quotation marks with direct dialogue versus indirect dialogue, you have to understand what each is.
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, I like to write books,” he said.
Indirect dialogue is basically you telling someone about what another person said.
He said hello and that he liked to write books.
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 work with in this article pertain to direct dialogue.
Using Quotation Marks With Direct Dialogue vs Reported Dialogue
Besides direct dialogue and indirect dialogue, we also have reported dialogue.
Reported dialogue is when one line of dialogue is quoting something else.
With American usage of quotation marks, we place double quotation marks around the direct dialogue (a.k.a. the main quote), with single quotation marks around the reported dialogue (a.k.a. the quote within the quote).
“I was talking to John the other day, and he kept saying ‘I love writing books' all the time,” said Lucy.
Note that this is common for American writing, and is often reversed outside of North America. Check your local style guides to know exactly how to embed one quote within another.
Curly Quotes or Straight Quotes?
Some authors don't even realize this, but there is a big difference between straight quotes and curly quotes.
Straight quotes do not bend inward, but remain straight. They are identical, whether they are located at the beginning or end of your quote.
John said, “I just like to write books, okay?”
By default, most keyboards use straight quotes instead of smart quotes. It is also the standard for web-based writing, since it simplifies the HTML needed to render a webpage (notice that most quotes in this article are straight quotes).
Curly quotes (sometimes called smart quotes) curve inward toward the line of dialogue that they encapsulate.
John said, “I just like to write books, okay?”
Curly quotes are more common in publishing, fiction, and are generally considered the standard when doing dialogue.
How to Change Straight Quotes to Curly Quotes
Since most keyboards use straight quotes, and is the default for many programs, you will have to change them to smart quotes manually.
While some programs have this functionality, you can also use keyboard shortcuts. For example:
Keyboard Shortcuts for PC or Windows
To use keyboard shortcuts for PC, hold down the alt key, then type the four-digit code using your number pad:
- Opening double quote shortcut: alt 0147
- Closing double quote shortcut: alt 0148
- Opening single quote shortcut: alt 0145
- Closing single quote shortcut: alt 0146
Note that you must type these numbers in with your number pad, and not the top row of numbers on your keyboard. The top row will not work.
Keyboard Shortcuts for Mac
The same process applies here, but the commands are slightly different. With a Mac, hold down the different keys shown here:
- Opening double quote shortcut: Option + [
- Closing double quote shortcut: Option + Shift + [
- Opening single quote shortcut: Option + ]
- Closing single quote shortcut: Option + Shift + ]
The downside to using the short codes is that it can become extremely tedious, especially if you have to go through your entire book and replace all of the quotes.
Thankfully, there is an option to make this a lot easier…
Formatting Quotes with Atticus
When you use Atticus, you can automatically swap your straight quotes for curly quotes with the touch of a button.
To do this, look on the top writing toolbar, and you will see two icons on the right.
If you click the button labeled “Apply Smart Quotes”, it will give you the following pop-up:
Do this for each of your chapters, and you should see the little red warning icon change to a green icon, indicating that your entire book is free of straight quotes.
This saves you a ton of hassle, it is by far the easiest way to improve your quotes in a writing or formatting program.
Best Practice: Dialogue Tags
We've already talked about the grammatical rules for dialogue tags above, but let's talk a little more about, because there are ways to use dialogue tags that are grammatically correct, but not great from a stylistic standpoint.
For example, should you use words other than “said” for your dialogue tag?
Technically, you can do this. You can use many words as a dialogue tag. For example:
“You like to write books?” asked Lucy.
“You like to write books?” scoffed Lucy.
“You like to write books?” snickered Lucy.
“You like to write books?” intoned Lucy.
In this case, we have used alternative dialogue tags in each example. It's common for newer writers to think that mixing up the dialogue tags like this is a good thing, but this is not the case.
In fact, most authors agree the best practice is to use just “said” and “asked”.
You can use other words on occasion (I sometimes use “clarified”, “shouted”, or “whispered”), but these should be rare.
The reason for this is simple: readers expect to see the words “said” and “asked”. Their mind brushes right over it, taking the necessary attribution data, and nothing else. Using “said” over and over again will not seem repetitive, because it is expected.
Using unusual dialogue tags is a quick way to draw the reader out of the book.
Best Practice: Formatting Interruptions
I’ve talked, briefly, about em-dashes and ellipses above, but there are a few other considerations to make when formatting dialogue interruptions.
If dialogue is interrupted by a tag and action…
You can format it in two ways. First of all:
“I love writing books,” John 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,” John said, rubbing his hands together. “But I don’t like editing them that much.”
Here, the sentence ends after John 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”–John 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.
