All You Need To Know About Punctuating And Formatting Dialogue


This is the third step in my dialogue series, How To Write Fabulous Dialogue In 5 Easy Steps.

Step 3 – Keeping Up Appearances 

I have been discussing dialogue for the last few weeks. This week I want to talk about formatting and punctuation. I’ve tried to keep this simple. Be careful of getting yourself and your reader confused. The simpler, the better. Remember reading it aloud should be your guide. 

Punctuation in dialogue

Quotation marks:

  1. The words spoken aloud are placed inside the quotation marks. Internal thoughts are not.
  2. These are not used for indirect dialogue, which is used in, for example, in a diary entry or by a narrator.
  3. We can use ‘single’ or “double” quotation marks. 
  4. A dash can also be used, or you can leave out the quotation marks completely, but think carefully why you would want to do that. Margaret Atwood is good at no quotations marks. 
  5. The most important thing is to remain consistent. 

Full stops, commas, and capital letters:

Yes, there are rules, but I would recommend that you read your dialogue aloud before deciding what goes where.

“Yes, please,” said Alice. “I would love some.”Take note: Open quotation, dialogue, comma, close quotation, verb and name, full stop. Open quotation, dialogue, full stop, close quotation. Both lines of dialogue start with caps.
Once you have established who is speaking you don’t need a tagline. 
“You are crazy.” Take note: No tagline, no comma, use a full stop instead. 

Ellipses and dashes:

Use these for interrupted dialogue or unfinished sentences.
“I never thought…” she closed her eyes and melted into his kiss.
“I just wanted to—” he tried again.
“Of course you wanted too. It’s always about what you want to do.”
Question marks and exclamation marks:

These always go inside the quotations.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I hate you!” she said.

Don’t use an exclamation mark and then write exclaimed. 

When action is involved:

“You’re a goddess.” He kissed her back.  Take note: Full stop and capital letter.
“You’re a goddess,” he said, kissing her back. Take note: Comma, no capital letter. 

Once again, the golden rule is to read it aloud. Record yourself if you have to and listen to the rhythm. A great activity is to listen to radio dramas. Think Agatha Christie with sound effects and voiceover artists. 

Format your dialogue: 

  1. Each speaker must be on a new line. Their actions should be in the same paragraph. If a character speaks for several lines, try to use the tag as soon as possible, after the first line if you can, to avoid confusion.  
  2. Insert quotation marks. I prefer double, but single quotations marks, a dash or even nothing is also accepted. 
  3. Only words spoken aloud go inside the quotation marks.
  4. Insert taglines. I use ‘said’ as often as needed. I try to avoid other verbs like admonished and exclaimed and adverbs(-ly) like angrily or happily. 
  5. Use correct punctuation. These go inside the quotation marks.
  6. Comma or full stop? If the verb is part of the sentence, use a comma. If not, use a full stop. 
  7. Indent dialogue. No spaces between lines. 
  8. Place tags and names at the appropriate place in the middle of a sentence.
  9. Check for viewpoint errors. Internal thoughts can get you into trouble.

Another suggestion is to listen to the podcast of a programme like Serial. Pay attention to how they speak, especially during the interviews. Be careful of too many breaks and mmm and ahh-ing. It gets annoying. If you know of any awesome dramas or podcasts, please leave their names below. I would love to listen to some more.  

And then there is my favourite, eavesdropping. I wrote this post  which I hope will inspire you. 

Look out for Step 4: Just Add Verbs next week. 

Happy writing. 

Writing prompts are an excellent way to exercise the writing muscle. If you want to receive a free daily prompt from us, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za with the word DAILY PROMPT in the subject line. We will add you to our mailing list. 

 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

  1. 8 Important Things To Remember When You Rewrite Dialogue
  2. How To Write Fabulous Dialogue In 5 Easy Steps
  3. January Writing Prompts

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