Writing and formatting dialogue can be difficult for even the most experienced writer. 
 
The rules to formatting speech can often seem confusing and contradictory. 
 
In this article, you’ll discover the best practice for formatting dialogue. You’ll learn simple rules that will allow you to write dialogue like a pro and you’ll come away with an understanding that will allow you to write with freedom.

New speaker, new paragraph

This is a simple rule to apply and one that should not be broken under any circumstance.
 
The rule is that each new speaker should have their own paragraph. This means that, if John and Bill are in a conversation, each time a speaker changes to another character, you make a new paragraph. 
 
Take a look at this example below. We’ll be using this same example throughout the article, and you will see it evolve as each new rule is applied. 

As it stands, it is just a lump of unformatted text, all in one paragraph. At this stage, don’t worry about anything other than the “new speaker, new paragraph” rule. 
 
hi said John as he stretched out his hand hello joked Bill shaking John’s hand have you been here long John questioned no I’ve just arrived Bill said ok

This is not the most inspiring of exchanges, but it will help to demonstrate each rule as it is learned. 
 
The “new speaker, new paragraph” rule tells us that, each time John or Bill speaks, their dialogue should be in a separate paragraph. Let’s apply the rule. 
 
The example now reads …
 
hi said John as he stretched out his hand 
 
hello joked Bill shaking John’s hand 
 
have you been here long John questioned 
 
no I’ve just arrived Bill said
 
ok
 
This is still in a pretty raw state, but you can already see that it is starting to take some shape.
 

Adding quotation marks

Having separated the different speakers into new paragraphs, we now turn our attention to the spoken words. It is important that the reader is able to distinguish the words of the narrator (sometimes called narrative summary) from the words of the characters (dialogue). 
 
I am sure you get this, but let me drill this point home. 

When writing dialogue, it is essential that you see the words the characters speak (“Hi,” “Hello,” etc.) as separate from those of the narrator (said John as he stretched out his hand).
 
In fact, when teaching writing, one of the first topics I address is to get authors to see their novels as made up of both characters AND a narrator. If you are able to separate these in your mind, many of the advanced writing techniques (which are outside the scope of this article) are so much easier to grasp.
 
Anyway, back to the job in hand ...
 
Now we need to add quotation marks in our example. These are simple punctuation marks that are added at the start and end of words spoken by your characters. 
 
Before we apply the rule to our specific example, it is worth taking a moment to discuss the two types of quotation marks you’ll see used. 
 
These are single (‘) and double (“) quotation marks. 
 
Despite what you may read elsewhere, there is no “correct” quotation mark to use; both are OK, depending on the usage.
 
This all said, there is a rule of thumb. Most American authors tend to use double quotation marks as their default for dialogue, while British authors tend to use single quotation marks. However, you must pick one and stick with it. If you start with single for dialogue, then use single all throughout your book. If you start with double, then stick with that. I am sure you get the picture. Be consistent.
 
There is an occasion where you’d mix the two, but there’s no need to worry about that yet, and we’ll deal with this later.
 
Let’s apply this to our particular example (we are going to use double quotation marks for our US authors here). I am going to sandwich each phrase spoken by the characters in between a pair of quotation marks. Remember, characters and narrator are different people.
 
“hi” said John as he stretched out his hand 
 
“hello” joked Bill shaking John’s hand 
 
“have you been here long” John questioned 
 
“no I’ve just arrived” Bill said
 
“ok”
 
You’ll see here that we have added an opening quotation mark where the character starts speaking and then another when they stopped speaking (a closing quotation mark). If using curly quotation marks, as is the US standard, then you can easily tell the opening from the closing mark, whether a single quotation mark or a double.
 
Remember, only put quotation marks around words spoken by characters. Actions and description coming from the narrator should never be placed within quotation marks.

NOTE: Here is one exception that comes to mind. Sometimes added emphasis is put on a word of narration and either italics or quotation marks are used for that. Example:  She wasn’t sure when “later” would come. Alternate example: She wasn’t sure when later would come.
 

The fundamentals of punctuation

The most common problem we see with mispunctuated dialogue is when an author uses a comma or period incorrectly. This happens when an author treats the words spoken by a character and those spoken by the narrator as either (1) two different sentences, when they should be one sentence, or (2) as one sentence, when they should be two separate sentences.

 
Punctuation Marks

Let me give you an example:
 
“hi” said John as he stretched out his hand 

This sentence has two elements, the words of the character and the words of the narrator. 
 
