7 Steps to Formatting Dialogue

Dialogue can be a tricky part of writing a story. You want it to be realistic but not boring, exciting but not melodramatic. Most of all, you want it to be correct in form and content so that readers enjoy your story.

When revising our stories (and even while writing them), formatting dialogue so it fits your story (and is correct) can be very tricky.

Here are 7 Steps to Formatting Dialogue:

  1. When to Start a New Paragraph
  2. Commas (when and where to use ’em)
  3. When/How to Use Dialogue Tags
  4. Interrupting Dialogue (ellipses, em-dashes, and tags)
  5. How to Handle Accents and Speech Impediments
  6. He/she said… and Acceptable Deviations
  7. Spice up Your Dialogue

1. WHEN TO START A NEW PARAGRAPH

BAM. New paragraph.

New Character = New Paragraph

You never never ever want to have two characters speaking in the same paragraph. It’s confusing, it’s poor form, it looks cluttered, and it’s just plain incorrect.

  • WRONG: “I don’t want to go,” Jamie said, but Margo shoved her and said, “You’ve got to!”

This is wrong. You’ve got two characters not only performing an action/dialogue in the same paragraph, but in the same sentence.  Yikes! As a general rule, if you change characters, start a new paragraph. I know that might mean a lot of white space, but white space is good in a story!

Just think about when you flip through a book. If you see pages of dense writing without dialogue and without paragraph breaks, then you know it’ll be a tough read. Our brains need movement and variety. Paragraphs and especially dialogue is how we do that.

The solution:

“I don’t want to go,” Jamie said.

Margo shoved her and said, “You’ve got to!”

Beginning Dialogue = New Paragraph

This simply means that even though a character runs down the stairs, jumps over a banister, barrels through a dinner party, punches a wall, and then dumps water a sibling, when he then shouts “This is for SPARTA!”, it needs to happen in a new paragraph.

Derrick ran down the stairs, jumped over a banister, barreled through the dinner party, punched the wall, and then proceeded to dump a bucket of water on Jill.

“This is for SPARTA!” Derrick shouted.

No one was amused—especially not Jill.

The most you can get away with is an action or two to preface the dialogue:

  • She stomped on his foot. “I would never date you!”
  • The dog licked her feet, and she said, “I hate dogs!”

Breaking Dialogue into a New Paragraph (aka: a character talks too much)

If you have a Hamlet-esque character who breaks out into dramatic soliloquy, or if your villain insists on a monologue, you might be staring at a giant paragraph of dialogue, wondering if your readers are crying yet.

The rule of thumb is this: If your character talks too much and you need a paragraph break, you don’t include an end quote, but you do include another beginning quote.

“…and there isn’t much you can do about it. I’ve already tapped into the magic veins of cloud mist running through the atmosphere. Soon my plan will reach fruition.

“When they come for me—and they will come—I will be ready. And I will raze their armies with a single storm cloud. Nothing will remain of my enemies except the globule hunks of watery graves.”

Notice the lack of an end quote in that first (melodramatic) paragraph? That means that it’s the same character speaking in the second paragraph.

If you’re not a fan of all that dialogue, then you can always break it up with actions, movements, and dialogue tags:

“…and there isn’t much you can do about it,” he said. He waved his hand, conjuring a miniature storm cloud in the air before him. “I’ve already tapped into the magic veins of cloud mist running through the atmosphere. Soon my plan will reach fruition.”

With a grim smile, he paces over to the window, staring out at the desolate beaches strewn with seaweed. “When they come for me—and they will come—I will be ready. And I will raze their armies with a single storm cloud. Nothing will remain of my enemies except the globule hunks of watery graves.” He clenched his fist, and the storm cloud evaporated up through the ceiling. A strike of lightning illuminated the sky as if to summon his enemies to their fiery end.

Breaking up the monologue gives you space to show what’s going on. Often, with dialogue, it’s easy to forget to keep the story moving forward.

Why do you think doctors have conversations while walking down halls in a hospital? They’re probably all just racing for the coffee maker, but it still gives the sensation that the story is moving forward. Apply that same logic to your story. Give your characters something to do.


