How To Format Dialogue (with Examples)

by Dax MacGregor
New writers often struggle to properly format dialogue. The rules are strict and different than prose, but easily mastered. Here is what you need to know.

New writers often struggle to properly format dialogue. The rules are strict and different than prose, but easily mastered. Whether you are writing a short story, full novel or anything in between, the way you format dialogue is the same.

The examples below demonstrate how to properly format dialogue in various situations.

However, writing dialogue in the proper format and composing effective dialogue are two different things. Be sure to check out my tips and examples on how to write engaging dialogue.

Rules to Format Dialogue

1. Enclose the spoken words with double quotation marks.

“I love it when that happens.”

Note: The British use single quotation marks.

2. Dialogue tags (the he asked/she said portions) stay outside the quotes and get separated by a comma.

Sam said, “I’ll never do that again.”

“Don’t be a sissy,” said Bill. “Let’s get back in line and ride this beast again.”

Note: When dialogue ends in a question or exclamation mark, tags that follow start in lower case.

“What’s new?” she asked.

3. Actions that occur before or after the dialogue go in a separate sentence. For example, If Cindi screamed and then spoke, you write it this way:

Cindi screamed. “Oh my God!”

On the other hand, if Cindi screamed out the words, use a comma instead of a period (so that it’s all part of the same sentence).

Cindi screamed, “Oh my God!”

4. Punctuation goes inside the quotes.

Mary covered her mouth. “Oh no!” She looked like she had seen a vampire. “Did you see that?”

Note: If the dialogue ends with an ellipsis, do not add a comma or any other punctuation.

She stared at the dark horizon. “I guess you’ll go back to running your company and I will…” her voice drifted off.

5. If you have to quote something within the dialogue, use single quotation marks. (Brits reverse the use of double and single quotes.)

Bill laughed and pointed at him. “When that ghost jumped out and said, ‘Boo!’ you screamed like a little girl.”

6. Start a new paragraph every time you change speakers.

If the speaker performs actions linked to the dialogue, keep everything in the same paragraph.

Why? Readers easily lose track of which character is speaking. A new paragraph helps readers by signaling a change.

“Did he hit you?” Deanna asked, looking at the cut and bruises on Laura’s face.

“No. I hurt myself.” Her brain scrambled to invent a story. “I, umm, fell.”

“That bastard!”

“No. You don’t understand. It was my fault.”

Deanna pointed her finger at Laura. “Battered women always say that.” She shook her head. “Please come with me. I don’t think you should be here when he comes back.”

7. If an action interrupts a sentence in the dialogue, use lower case on the first letter of the second fragment.

“I know,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “what you said.”

8. If the same speaker talks long enough to require a new paragraph, place opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph.

However, closing quotation marks are placed only at the end of the final paragraph.

Tom explained the details. “The thread is a remarkable silk-wool blend, a new fabric named Allurotique. Some people compare it to the most expensive commercially available silk, Pashmina Silk; but that comparison is off base. Pashmina silk is made by weaving wool from pashmina goats with a silk produced by worms that eat only mulberry leaves.

“Allurotique is blended, not woven. And it’s made from the most expensive silk and a exotic wool spun into a fabric with extraordinary qualities.

“The silk in Allurotique is muga silk, which has a natural shimmering gold color. It absorbs water better than other silks, making it more comfortable to wear. It’s has a number of other nifty features: it’s more durable than other silks, it’s almost impossible to stain and it gets shinier with wear.

“The wool in Allurotique is harvested from vicuñas, a South American animal related to llamas. Vicuña wool is softer, lighter and warmer than any other wool in the world. Since the animals can only be sheared once every three years, it’s rare and outlandishly expensive.”

Summary

Follow these examples and you will soon format dialogue like a pro. Be sure to bookmark this page so you can find it fast.

If you have questions, corrections or things that I’ve overlooked, please tell me in the comments below.