HI - is spoken by the character. 
 
SAID JOHN AS HE STRETCHED OUT HIS HAND - is the narrator.
 
Most authors know this instinctively and would have no problem telling these apart, if you asked them to explain the structure of the sentence. The problem begins in knowing the rules on how they should be punctuated. 
 
So here, HI is spoken by the character and SAID JOHN AS HE STRETCHED OUT HIS HAND are the words of the narrator. 
 
You must NOT see these as two separate sentences, but as dialogue connected to narration by a dialogue tag (“said” or “asked” usually). 
 
These two elements are just one sentence connected by a dialogue tag:
 
Said/Asked Sentence = character’s words + narrator’s words
 
Now we can add some punctuation marks. We have established that this is a single sentence with a dialogue tag, and we know that most sentences end with a period. Therefore, we can add this period to our example. 
 
“hi” said John as he stretched out his hand.

The next problem is how we show the reader where the character’s words end and the narrator’s words begin. The quotation marks do a lot of the heavy lifting here, but this sentence does need further punctuation. 
 
The most common mistake we see in this situation is that the author will put a period between the character’s words and the narrator’s words. 
 
“hi.” said John as he stretched out his hand. [WRONG]

This is wrong. As we have established, this is a single sentence with a dialogue tag, and the moment you add a period, it then becomes two sentences. 
 
To drill this home, I'll say it again …
 
What we must NOT do is put a period between HI and SAID. This is not the end of the sentence. 
 
However, you are correct in thinking that we need some kind of mark to separate the spoken words from the narrative. The punctuation mark we use here is a comma. This way the words for the character and the narrator remain part of the same sentence when a dialogue tag is present. 
 
The comma is saying to the reader, “Oh, look. The character has spoken, but I still have something to add to this sentence, so keep reading.”
 
Our example now becomes:
 
“hi,” said John as he stretched out his hand. [CORRECT]

Another very, very common mistake I see is for the punctuation mark to be on the wrong side of the quotation marks. 
 
“hi,” said John as he stretched out his hand. [CORRECT]
 
“hi”, said John as he stretched out his hand. [WRONG]

As we have discussed, this example is just a single sentence that uses quotation marks and a comma with a dialogue tag to connect words spoken by the character and the narrator. 
 
OK, let’s go back to our schooling and apply another very basic rule. We know that all sentences must start with a capital letter. So, let’s add that to our example. 
 
We now get:
 
"Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand.
 
This sentence is now correctly formatted for our purposes here. 
 
We can apply these rules to the rest of the example. 

Applying our dialogue punctuation rules, this becomes:
 
"Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand.
 
"Hello," joked Bill shaking John’s hand.
 
"Have you been here long?" John questioned. [NOTE: Had this been a sentence, like the other paragraphs in this example, the comma would be appropriate. However, here we have a question, so a question mark is needed in place of the comma. All the other rules apply regardless.]
 
"No I’ve just arrived," Bill said.
 
"Ok."

Notice that we’ve:
 
  • Added capital letters to the start of each sentence.
  • Added a period to the end of each sentence. 
  • Added commas between the spoken words and the narration (or question marks, as needed). These are inside the closing quotation marks. 

If you look at the last sentence, you will see that it is a single word from a character but with no additional narration. This is still a single sentence, so the same rules apply. It starts with a capital letter and a period is added at the end. The period is before the closing quotation mark. 
 
In the last section, we looked at the fundamentals of dialogue punctuation. You learned the tools you need to correctly format basic dialogue. We will take this one step further and look at attribution (sometimes called “tagging” or “dialogue tags”). 
 

Attribution

Attribution is basically showing the reader which of your characters is speaking, an ID. If we look at the first line of our example, we see the following:
 
"Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand. 
 
Here the dialogue (in this case HI) is being attributed to John. In other words John is saying hi. It is that simple. This is attribution. 
 
In addition to showing the reader who is speaking, attribution also involves telling the reader how the words are spoken. The most common (and best) form of attribution is said
 
Let’s take this a little further. 
 
Here’s the second line in our example: 
 
"Hello," joked Bill shaking John’s hand. 
 
The dialogue (in this case HELLO) is correctly attributed to Bill, but, rather than using SAID, we’ve used JOKED. 
 
Attribution (he said, she said, etc.) seems easy to understand, but there are some hidden traps. Authors often become bored of using SAID and start to use other forms of attribution. This is what we have done on the second line of our example, where we use JOKED instead of SAID. 
 