2. COMMAS (when and where to use ’em)

Swirly whirly commas.

Rule One — When you tag dialogue, you do it with a comma.

(DEFINITION OF TERMS: A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ ‘I shouted’ portion of dialogue that exists outside the quotation marks and lets the reader know who is speaking.)

  • Before dialogue: She said, “I don’t want to go.”
  • After dialogue: “I don’t want to go,” she said.

The exception to this is when using an exclamation point or a question mark:

  • “Do you want to go?” she asked.
  • “I don’t want to go!” he said.

That’s the essential rule of punctuation for dialogue.

Rule Two — When there’s dialogue on both sides of the dialogue tag.

Don’t worry, though. Even if it’s trickier, it’s still easy:

  • “I’ll go to the store,” she said, “if you go with me.”
  • “I’ll go to the store,” she said. “Will you go with me?”

Notice the difference? In the first example, there is a comma after she said and the dialogue picks back up with a lower case if.

In the second example, there is a period after she said and the dialogue picks back up with an upper case Will.

  • Use a comma/lower case if the dialogue continues through the tag (aka: if the quotation as a whole forms one whole sentence.
  • Use a period/upper case if the two parts of the quote are their own sentences (independent clauses).

If you’re not sure, leave off all punctuation and do this test:

  1. Cross out the dialogue tag: “I’ll go to the store,” she said “if you go with me.”
  2. Join the two halves of dialogue: “I’ll go to the store if you go with me.”
  3. Is it one complete sentence or two? Verdict = 1. Therefore, the tag requires a comma/lower case.

Let’s try again with the other sentence just to make sure this test works:

  1. Cross out the dialogue tag: “I’ll go to the store,” she said “will you go with me?”
  2. Join the two halves of dialogue: “I’ll go to the store will you go with me.”
  3. Is it one complete sentence or two? (I’ll go to the store. Will you go with me?) Verdict = 2. Therefore, the tag requires a period/upper case.

3. WHEN/HOW TO USE DIALOGUE TAGS

This gif was going to happen at some point.

We need to know who’s talking relatively early.

As a reader, you don’t want to get halfway through a paragraph and realize that you had the wrong person narrating.

As a writer, it’s your job to make the reading process as fluid and easy as possible.

Picking when to input the dialogue tag can be tricky. It offers a brief rest in speaking, so it needs to come at a natural break in the rhythm of speech.

  • “If you want to go to the party, then you have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

By the time we get to the end of the sentence, it’s clear that it’s a parent talking to a son about cleaning his room. But we as readers shouldn’t have to wait that long to figure it out.

There are two natural breaks where we can introduce the speaker with a dialogue tag. One is after the dependent clause (“if you want to go to the party,”), and the other is after the first sentence (“…have to do your chores.”). You can go with either of those, but generally you want to do it as soon as possible.

  • “If you want to go to the party,” Mom said, “then you have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

Or you can add a bit of an action before hand to show who’s talking:

  • Mom tapped her foot, glaring at me. “If you want to go to the party, then you have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

What you DON’T want to do is have a dialogue tag break up the natural rhythm of speech. Such as this:

  • “If you want to,” Mom said, “go to the party, then you have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”
  • “If you want to go to the party, then you,” Mom said, “have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

The only time you do that is when you want to emphasize a particular word in a sentence (and only if you do it right!).

  • “If you want to go to the party, then you,” Mom said, “and not your sisters this time, have to do your chores. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

I’d do this sparingly (if ever), because it’s just as easy to emphasize a word through the use of italics:

  • “If you want to go to the party,” Mom said, “then you have to do your chores. You’re sisters can’t help this time. I don’t want to see a single bit of dust in your room, young man.”

This is when reading over your own work comes in handy. After you’ve set the story aside for a few days/weeks/etc., you come back and read with fresh eyes. Read through all the dialogue. Does it sound right? Have a beta reader go through it. Ask them to mark where they are confused or if they ever have to go back and reread anything.


