A Writer's Guide to Dialogue & Dialogue Tag Formatting


The art of dialogue is critical to writing—dialogue appears in fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry! Therefore, it's important for writers of all types to understand the rules guiding dialogue and dialogue formatting. But interestingly, this critical skill is also one that many beginning writers neglect.


Because my undergrad is in creative writing, I have taken a lot of writing classes. Notably, in every writing class I took, without fail about half the class was very uncomfortable with writing dialogue. In fact, many people avoided writing it altogether. My classmates' rationales ranged from "I just don't know how to write good dialogue" to "I don't know what my character would say" to "I don't understand dialogue formatting."


The drawback of avoiding dialogue in writing is that dialogue is an INCREDIBLE tool for plot, characterization, and conflict, all of which are all vital parts of writing fiction. While of course not all communication is verbal, speech is a daily aspect of communication for most people. Just as each person's writing voice and way of thinking is unique, each individual's speech is unique—and one of the most fun parts of writing is really honing in on what your characters say and don't say.


Avoiding dialogue and neglecting to develop the ear and eye for it is a serious disservice to your writing!

Dialogue Formatting Rules


It is important to follow standard dialogue formatting when writing, because it makes it easy for the reader to understand exactly who is speaking. Here are 6 general rules to follow when formatting your dialogue:


1. Always use quotation marks around speech.

  • In Canada and the USA, we most commonly use double quotation marks to denote speech, but in Britain, using single quotation marks is also common.

  • example: "I am so tired today," said Alice.

2. For each new speaker, dialogue starts on a new, indented line.

  • A new line must be used for each character's speech to avoid confusion about who is speaking.

  • example: Alice walked to her desk slowly, her eyes half closed. "I am so tired today," she said as she sat down beside Jackson. "Mr. Daniels will be so mad if you fall asleep in class again," he replied.

3. Use dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking.

  • Dialogue tags are separated from speech by punctuation, such as a comma, period, exclamation mark, or question mark.

  • "she said" is an example of a dialogue tag.

  • See dialogue tag formatting below.

4. Actions that occur near the speech are separate sentences, separated from the dialogue by a period.

  • example: Alice yawned. "I am so tired today," she said.

5. An em dash means there's been an interruption in speech.

  • example: "Gosh, I am just so tire—" Alice yawned.

6. Ellipses don't require additional punctuation.

  • example: Alice yawned. "I am so tired today..." her voice drifted off.


Notice many of these dialogue rules at play in the dialogue example below:

Dialogue Example


This dialogue is taken from Neil Gaiman's wonderful book, Stardust.


Context: This is a conversation between the star, and a dark-haired woman (who is the servant of a witch that turns people into animals). This is the second time the star and Tristran have encountered this dark-haired woman in the story, and she is reflecting on the progress they have made in their journey. The last time they encountered the woman and the witch, the witch turned Tristran into a doormouse, and the dark-haired woman was stuck as a bird.

There was a rustle in the grass behind her. A dark haired woman stood next to her, and together they stared down at Tristran.

"There is something of the doormouse in him still," said the dark-haired woman. Her ears were pointed and catlike, and she looked little older than Tristran himself. "Sometimes I wonder if she transforms people into animals, or whether she finds the beast inside us, and frees it. Perhaps there is something about me that is, by nature, a brightly colored bird. It is something to which I have given much thought, but about which I have come to no conclusions."


Tristran muttered something unintelligible and stirred in his sleep. Then he began, gently, to snore.


The woman walked around Tristran and sat down beside him. "He seems good natured," she said.


"Yes," admitted the star. "I suppose that he is."


"I should warn you," said the woman, "that if you leave these lands for ... over there ..." and she gestured toward the village of Wall with one slim arm, from the wrist of which a silver chain glittered, "... then you will be, as I understand it, transformed into what you would be in that world: a cold, dead thing, sky-fallen."


The star shivered, but she said nothing. Instead, she reached across Tristran's sleeping form to touch the silver chain which circled the woman's wrist and ankle and led off into the bushes and beyond.


"You become used to it, in time," said the woman.


"Do you? Really?"


Violet eyes stared into blue eyes, and then looked away. "No."

The star let go of the chain. "He once caught me with a chain much like yours. Then he freed me, and I ran from him. But he found me and bound me with an obligation which binds my kind more securely than any chain ever could."


Notice what this dialogue does for the story!


Character


This dialogue reveals character. The dark-haired woman, (spoiler) who you will later discover is Tristran's mother, has been captured by the witch just as the star has been captured by Tristran. Their dialogue also provides insight into the dark-haired woman's character—we learn that she is an introspective person who cares to consider her own nature. Further, this dialogue reveals that the animals the witch transforms people into probably says something about their personalities! Thus, we learn that Tristran is a bit of a doormouse, not just because of his time spent as a literal doormouse, but because of his personality.


