Write Dialogue Right: 4 Rules for Easy Formatting
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.
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. (‘)
Quotes-within-quotes should be indicated using single quotation marks, like so:
“Then Sam said, ‘Take a hike.’”
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 are the “he said” / “she said” portion of a dialogue sentence. Here are the general rules for formatting dialogue tags:
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.”