Dialogue can be a tricky little beastie to format, especially when you’re a new writer. I remember scratching my head over where to put the punctuation marks, and studying published novels to try to find my answers.
But there were still confusing bits that left me boggled. Like how did I put a speech tag in the middle of some dialogue? Or how did I start a new paragraph in the middle of a character’s lengthy speech?
If you’re wrestling with these questions you’ve come to the right place! I’m going to show you how to format dialogue like a pro so that you won’t even flinch when you come across a tricky situation. And more importantly, you’ll learn to avoid mistakes that will make an agent or editor flinch and toss your manuscript aside.
To help us navigate the journey, we will be traveling along with the Doctor.
Let’s begin, shall we?
First, let’s take care of those pesky quotation marks. The quotation marks will enclose anything that a character is speaking out loud. Because they signal to the reader that the words are being spoken, don’t use them for thoughts. Italicize thoughts instead. All ending punctuation marks always go inside the quotations–whether it is a question mark, period, exclamation point, comma, or dash.
“Never say trapped, just… inconveniently circumstanced.”
“Never say trapped, just… inconveniently circumstanced“.
Adding Speech Tags
Speech tags are used to signal to the reader who is speaking. They include words like said, asked, whispered, shouted, etc. When you end a line of dialogue with a speech tag, you punctuate it by using a comma, question mark or exclamation point. You do not use a period. (I know it’s weird). The word following the closed quotations is always lower case UNLESS it is a name.
“There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go and poke it with a stick,” the Doctor said.
“There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go and poke it with a stick!” the Doctor said.
“There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go and poke it with a stick.” the Doctor said.
“There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go and poke it with a stick”, the Doctor said.
“There’s something that doesn’t make sense. Let’s go and poke it with a stick!” The Doctor said.
What if you want to split up your dialogue and put your speech tag in the middle? There are two ways to do this. The first is to add in your speech tag between two complete thoughts. You will add your punctuation and close the quotation where you want to insert your speech tag. At the end of the tag, add a period. Now, continue your dialogue with new quotation marks and capitalize the sentence. Like so:
“We’re all stories, in the end,” the Doctor said. “Just make it a good one, eh?”
The second way is similar to the first, except you will be adding a speech tag in the middle of a thought. This means instead of putting a period after ‘said’ you will put a comma, and instead of capitalizing the first word of the next part of dialogue you will make it lowercase:
“Come on, Rory! It isn’t rocket science,” the Doctor said, “it’s just quantum physics!”
Dashes and Ellipses
When using a dash or ellipses to end a line of dialogue, treat it like you would a comma. You can add a speech tag at the end if you like, but don’t use a comma after the dash or ellipses.
“You don’t want to take over the universe…” the Doctor said.
“You don’t want to take over the universe–” the Doctor said.
“You don’t want to take over the universe…,” the Doctor said.
“You don’t want to take over the universe–,” the Doctor said.
Paragraphs Within Dialogue
When you start a new paragraph in the middle of some dialogue, you don’t close the quotations. This is sort of confusing, so let me just show you:
“I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?
“‘Cause it was, you know. It was the best. The daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you that I stole it? Well I borrowed it. I was always going to take it back.”
See how the first paragraph of dialogue ends open, without closing the quotation? This is because your character is going to continue speaking in the next paragraph. In the new paragraph, begin with another open quotation mark. When your character has finished speaking, you close the quotations as in the end of the second paragraph.
When you have multiple characters speaking, always start a new paragraph to indicate a new speaker. If you have any descriptions of a character’s actions along with their dialogue, keep it in the same paragraph. This helps to avoid confusing the reader. You will also notice that characters’ actions can be used in place of speech tags to let the reader know who is speaking.
“You do have a plan.” Amy paused and glanced at the Doctor. “Don’t you?”
The Doctor shrugged. “No. It’s a thing, it’s like a plan but there’s more greyness.”
“You do have a plan.” Amy paused and glanced at the Doctor. “Don’t you?” The Doctor shrugged.
“No. It’s a thing, it’s like a plan but there’s more greyness.”
Dialogue can be confusing at first, but with practice it will become instinctive. I don’t even pause anymore to think about punctuation and formatting while writing. And now that you know how to handle all the tricky bits you can go forth and conquer it yourself!