4. INTERRUPTING DIALOGUE (Ellipsis, em-dashes, and dialogue tags)

When you find a gif that is perfect AND from Friends.

If you want one character to interrupt another, you can’t literally insert someone’s line of dialogue into someone else’s. So what do you do, and how do you format it properly?

There are two pieces of punctuation that you can use in this instance, but they mean different things.

Ellipsis (…)

Ellipses (plural form of ellipsis) are used when you want a character to trail off.

You know how people stop speaking in the middle of a sentence and either pick back up or awkwardly stop talking? That’s when we use ellipses!

  • “No, sometimes I just can’t find the right…” He trailed off.
  • “Word?” she offered.

Em-dash (—)

(If you’re typing in Word, a double hyphen will auto-corrrect into an em-dash. If you’re otherwise using a PC, the alt code is: alt-0151.)

There are four different useful ways to use an em-dash for dialogue.

1. Have one character interrupt another (em-dash inside the quote):

“I don’t want to go to the—”

“You promised!”

OR:

“If you need any—”

“Money?”

“—advice, I’m here for you.”

2. Perform an action while speaking (em-dashes go where a dialogue tag would go):

  • “If you want an adventure”—he flashes a smile—”all you had to do was ask.”
  • “If you bring her with us”—she points at her sister—”then I’m not going.”

3. Have an action interrupt dialogue (less common; em-dashes go inside the quotes):

  • “I don’t know how to explain—” he runs a hand through his hair “—Just give me the time to try.” OR you can use an ellipsis here:
  • “I don’t know how to explain…” He runs a hand through his hair. “Just give me the time to try.”

4. Use an em-dash normally in dialogue:

  • “I gave you hourglass last week—wait, it’s still on my table.”
  • “If you wanted to buy it—if you have enough money—then I’ll need payment in cash.”
  • “I wanted to bring the present over myself—crap! I left it at home.”

5. ACCENTS AND SPEECH IMPEDIMENTS

“Who would suspect p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-proffessor Quirrell?”

As previously mentioned, a writer’s most difficult job is to make a reader’s job easy. You don’t want readers stumbling over grammar and style, you want them to get pulled into the story. Unfortunately, improper formatting, style, grammar, and spelling is like a field of rocks that a reader trips over on the way to the utopia city of your book. And trust me, if you’ve ever read a bad book, you know that style and aesthetics can make or break that journey.

That said, your utopia city might have low-class citizens who speak in an unfamiliar slang or accent, or you have a character with a terrible lisp, or someone who stutters at every B, T, and D.

Please don’t make your readers suffer.

Here are some examples of dialogue formatted stylistically which make readers wince, cringe, and grimace their way to closing the book:

  • Slang/accent: “Wutcha got dar, feller? I reck’n th’ain’t much use ta puttin’ y’feet on m’table.”
  • Lisp: “Ssso much sssssorrow on thisss day, friendsss.” or “Tho much thorrow on thith day, friendth.”
  • Stutter: “D-d-d-don’t, come any c-c-c-closer, T-t-tammy. I’ve g-g-g-got a b-b-b-bad feeling about this.” (When doing a stutter, hyphens are used to show the struggling consonant.)

Why this is bad: My eyeballs are sore just from typing all of that out, and it requires more thought and effort to produce than normal dialogue (that, and the b-b-b-bad quote is making me think of George Thorogood and the Destroyers).

You don’t want readers trying to decode dialogue. You want readers to read at their own pace. If you’re getting in their way, you’re not doing your job as a writer.

How to Fix it

Use minimal alterations to typical dialogue to express impediments/accents, and do the rest with dialogue tags and surrounding action.

  • “Whatcha got there, fella? I reckon there ain’t much use to puttin’ your feet on my table.”
  • He had trouble speaking with his lisp, faltering at every S, but he spoke with dignity when he said, “So much sorrow on this day, friends.”
  • “D-d-don’t come any closer, T-t-tammy!” he stuttered. “I’ve g-g-got a bad feeling about this.” (See how there’s a rhythm and it’s not so difficult to see the whole sentence?)

