How to Format Dialogue Like a Pro

How to format dialogueDialogue 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?

Punctuation

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.

Right:

“Never say trapped, just… inconveniently circumstanced.”

Wrong:

“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.

Right:

“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.

Wrong:

“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.

Split Dialogue

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.

Right:

“You don’t want to take over the universe…” the Doctor said.

“You don’t want to take over the universe–” the Doctor said.

Wrong:

“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.

Multiple Speakers

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.

Right:

“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.”

Wrong:

“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!

Have more questions on how to format dialogue? Post them below and I’ll be happy to help you out 🙂 blog signature

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3 Reasons Why You Should Use “Said”

said

How would you like to give your dialogue a makeover simply by using one word? What is this marvelous word of literary magicalness you might ask? It is a word that many writers loath for its extraordinary ordinariness, its unassuming familiarity: said.

Your English teacher probably told you that “said is dead” and encouraged to use more “exciting” words in its place. You may have even come to view said as a despicable four-letter-word that must be eradicated from your writing in order to make it more descriptive. Unfortunately, editors don’t agree with your English teacher.

Here are three reasons why your English teacher was wrong and why you should get as excited over said as Jennifer Lawrence does over pizza.

#1: Said Isn’t Ridiculous or Redundant

“I don’t understand why you’re breaking up with me!” he bawled.

“It’s not you…it’s your cat,” she intoned.

“My cat? I hope the cat eats you and the devil eats the cat!” he cursed.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.

What’s the problem with using these speech tags in place of said? Well, first off, they sound ridiculous. Think about it: can a person physically bawl their words? Can they growl, hiss, or bark them out? Er…no. Go ahead and try it for yourself if you don’t believe me (The result will likely be very entertaining and/or disturbing to those around you).

Secondly, it gives the impression that the writer is trying too hard to get their point across to the reader. Readers are actually quite clever creatures. We can tell from the character’s dialogue whether he/she is cursing, apologizing, nagging, disagreeing, etc. Telling us so with a speech tag only makes it redundant.

And please, for the love of all that is good NEVER use words like intoned, queried, uttered, or inquired. They will not make you sound smart—they will make your reader cringe. Said or asked will do nicely.

Does this mean you should use only said and asked all the time? Well, no. I use shouted, yelled, and whispered in my own writing. The rule I try to follow is this: if it can’t be physically spoken or makes the dialogue redundant, then leave it out.

#2: Said is Invisible

The reason why newbie writers will use other words in place of said is because they’re afraid they will sound too repetitive and their reader will get bored. I call shenanigans on this theory.

When you’re reading a book, have you ever found yourself thinking, “Man, the author sure is using said a lot!” Of course you haven’t! You’re so engrossed in the story you don’t even notice. Why is this? Said is invisible–it’s used so much that our brains tune it out.

Now, imagine this: you’re just reading along when all of a sudden this slaps you in the face: “I don’t think that would be wise,” he orated. Orated? *cue cringe* If the author had used said, you wouldn’t have batted an eye. Descriptive speech tags are distracting to the reader and will pull them out of the story—which is the last thing you want!

#3: Said is the Mark of a Pro

Last but not least, using said will make your writing look more polished and professional to editors and agents.

When an editor or agent reads your story, one of the first things they will do is skim your dialogue. If they see you using crazy speech tags all willy-nilly, they will label you as an amateur and toss your story aside. They receive so many submissions that they will look for any reason to reject yours—so don’t give them one!

camilla facceAdvice from the Quills:

While varying word choice in your writing is important, said is one case where you should set the thesaurus aside.

Do you still think that more descriptive speech tags should be used in writing? Do these annoy you as a reader?

Like what you read? Know someone who might enjoy it? Please share it with other writers! Thank you for reading!

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