Comments

43 Comments

  1. Frederick

    This is very useful, Dax! Thank you for sharing this!

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Frederick, Thanks for taking time to comment and also for the kind words.

      Reply
  2. Kara

    This really helped me!

    Reply
  3. austen1022

    This is great. Thank you! One more question in addition to this. What about if dialogue from a single character covers two paragraphs. Do you close quote and reopen with the new paragraph, or do you leave the quotes open at the end of paragraph one and start paragraph two with no quotes, and then closed quotes at the end once the character finishes speaking?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      If your prose contains a monologue where a paragraph change is required, then you would insert closing quotation marks at the end of the paragraph and open the new paragraph with new quotation marks.

      But be careful. Normally a new paragraph indicates a change of speakers. You’ll need to make it clear to your readers that the same person is continuing to speak. I often insert gestures to accomplish this. Here’s an example:

       

      “After Suzi, I didn’t think there would ever be another woman in my life. But by the time Krystal and I escaped from the wilderness, we had bonded. Well, I thought it was mutual, but then she left. I felt crushed when I woke up and discovered she had abandoned me.”

       

      He tried to blink away the moisture pooling in his eyes. “So now, events have brought us back together. But I wonder, when this is all over, will she walk out of my life a second time? I’m praying that she doesn’t.”

      Reply
  4. Anna Wiclie

    I have a question, something I’m having a bit of trouble finding answers to, say I have a few sentences or a paragraph before a string of dialogue– do I drop down a new line for dialogue? For example,

    Amelia lifted her hand to the gem and I wrapped my fingers around her wrist; the code may have been a deadly trap. Our eyes locked, and Jade cleared his throat and said through his teeth,
    “If this is wrong, we could all be dissolved by the power backlash.”

    Reply
  5. Dax MacGregor

    Anna,

    In your example, the dialogue is part of the previous sentence and therefore belongs in the same paragraph.

    Reply
  6. Anna Wiclie

    Thank you!

    Reply
  7. bill

    I have began writing fiction in novel format the last two months, the past five years I have written script format, and could not figure out the proper way to keep it readable; this page explains it all; now i get it!

    Back to my novel

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Bill, Thank you for the positive feedback.

      Reply
  8. Claire Nevins

    “Thanks, Dax!” she said, as she finished her corrections and started back to work. “You’ve been a lifesaver!”

    Reply
  9. Leo

    Hi Dax.

    Are those official formatting rules? You got it from some manual?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Leo,

      I couldn’t find an official manual with rules. Through experience and discussion with experts, I assembled and published these.

      And the rules keep changing. I have updated these several times over the years.

      Reply
  10. Leo

    Thanks Dax.

    I had some complaining froms readers about dialogue formatting in my book, so I’m going to edit it correctly now, based on this post.

    Reply
  11. Anna

    I have a problem with this one: ‘I know,’ he lowered his voice to a whisper,’ what you said.’ Shouldn’t it be ‘I know’–he lowered his voice to a whisper–‘what you said.’? Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to separate parts of the sentence with commas and when with dashes. I know that ‘whisper’, like ‘said’ or ‘ask’, would require commas but in the above sentence we’re talking about a different action. Could you give examples of words that should not be followed by commas and should be followed by em dashes instead? For example, how to treat the word ‘hear’? Which is correct?
    ‘But she’s only fifteen,’ she heard mom say to dad,’and he’s twenty years older.’
    Or: ‘But she’s only fifteen’–she heard mom say to dad–‘and he’s twenty years older.’
    It does seem like the first one is a better choice but not an obvious one. After all, ‘hear’ is different from all the variations (synonyms) of ‘say’. After all, we would use dashes in this one: ‘If you says so’–he saw her eyes light up when he agreed with her–‘but I’m not giving up yet.’ Or wouldn’t we?

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Anna,

      Sorry for the delayed response, I took an extended vacation out of the country and completely off the grid.

