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.