This is actually a mistake, and many experienced authors would not consider it "best practice".
 
In fact, as a rule of thumb, you should avoid using anything other than SAID or ASKED if at all possible.
 
So, why is it so wrong to tag dialogue in this way?
 
The simplest answer is that it looks amateurish. It’s the kind of dialogue you see in a schoolkid’s textbook or from a two-bit creative writing class. If you use this type of attribution, you will be flagging yourself as a newbie author with little confidence in your ability to SHOW the speaker’s emotion. Instead, you will come across as a newbie author who needs to TELL the reader every little thing that’s happening. 
 
Not good. 
 
[Anyone notice I added a bit of show, don’t tell? No? … Good, I got away with it.]
 
There is a more complex reason …
 
When you write, “Bill  joked,” you are TELLING the author the way in which Bill is speaking. Telling is bad. It means that you, as an author, are giving the reader no room to maneuver. You are spoon-feeding the story to the reader. This pushes the reader on their back foot and leaves them no space to add their own interpretation to the story. Too much TELL and your reader will soon turn off. 
 
The alternative is to SHOW the reader how the speaker is talking. Rather than relying on attributions such as "joked" to TELL the reader, the author must use the context and texture of the scene to SHOW the story. The words and actions that have come before the dialogue will SHOW the reader Bill’s frame of mind and will allow the readers to adjust the dialogue within their mind’s eye.
 
This way you are trusting the reader to "lean into" the story and be part of the process. If you look again at the first line in our example ("Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand.), the way in which John says hi is defined by the context of the previous paragraphs. We don’t have these earlier paragraphs in this example, but, if this were a section of a novel, we would. For example, if John is meeting Bill in a noisy train station, then the hi might be spoken loudly. However, rather than writing "he said loudly," you allow the reader to make this decision. The reader is then forced to be part of the process and is sucked into your writing in a way that TELLING can never achieve. 
 
This process is actually the secret source to great writing and is something that can take years to master. I actually wrote a free ebook on this very topic, if you wish to learn more.
 
So … what’s the best practice when adding attribution to dialogue?
 
The answer is use SAID (or ASKED, as appropriate).
 
Said is actually a magic word. 

Readers are so used to seeing it that they start to ignore the word and "said" almost becomes a punctuation mark in its own right. This means that your dialogue starts to flow, and the reader will move quickly from speaker to speaker, adding in their own context and details as they go. When this flow starts to happen, the reader is fully captured by your writing. 
 
OK … this is heavy stuff and difficult to apply, but, when you get it right, it will lift your writing to a new level. 
 
Yet it is not all unicorns and rainbows; there is a side effect to this approach. You can get a lot of SAID ping-pong. 
 
Take this example:
 
"Hi," John said.
 
"Hi," Peter said.
 
"How are you doing?" John asked.
 
"Good," Peter said. "You?"
 
"Good. Thanks for asking," John said.

As you see, we have lots of "John said" and "Peter said" repetitions. 

The reader is forced to jump from SAID to SAID. This quickly becomes overwhelming (and a bit boring) for the reader. 
 
There’s actually a very simple solution. 
 
Just don’t add an attribution each time! 
 
When SAID is too repetitious, just don’t use anything, after you have identified each speaker at the beginning of the dialogue exchange. 
 
Readers aren’t stupid. As an author you must trust in your ability to paint a picture and the reader’s ability to fill in the blanks. If there are just two people speaking in a scene, the reader does not need to be told time and again who is speaking. This means you can just ignore the attribution, once you initially ID (“tag”) each of the two speakers.
 
Here’s the example from above, written with a bit of common sense:
 
"Hi," John said.
 
"Hi," Peter said.
 
"How you doing?"
 
"Good. You?"
 
"Good. Thanks for asking."
 
This is not rocket science but will require you to think about dialogue slightly differently to apply this rule on a consistent basis. 
 

Beats

In the last section, we looked at the role of attribution and how you must rely on the words before and surrounding the dialogue to give context to the spoken words. In this section, we look at this in more detail and examine a method you can use to control the context of your dialogue. 
 
We learned that, if we tell the reader how a character is speaking (he joked or she said loudly), then we are not giving the reader a chance to be part of the story. Instead, we are spoon-feeding the story to them and pushing them on their back foot. 
 
If we remove this telling and create a "space" between the reader and the character, then the reader will lean into the story and add their own meaning. 
 