      Em dashes can replace commas, parentheses or colons. The use of em dashes is a style choice. Some writers love them and others abhor them. My advice? Use them whenever it seems right to you. However, since they interrupt the flow, use them judiciously.

      Whether to leave spaces before and after em dashes is also a matter of differing opinions. Most experts and style guides recommend no spaces before or after. However, the AP Style Guide (used by newspapers) specifies a space before and after. Since the advice given here relates to manuscripts, my recommendation is no spaces.

      Reply
  12. Haley B

    This was just what I needed to read! Thank you for taking the time to share and educate!

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Haley,

      Thanks for the positive feedback.

      Reply
  13. Author Luke West

    A great piece to read, thanks for the share!
    Quick question. You mentioned that the first line of dialogue should be indented, so the second line doesn’t require it? Sorry if this is a sill question. I don’t usually format but I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Luke,

      Sorry for the lack of clarity.

      What I’m trying to say is that, in a manuscript, the first line of every paragraph is indented and dialogue is no exception to that rule.

      Reply
  14. Jordon

    How would I format this?

    Branches are fingers of the dead? Wow, I’m definitely stealing that one. Why are you still up?”

    Clark grinned, leaning over the paper, his arms easing around Amari’s waist. Clark’s unruly natural hair nuzzled the nape of Amari’s neck, making him shiver.

    Amari reached back and wrapped his arms behind Clark.

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      “Branches are fingers of the dead? Wow, I’m definitely stealing that one. Why are you still up?”

      Clark grinned, leaning over the paper, his arms easing around Amari’s waist. Clark’s unruly natural hair nuzzled the nape of Amari’s neck, making him shiver.

      Amari reached back and wrapped his arms behind Clark.

      Reply
      • Dax MacGregor

        In my response, I assume that Amari is speaking. If Clark is speaking, then the first two paragraphs could be combined.

        Reply
  15. Jordan

    Thanks for writing this. It has really helped me several times now. A quick question though. How should I format this in terms of dialogue?

    The transmitter is still active and is showing a message of an indistinct figure saying, “Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” I walk towards it, stepping over the cables and bits of machines strewn over the floor while I wonder what could have happened.

    I’m not sure where to put new lines around the speaking, if any. Much appreciated!

    Reply
  16. Jason Bassford (@jason_bassford)

    “8. If the same speaker talks long enough to require a new paragraph, place quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph and also at the opening of the new paragraph.”

    Actually, this one does have a conventional rule, and it’s not what you claim. If dialogue continues to another paragraph, you do NOT use a closing quote at the end the first paragraph. (Your introductory description aside.) Instead, you only use a closing quote at the end of the final paragraph. However, each new paragraph does have an opening quote. The reason for not using a closing quote with preceding paragraphs is to indicate that it’s the same person who’s continuing to speak. This may look odd, but it avoids any confusion over the speaker. (Using a quote at the end of a previous paragraph, and then introducing a new paragraph with descriptive text, is fine. But with very long dialogue and multiple paragraphs, it could look even odder – and disrupt the flow.)

    Reply
    • Deb Wain

      Well done, Jason. I was just going to add this comment.

      Dax, there’s also a typo in your example for point 5. There’s an extra open quotation mark at the beginning of the example which shouldn’t be there.

      Reply
      • Dax MacGregor

        Deb,

        A typo has been there all this time? Yikes!

        Thanks for taking the time to point it out. It’s been corrected.

        Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Jason,

      The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Style Guide both agree and confirm that you are correct and I was mistaken. I have corrected Item 8 and provided a better example.

      Thank you for catching my error.

      Reply
  17. smallfryinbigpond

    Hi Dax, I’d like to apologize beforehand if my question has already been asked previously. The thread is long and I can’t go through all of them.

    My question is, can you combine dialogues between two characters in a one paragraph?