We also learn that Tristran is the kind of person who can bind a star, a woman, and keep her captive. Interestingly, at the same time, he is a doormouse. Additionally, despite him capturing the star, he can have two woman with experience being captured say that he appears good-natured. This dialogue is extremely dynamic and reveals a lot about the characters.


Conflict


The dark-haired woman, native to the land of Faerie, knows that once the star leaves the magical land of Faerie for Wall she will cease to be a living, breathing, woman. Instead, she will become cold, dead, stardust. This is a huge point of tension in the novelif she helps Tristran, she will die. Because of her blossoming feelings for Tristran, she is torn between what to dohelp him, or live. Tristran, not being from Faerie, has no idea that bringing the star with him past the wall will result in her death.


Setting

We learn about the ways of Faerie through this conversation. We learn about the unique culture of stars, and what binds them. We also learn that witches in Faerie can transform people into animals. Further, we learn that magic done in Faerie doesn't hold up once creatures pass the threshold into Wall. We also learn that the power dynamics in Faerie are quite prevalent, with magical creatures frequently forcing other beings into servitude.

Dialogue Tag Formatting Rules


What are dialogue tags? Dialogue tags are the part of writing dialogue that comes directly after the spoken words, which are indicated by what is enclosed in the quotation marks. They indicate who is speaking.


Dialogue tags also enhance the style and tone of writing—and they keep it interesting for the reader. Using the same dialogue tag structure all the time makes writing feel robotic. Vary up your dialogue tag use for lively writing!


There are many ways to use dialogue tags, but there are three very common ways tags are used in dialogue, all of which appear in the dialogue example from Stardust.

1. The dialogue tag following the conclusion of speech.


  • example: The woman walked around Tristran and sat down beside him. "He seems good natured," she said.

  • In this example, the dialogue tag follows the speech, separated by a comma.

  • Note that the attribution (she) is lower case in dialogue, and that the comma is placed BEFORE the end quotation mark.

  • This type of tag can also be written immediately before the speech. If done that way, it would look like this:

  • The woman walked around Tristran and sat down beside him. She said, "He seems good natured."

  • What changed? The comma comes after the dialogue tag, "she said," to separate it from the dialogue.

  • Notice that the dialogue still must start with an uppercase letter.

Quick Reference


Comma

Right: "He seems good natured," she said.

Wrong: "He seems good natured," She said.


Question Mark

Right: "Is he good natured?" she asked.

Wrong: "Is he good natured?" She asked.


Exclamation Mark

Right: "He’s good natured!" she said.

Wrong: "He’s good natured!" She said.

Dialogue tag with an action

Right: "He’s good natured." She looked away.

Wrong: "He’s good natured." she looked away.

2. The dialogue tag as a punctuated pause between speech.


  • example: "Yes," admitted the star. "I suppose that he is."

  • In this example, the dialogue tag, "admitted the star," ends with a period to indicate a distinct pause before the star continues on to finish her speech.

  • The dialogue tag after the first part of speech begins with a lowercase letter.

  • The second part of dialogue is uppercase.

3. The dialogue tag inserted into the middle of a sentence.


  • example: "I should warn you," said the woman, "that if you leave these lands for ... over there ...".

  • This type of dialogue tag is used to add a beat to the dialogue but to indicate less of a pause than a period would indicate.

  • This dialogue tag is separated by commas between the speech.

  • The first letter of the dialogue that follows the dialogue tag is lowercase.

A Mistake to Avoid


Something I see all the time is writers using verbs as dialogue tags that aren't really dialogue tags but actions that should be in a separate sentence.


Some of the words I see commonly used as dialogue tags in place of said that should actually be in their own sentence are:

  • laughed

  • chuckled

  • grinned

  • smiled

  • snorted

So in keeping with our example, if I wanted to write that the star laughed during speech here is the correct way:


Right: "That's funny." The star laughed.

Wrong: "That's funny," the star laughed.

A tip to take dialogue up a notch!


Great dialogue doesn't need that many dialogue tags to make it clear who is speaking. Let's look back at this example from Stardust:


"You become used to it, in time," said the woman.

"Do you? Really?"

Violet eyes stared into blue eyes, and then looked away. "No."


Though there is no dialogue tag attached to the speech "Do you? Really?" we know that it is the star who is asking because the speech is separated from the dark-haired woman's speech by line. This helps keep the pace of the dialogue smoothtoo many dialogue tags can make a conversation feel like it goes on forever. So once you are comfortable using dialogue tags, experiment and take some out! This technique can elevate your dialogue and also help you control the pace of dialogue .

Here are a couple other great websites to check out for more reading about dialogue and dialogue tags:


From the website, Book Cave: https://mybookcave.com/authorpost/punctuating-dialogue-tags/

From the website, First Manuscript: https://firstmanuscript.com/format-dialogue/

Reference


Gaiman, Neil. Stardust, Harper Collins, 2007, pp. 288-290.


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