Best Practices: She Said vs. Said She
You might be surprised to learn that there is a best practice for the word order for your dialogue tags.
For example, should you say “Lucy said” or “said Lucy”?
It may be common for you to guess that “said Lucy” is an acceptable practice (at least I did), but while this is technically grammatically correct, it is actually discouraged.
The correct way to format this is “Lucy said”.
Think of it this way, would it feel more natural to say “she said” or “said she”? Since “she said” is more natural with pronouns, the logic is that “Lucy said” is the superior form of dialogue tag.
Best Practice: Using Beats to Break up Your Dialogue
Instead of dialogue tags, one alternative that you can use are beats.
Beats are small actions to give to your characters, so it doesn't sound like the dialogue is being spoken between two talking heads in a void.
It helps to move the story along, creates a sense of realism, and gives you a chance to reduce the number of dialogue tags that you use, without confusing the reader.
“I love to write books!” John sat at the keyboard and cracked his knuckles.
You can also add a beat to your dialogue tag.
“I love to write books!” said John, then sat at the keyboard and cracked his knuckles.
Additionally, you can use a beat to interrupt the flow of dialogue. This is even encouraged at times, because it can create diversity in how you use your dialogue.
“I love to write books!” John sat at the keyboard and cracked his knuckles. “But I don't like editing them as much.”
Best Practice: Formatting Inner Dialogue
When you are formatting internal dialogue (particularly when writing from 3rd person point of view), there are three ways that you can format it.
1. Italicized With a Tag
It’s common to see inner dialogue treated the same as quoted dialogue, but with the entire inner dialogue italicized instead of using quotation marks.
I just love to write books, John thought. Why can’t Lucy understand this?
2. Italicized Without a Tag
Likewise, you can often leave out the tag all together, as the reader is able to understand by the italics that this is a thought. However, you might want to accompany this with a beat.
John sat at his desk. I just love to write books. Why can’t Lucy understand this?
3. Not Italicized
If you are writing from a deeper point of view, you might not need italics or a tag. This is especially common when writing in first-person point of view, where literally all of the prose represents that person’s thoughts.
I sat at my desk. I just love to write books. Why can’t Lucy understand this?
Other Tips for Formatting Dialogue
In addition to the above, there are a few miscellaneous tips that I would like to share:
1. Make It Clear Who Is Speaking
When using dialogue, you never want the reader to be confused as to who is saying the dialogue. There are a couple of ways to do this.
- Use dialogue tags effectively
- Never leave out dialogue tags unless you only have two people, and it is obvious which one is speaking
- Use beats appropriately
2. Focus on Character Voice
Each character should have a unique way of speaking.
A good way to practice different voices is to record a conversation, such as around the dinner table, and transcribe it. Notice how everyone uses a different “flow” to our sentences, or have favorite words that we like to use.
Do they speak in short, choppy sentences? Or are they more prone to elegant, long-winded paragraphs?
Another great exercise is to write a conversation with two people, and don't use dialogue tags. Instead, try to make how they are speaking make it obvious who is actually talking.
3. Don't Overdo Your Character Voice
Despite my recommendation above, it is possible to overdo character voice.
Examples of this include:
- Overdoing a heavy accent, where every word of their dialogue is spelled slightly different to convey the dialect.
- Including curse words in every other sentence, even if this is realistically based on someone you know.
- Including a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in your sentence. While these are common in real life, they can dramatically pull your reader out of the story.
4. Don't Info-Dump with Dialogue
While it is okay for the character to explain some of what is going on in their dialogue, you have to be careful with this.
Above all, make sure your dialogue naturally fits the character in the scene. Info dumping can easily lead to “Maid and Butler dialogue”, where it feels like the characters just talking for the benefit of the reader, and not for the actual situation they are in.
5. Avoid Repetitive Dialogue Tags
While it is important to use “said” and “asked” the most when doing your dialogue tags, there are other ways that you should use to diversify your tags, such as:
- Use beats instead
- Use dialogue tags before, after, and in the middle of your dialogue
- Remove dialogue tags when you have a back-and-forth conversation between two people and it is obvious who is saying what
This is not just relevant for dialogue tags, but also for your dialogue styles. If you have had three lines of dialogue in a row that all placed your dialogue tag in the middle of the dialogue, then you might want to change things up a bit.
Final Thoughts on Formatting Dialogue
While it is easy to get overwhelmed with all of the little tips and tricks to formatting dialogue, once you have enough practice, it becomes second nature.
Additionally, a tool like Atticus can make some of the technical bits so much easier, such as changing your street quotes to curly quotes.
In addition to formatting dialogue, Atticus is the number one software for writing and formatting a book. Plus, unlike other leading formatting software is, it is available on all platforms, and costs over $100 less than the leading alternative.