Let me dwell on this a second. The concept of "space" is a term I use to describe the situation in which the author allows the reader to add their own context to the story. If we are not telling the reader how the words are spoken but are instead just showing them the situation, the "space" is the gap that the reader must fill. 
 
Anyway, onward ...
 
In the last section we looked at attribution, but, in each of the examples we used, the attribution was added at the end of the dialogue. 
 
For example:
 
"Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand.
 
Notice that the attribution (said John) is after the spoken words. However, though this is the most common way of presenting attribution, it is not the only solution.
 
It is possible (and sometimes desirable) to break up the dialogue by adding the attribution in the middle of the spoken words.
 
See this example:
 
"Hi. I’m taking the dog for a walk," said John, "then I’ll buy some milk."
 
One thing to remember is that you must keep the punctuation consistent. One of the most common elements which trips up authors is which punctuation mark to use after the attribution. The answer to this is that it depends on the dialogue pattern. 
 
If you are splitting a sentence, then it should be with a comma. However, if you are at the end of a sentence and before the start of another sentence, then use a period. 
 
Another way to think about this is to ask yourself the question: is this one or two sentences? If one, then use a comma; if two, then go for the period.
 
Here’s an example for splitting a sentence. Let’s say we have this line of dialogue:
 
"I wanted to get a bus, but the wait was too long, so I walked home instead."
 
I am going to add in the attribution after the "too long". The sentence remains intact, so we use a comma. Also notice that “so” has no capital letter. Why would it be capitalized here in this sentence’s construction? It is not a new sentence. 
 
"I wanted to get a bus, but the wait was too long," said John, "so I walked home instead."
 
Here’s an example that is two different sentences. 
 
"I really like cats. Some people like dogs, but I think they bark too much."
 
I am adding the attribution after "cats". Notice here that we now use a period after "said John" and that "Some" remains spelled with an initial capital letter. Also notice that we replace the period after "cats" with a comma, as it ties in with the attribution.
 
"I really like cats," said John. "Some people like dogs, but I think they bark too much."
 

Why use beats?

So far we have looked at the nitty-gritty of punctuating sentences with an attribution that splits up the sentence(s), but we have not addressed the question as to why, and when, doing this is a good idea. 
 
You would use this technique for a number of reasons. This includes controlling the pace of the story, adding description and fleshing out your characters. However, in this case, there are two reasons that are important. 
 
The first is to just add some variety in the flow of your dialogue. If you have a long section of dialogue, then you may want to break up the sentence structure a little and do something different for the reader. This also combats any potential SAID ping-pong (as discussed in the previous section).
 
The second reason is to add a “beat.” This is a short section of description in the middle of the dialogue. Beats are a very powerful way to add context to your spoken words. 
 
Beats are a very masterful tool. Below is an example of a beat in action. Remember, in this situation, the beat has a very specific job: to add new context to a scene. 
 
“I don’t see any other birthday girls, do you?” John looked around in an exaggerated motion, before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek. “You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”
 
Now here’s the same example without the beat:
 
“I don’t see any other birthday girls, do you? You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”
 
The beat is the section of description within dialogue. In the example above, the beat is how John looks around and kisses his sister.
 
A beat is nothing more complex than that, just a bit of description you add in between dialogue. 
 
When using beats, you give a small bit of information, which you use to bring life to your character’s words. Remember, we are adding context. Since you are not going to be adding in all those nasty adverbs, you must give the reader the context they need to fill in the gaps. With beats, you are giving the reader clues about your characters, so the readers can add their own meaning to your character’s words. 
 
Look at the new example below: 
 
John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the parking lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John.
 
The driver rolled down his window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.
 
"You order a taxi?" His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.
 
"No," John said, shuffling back from the car.
 
The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. "You sure, mate?"
 
"Yeah," John said. "I am sure."
 
"Ah …" the driver said. "Do you want a lift anyway?"
 
"Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?" There was a pause. "It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment."
 
"OK," the driver said and pulled from the lot.
 
John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the plate number.
 
In this example, the beats have been used to add in some context for the reader; they are also adding clues for the reader about the character’s thoughts and feelings. 
 
Here’s the same example, with the beats highlighted and explained:
 
John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the parking lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John. [This is description delivered via narrative summary. Strictly speaking, the "promised rain" is TELL (I should have described the clouds), but it works in this context.]

The driver rolled down his window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. [BEAT: This is a description prior to dialogue. The dark skin SHOWING the reader the driver is not white. I could have said “the Asian driver,” but that’s TELLING.]
 
"You order a taxi?" His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.
 
