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.

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
“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
“You’re a goddess,” he said, kissing her back. Take note: Comma, no capital

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. 

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
  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 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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