Formatting dialogue correctly can trip up even the most talented writer. From the outside, it can appear that formatting dialogue is a black box of contradictory rules. In this article, I want to dispel this myth and detail a set of easy-to-use guidelines that will allow you to grasp the basic building blocks of dialogue formatting.
The best way to explain the rules of formatting dialogue is to use an example.
In this article, we will follow the steps that are required to format the following section of dialogue:
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob no said Bill I have no idea where your cat is if you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Formatting Dialogue: New speaker, new line
This is an easy rule to apply. Each time a new speaker speaks, you place the line of dialogue on a new line. This line should also be indented.
We can see how this applies to our example:
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob
No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is
If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad
Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern
Formatting Dialogue: Adding speech marks
Our next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks. These can be either single (‘) or double (“), it’s your choice. However, keep in mind that if you use, say single (‘), you need to be using the opposite, in this case, double (“) when you are reporting speech inside speech.
‘Hi have you seen my cat’ said Bob
‘No’ said Bill ‘I have no idea where your cat is’
‘If you see my cat will you let me know’ questioned Bob looking sad
‘Of course’ replied Bill with a tone of concern
Formatting Dialogue: Punctuation
When writing dialogue you will often use ‘tags’. These verbs link the spoken words with the remainder of the sentence. Commonly used tags includes said, asked, replied and many more. Without going into the technical detail, to punctuate spoken words and tags you must link them using a comma. If you use a full stop the sentences are broken and it no longer makes sense.
If we look at the second line of our example we see:
‘No’ said Bill
This is a single sentence and therefore must end with a full stop, giving us:
‘No’ said Bill.
The tag in this sentence is ‘said’ and this must be connected to the speech. If you added a full stop at the end of the spoken words, it would separate the tag and become incorrect:
‘No.’ Said Bill. [WRONG]
Instead, we must link the spoken word and the tag with a comma, which gives us:
‘No,’ said Bill. [CORRECT]
If we apply this to the full example, we get:
‘Hi, have you seen my cat?’ said Bob.
‘No,’ said Bill. ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’
‘If you see my cat will you let me know?’ questioned Bob, looking sad.
‘Of course,’ replied Bill, with a tone of concern.
Please note that in the first and third lines we have used a ? instead of a , since it is a question.
What To Do Now…
This chapter has highlighted just the very basics of dialogue formatting. However, the aim is to give you just enough information to get it right most of the time. As with all writing rules, there is some give and take in the system and sometimes the way you present speech in complex situations becomes a judgment call.
Need help writing your book proposal?
Discover our bespoke book proposal service.
We'll help write your query letter and synopsis.
Get your extract professionally edited.
Find out more