Write Dialogue Right: 4 Rules for Easy Formatting

Write Dialogue Right Juniper Editing & Creative.jpg

Dialogue is one of our favourite aspects of creative writing. Dialogue gives literature its human spirit. There’s so much that can be conveyed through (well-written) dialogue: the speaker’s mood, their education and background, their thoughts and secrets, their habits, how well they know or like the person they’re speaking to, what they want from another character . . . the list goes on.

Eventually, we’ll get into the juicy stylistic details of writing dialogue—how to ensure it’s both entertaining and natural-sounding, and so on—but let’s start with the fundamentals: formatting and punctuation. As with all of JEC’s “mechanics-related” blog posts, I’ll be following the conventions laid out by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS),  the default style guide in mainstream publishing.

Let’s do this. 

Quotation Marks

  1. This is pretty obvious, but all dialogue should be enclosed in double quotation marks (“).*

    “Let’s go for a walk.”

*If you’re based in good ole’ Blighty, use single quotation marks instead. (‘) 

  1. Quotes-within-quotes should be indicated using single quotation marks, like so: 

    “Then Sam said, ‘Take a hike.’”

  2. The same goes for other things that are usually enclosed in quotation marks, such as the titles of newspaper articles, songs, poems, and more*—use single quotation to indicate these titles:

    “‘The Hollow Men’ is my favourite poem of all time.”

    *Italicized titles—such as the titles of books and movies—don’t need single quotation marks when mentioned in a quote. Just italicize ‘em, as per usual:

    “I love Pride and Prejudice,” he declared.

 

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Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are the “he said” / “she said” portion of a dialogue sentence.  Here are the general rules for formatting dialogue tags:

  1. A comma precedes and/or follows the dialogue tag: 

    “I want that cookie,” Molly said, reaching for it as they walked home.
    "Nope," he replied, shaking his head as he pulled his hand away.
    She stomped her little foot on the ground, face bright red with indignation, “Give me your cookie! I wa—”
    “When we get back,” Sally interrupted in calming tones, “everyone can have cookies.”

  2. Dialogue tags can also be preceded by an exclamation mark or a question mark, if that’s what the spoken words entail: 

    “Where is she going?” he asked.

    “Get back here!” she screamed.

 

Capitalization

  1. The beginning of dialogue statements, whether they start before or after a dialogue tag, should always be capitalized: 

    He turned to her and asked, “Where are you going?”

  2. No matter what punctuation the dialogue statement ends with (such as an exclamation mark or a question mark), the beginning of the dialogue tag is still lowercased: 

    “Where is the spoon?” she asked. 
    “There is no spoon!” he cried.

  3. If an action interrupts the dialogue, the first letter where the dialogue restarts should be lowercased to show that the same sentence is being continued:

    “I want to know,” he turned suddenly to her, “where the spoon is.”

 

Starting New Lines (Line Breaks)

Lastly—and this one is super duper important!—start a new line whenever someone new starts speaking. In our work, we often see writers who’ve composed lengthy paragraphs containing multiple speakers. This gets confusing—fast! Help your readers appreciate your brilliantly written dialogue by organizing the dialogue with line breaks (new lines), so we know who the fudge is talking: 

    “It’s sunny again!” Janine declared as she thundered down the stairs. “Where's the dog?"
    “He always escapes when there’s thunder out,” Dean called from the kitchen.
  “Better go check the backyard, then,” Sally mumbled from behind her book as she lay, reclining, on the couch.
    “ON IIIT!” Janine shouted as she pulled on her gumboots and fell sideways into the coats.
    Sally rolled her eyes as the door slammed behind her younger sister. "Can't we ever have a peaceful afternoon in this place?" she sighed, rubbing Dora's calico ear as the kitten purred atop her chest.
     The sound of the oven opening accompanied the scent of Dean's cinnamon rolls rolling in from the kitchen.
      Sally looked Dora in the eye. "I suppose it's not all bad," she smiled, and gave her a peck on the nose. Dora yawned in agreement and stretched her paws against the pages, claiming another inch in which to repose. 

***

Aaaaand there you have it. It’s that simple, peeps! Hopefully these helpful tips offer you some guidance in keeping your dialogue neat and tidy and totally understandable for your reader. 
 

SPINE

Writing about writing.


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Blog Team

  KATE JUNIPER   Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. Inspired, most often, to write about writing. She has a lot of opinions about it, you know.

KATE JUNIPER

Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. Inspired, most often, to write about writing. She has a lot of opinions about it, you know.

  HAYLEY EVANS   Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.

HAYLEY EVANS

Hayley is Copy Editor/ Editing Ninja for JEC. She is also an arts journalist for several online publications including Scene 360 and Illusion Magazine.

  GEORGIA RUDELOFF   Georgia is a published poet as well as Poetry Editor for  This Side of West,  Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for  The   Albatross , and Contributing Writer for  The Martlet  and  Saltern Magazine.

GEORGIA RUDELOFF

Georgia is a published poet as well as Poetry Editor for This Side of West, Modern and Contemporary Genre Editor for The Albatross, and Contributing Writer for The Martlet and Saltern Magazine.

  JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS   Jaime is a Research Curator at a university and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Content Writer and Communications Specialist.

JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS

Jaime is a Research Curator at a university and as such knows a thing or two re: communications. She is JEC's Content Writer and Communications Specialist.