Another way around the accent issue is, when you introduce the first speaker of an accent, describe it in the narration:

  • “What do you want?” she demanded. She had a Makawallian accent with sharper, narrow vowels that made her sound keen and crisp.

If you start visually changing how dialogue or words appear, readers are going to think it’s a cheesy gimmick.


6. HE/SHE SAID… and Acceptable Deviations

[Insert GIF that complements the need for good grammar, and yet emphasizes the double standard and conflict between genders and the complex communication network between them. Or not.]

Some authors feel very strongly about this. Some think that you should only ever absolutely for all eternity use he said/she said as dialogue tags. These strict authors accept no alterations, no adverbs, and no off-the-wall synonyms.

Aside from those stringent folk, there is an acceptable range of dialogue tags. Here are what I believe to be the most common:

  • said
  • asked
  • shouted
  • whispered

Less common, but still in the acceptable range (to varying degrees):

  • muttered
  • screamed
  • answered
  • replied

The reason for using he/she said all the time is because the dialogue tags become invisible. After a while, you start skimming them, and your subconscious only registers it so that you know who is speaking.

Because of this, the dialogue tag should really remain invisible.

You want WHAT your character says to be remembered, not HOW it was said. You want the events remembered, not necessarily the actions.

Examples of when dialogue tags are just WRONG:

  • soliloquized
  • pondered
  • wished

OFF LIMITS pet peeves:

  • screeched
  • squealed
  • laughed
  • hissed

These are off limits for a very particular reason: they are pretty much physically impossible.

You can’t laugh an entire sentence. You can laugh at the beginning or end, maybe.

  • Wrong: “I don’t want your begonias,” he laughed.
    • You can’t laugh an entire line of dialogue. You just can’t.
    • Similarly, you can’t hiss, squeal, or screech a sentence. Every time I read that someone screeched, I think of that sound that wild pigs make when they’re being chased by Mr. Hunter.
    • The breath control required would be immense, and it’s almost always never what the author really means.
  • Right: “I don’t want your begonias.” He laughed.
    • This way, the action is separate from the dialogue.

7. SPICE UP YOUR DIALOGUE (without resorting to scary ‘said’ synonyms)

Sugar, spice, and everything nice. With extra garlic.

Some authors despise adverbs, but I think they work if they’re used properly and sparingly. Though I admit that my first drafts are almost always spattered in the blood of adverbs. That’s what bleach and backspace is for.

Often, we use adverbs to convey emotion that we want to make sure is noticed. But when revising and editing, you can go in and make sure those emotions are recognized in other ways (via content of dialogue and surrounding actions).

Examples of dialogue tags that are OK (in my opinion):

  • she said quietly
  • he said excitedly

How to use actions to replace adverbs

  • Adverb: “I don’t want to,” she said coldly.
  • Action: “I don’t want to,” she said. Her eyes were like flints of ice.
  • Adverb: “Can we go?” she asked excitedly.
  • Action: “Can we go?” she asked, bouncing up and down with a big smile on her face.

When you don’t need dialogue tags

Remember those examples we went over two seconds ago? Well, if you’ve added an action or description to replace and adverb, chances are that you can also get rid of the dialogue tag itself. Check it out:

  • “I don’t want to.” Her eyes were like flints of ice.
  • “Can we go?” She bounced up and down with a big smile on her face.

Sure, the actions can add more words than you had before, but it keeps the characters physically engaged in the scene instead of just verbally (refer to the first section of this blog where we talk about breaking up dialogue with actions).

Dialogue tags are important, but keep an eye out to make sure they are as lean and efficient as possible. Yes, that might mean butchering and hacking away all the adverbs, but your story will read better and allow readers to engage. And that’s what a story is supposed to do, right?

If a writer does enough work, the writing will feel effortless.


Have any other questions about dialogue?

Anything you’ve seen in books that seemed questionable or interesting?

Let me know!

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2 thoughts on “7 Steps to Formatting Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Should you Wait before Revising Your First Draft? | words — and other things
  2. Pingback: A Writer’s Job | words — and other things

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