"No," John said, shuffling back from the car. [BEAT: I’ve decided that John distrusts Asian people. I am not sure why he’s a racist, but that doesn’t matter here, since it is not essential to the plot. Therefore, his internal voice says he mistrusts Asian people, and this is reflected in his actions. I am SHOWING the reader he is racist via his actions.]

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. [BEAT: This is really a section of narrative summary, but, since it dissects dialogue, it is, technically, a beat.] "You sure, mate?"
 
"Yeah," John said. "I am sure."
 
"Ah …" the driver said. "Do you want a lift anyway?"
 
"Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?" There was a pause.  [BEAT: Slows the pace. Also suggests John is considering his next action. It is up to the reader to decide what John is thinking.] "It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment."

"OK," the driver said and pulled from the lot.

John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the plate number. [BEAT: John watches the car and makes a note. This is his backstory at work, his prejudice forcing John to think the worst of the Asian driver.]
 
I would also ask you to consider the fact that only "said" has been used for attributions here. There’s no need for adverbs. 
 
The final thing to say about beats is for them not to be overused. Long sections of dialogue are good. You do want to create a rhythm and allow the reader to become comfortable with your writing style. Yet a balance is needed. Too many beats and the dialogue drags; not enough and it whips by. Ultimately it is your choice.
 

Direct dialogue and reported dialogue

It is common for authors to be slightly confused by the concept of direct and reported dialogue and how each should be punctuated. 
 
Direct dialogue is the easiest to understand. These are any original words a character says. In all the examples you have seen, we have only used direct dialogue.  
 
For example: "Hi," John said - direct dialogue.
 
Reported dialogue is when a character is saying something that another character has already said. Before you look at an example, we need to consider the punctuation of reported dialogue.
 
As we have said in a previous section, dialogue uses either single or double quotation marks, depending on whether you choose to use British grammar rules or American, respectively. What is important to remember is that, when formatting reported dialogue within direct dialogue, you use the opposite of that which you use for direct dialogue. 
 
So … if you are using single quotation marks for direct dialogue (per British grammar rules), then use double quotes for reported dialogue. Thus, for US authors using American grammar rules, then your default is double quotation marks around direct dialogue, with single quotation marks for reported dialogue.
 
Here’s the US example …
 
"I was talking to Sarah, and she was going on about her dog. ‘She is really fluffy,’ she said time and again. God, I hate that ‘fluffy’ dog," said John. 
 
You’ll notice here that not only is John a bit of a dick but he reported what Sarah said. SHE IS REALLY FLUFFY was spoken originally by Sarah and only reported by John. As was the second use of FLUFFY. 
 

Dialogue in paragraphs

There will be times, when writing your novel, that you want a character to give a long uninterrupted dialogue. However, you will probably not be comfortable putting all those words into one long paragraph. 
 
The way to deal with this situation is to split the single-speaker’s dialogue into separate paragraphs. However, in order to indicate to the reader that the SAME speaker is still talking, you need to leave out the closing quotation mark at the end of the trailing paragraphs, until the final paragraph of THIS speaker’s dialogue. 
 
The example below (taken from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) should make it clear:
 
"I have a dream that—one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification—one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
 
"I have a dream today.
 
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
 
Notice that each paragraph of dialogue starts with an opening quotation mark, but only the last paragraph has a closing quotation mark at the end.
 

About attribution before dialogue

Strictly speaking this should have been in the attribution section, but this is more of a suggestion than a rule. In recent years it has been considered bad practice to start a section of dialogue with the attribution. 
 
See the example below:
 
John said, "I am happy to go to Sarah’s house but don’t expect me to touch her stupid dog."
 
In an ideal world the attribution should be at the end or perhaps after “house.”
 
The reason I’ve left this suggestion out of the attribution section is that there’s no logical reason why you can’t start a sentence with an attribution. Personally I feel it is a little clumsy but hardly a crime. This said, the trend in editing is to move away from starting dialogue with the attribution, which is now considered a sign of amateur authors.
 

He said versus said he

While on the topic of trends in writing, I think something should be said about the order of the attribution. 
 
Many editors (and readers) consider the old "said John" approach as a sign of amateur writing. This is considered by many in the know to be old-fashioned and outdated. 
 
For example, this would be considered wrong:
 
"Hi," said John. 
 
The correct version would be:
 
"Hi," John said.
 
Again this is one of those suggestions rather than rules. However, I’d consider it to be a best writing practice. The thinking behind it is that you would say "he said" but not "said he."