    Here’s a sample:

    “What’s her story doc?” The younger of the two men broke the silence that ensued. The man called Doc leaned back and replied, “Charlie Staxx is her handler and manager. Most of her training comes from illegal underground fight clubs. That girl has skills as you can see in the video. Too bad that shark Charlie only wants to make a quick buck out of her. That was her first fight and she hardly made it as bantamweight. They pitted her against a super heavy weight and yet she won. She has raw talent but plays dirty too. She will need a lot of shake-up if she ever decides to become legit.”

    Reply
  18. Joe

    Hi. Someone is speaking. The person listening (the scene is from the listener’s POV) zones out and we hear his/her thoughts. We then pick up the speaker’s dialogue again. What’s the proper way to end the initial dialogue text and then resume? Many thanks.

    Reply
  19. Romel Escobar

    Not sure if you mentioned it, but what if a character is speaking and the next line, no character is speaking. Would you have to indent it or leave it as is.

    Reply
  20. Katie

    What if a character is speaking, and after they say something the other character does something, like nods their head, and then the first character continues talking?

    Reply
  21. Indira

    I don’t know how to format this:

    Chad woke up, disoriented.
    He heard two women arguing.
    “Ladies let’s not fight, I love you both,” he slurred.
    “He’s delirious, I’m his girlfriend!”
    “Please, he loves ME!”
    They don’t know about Joanna?
    “What!?”
    Whoops
    “He doesn’t deserve us, let’s go!”
    “Yeah, but first I have some business.”
    SLAP
    The blackness clouded Chads vision.
    “You crazy…..”

    Reply
  22. Clint Smith

    Excellent summation, thanks for posting it! Makes me more comfortable that I’ve been doing it right all along 🙂

    Reply
  23. Brandon Bland

    This is so saddening and enlightening. I’ve written 100 pages into my fantasy novel and I’ve been scouring the internet looking for rule 6. I wasn’t sure how to format dialogue. I just went about my way knowing something was amiss but not knowing completely how to fix it. Thank you so much this article probably just saved me and what ever poor person who has to edit my work a ton of money and time.

    Reply
  24. Mongoose

    Thank you for this. Just a small point, perhaps it would be better to use a different example instead of a segment about a battered woman? It could be unnecessarily upsetting if someone reading this page is a survivor of an abusive relationship.

    Reply
  25. R Todd

    Until reading this, I lacked dialogue confidence to the point of beginning to write a full narrative book. The rules you so generously posted gives my story incredible flexibility. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Reply
  26. thenikus

    Thank you so much. Especially for point 7, which was unclear to me 🙂

    Reply
  27. Jane Desnouee

    I assume one single spaces each character’s comments in a dialogue, specifically within fan essay or article being consistently double spaced. Of course, each new character begins a new line, indented, etc..

    Reply
    • Dax MacGregor

      Jane,

      The entire manuscript should be double-spaced, even dialogue.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Kidlit · Basic Errors - […] basic grasp of grammar and writing? If you’re making sloppy errors or you just haven’t managed to nail dialogue…

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Facebook Link with Good Image and Description

How To Make Your Posts Facebook Friendly

You compose posts that are interesting and informative. You want people to read and share them. But have taken time to make your posts Facebook friendly?

Cover of In Leah's Wake

Book Review: In Leah’s Wake by Terri Giuliano Long

In her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, Terri Giuliano Long explores the aftermath created when a teenage soccer star falls for a party-loving boy with a drug-dealing past.

Picture of hand drawing a complicated plot plan for a novel.

Condense a Novel into One-Page Synopsis

Sooner or later you will need to condense your entire novel down to a one-page synopsis. For novelists, it’s a herculean task. Here’s how I did it.

Searching Images

Make Your Posts Search Engine Friendly

You fuss over the appearance of your blog and the words in your articles, but are your posts search engine friendly? Here’s how to make them shine.

Join Our List

Join Our List

Get notified by email when new information is published.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This