How to Format Written Dialogue 

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How to format dialogue in a story

Good dialogue is essential to most stories; you want it to help develop your character and move the story along. However, the most natural and engaging dialogue will only be effective if it’s formatted correctly, allowing the reader to follow it and keep track of who’s speaking.


Keep reading to learn the traditional approach to formatting dialogue and the general rules to best keep your dialogue flowing smoothly and clearly. 


As we know, rules are made to be broken, and more than ever, we see alternative dialogue styles in literature. I recently read a novel in which there were no quotation marks (or any indications) denoting dialogue. While I eventually got used to it, it required more effort than I like to expend when reading for pleasure. 


If you are new to writing dialogue, I suggest you use the general/traditional formatting rules before you begin experimenting.


How to punctuate dialogue.

♦ When a character speaks, their dialogue should be on the same line as their dialogue tag or action beat. 

♦ When a different character speaks, start a new line.

♦ The punctuation at the end of the dialogue goes before the closing quotation mark.

♦ You can use single or double quotation marks.

For example:


Mary opened the piano. “I’m so out of practice.”

“You’ve been saying that for months,” Judy said, “just sit down and play.”


What is a dialogue tag? 

If you’ve ever read a story, you will have seen dialogue tags, even if you didn’t know the term. It refers to the short phrase at the beginning, middle, or end of written dialogue that identifies (tags) the person speaking.

For example:


“I’m not sure I remember how to play,” Mary said, “my fingers won’t move.”


Writers tend to overuse dialogue tags. You don’t need one at the end of every line—one every few lines will keep the reader on track.


What is an action beat?

As with dialogue tags, you will have encountered action beats in most stories you’ve read. Action beats are short descriptions that come before, between, or after the dialogue and tell us about the speaker’s emotions, movements, or thoughts when speaking.

For example:


Mary looked away as she closed the piano lid. “I can’t do it. I just can‘t.”


How to use dialogue tags

As I said above, you don’t want to overuse dialogue tags, nor should the ones you use be obtrusive; it’s the dialogue that counts. Overusing tags is distracting and will weaken the dialogue.


That said, you do want it to be clear who is speaking. Having a running dialogue without enough tags can be confusing.


Keep it simple. Repeating the word “said” is fine; there’s no need to embellish, although the occasional “moaned,” “whispered,” or “shouted” is okay—just don’t overdo it.


Stephen King has been quoted as saying, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” This admonishment includes using adverbs in your dialogue tags.

For example:


“Suit yourself,” said Judy angrily as she went out the door.


It’s far more interesting to show the feeling through action than to name it.


“Suit yourself,” said July, slamming the door as she left the room.


Don’t forget to vary the placement of your dialogue tags to vary the rhythm of your prose. They can go before, during, or after the dialogue.


How to punctuate dialogue tags

When placing your dialogue tag before the dialogue, use a comma after the tag and start the dialogue with a capital letter.

For example:


Judy said, “I’m sorry I slammed the door.”


If you want to break the dialogue and place your tag in the middle of a sentence (for variation), use a comma after the tag and start the next bit of dialogue with a lowercase letter.

For example:


“I don’t understand what you’re so mad about,” Mary said, “you’ve been cranky ever since I mentioned the piano.”


If, for some reason, you want to make the first part of the dialogue a complete sentence, you need a period after the tag and then start the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter.

For example:


“I don’t understand what you’re so mad about.” Mary said, “You’ve been cranky ever since I mentioned the piano.”


How to use action beats

Action beats are used to add detail and meaning to a conversation and don’t necessarily have to involve action; they might be a description or a thought. 


If you want to shift the rhythm of your dialogue, you can create a pause in the dialogue with an action beat. The action beats also draw your reader into the scene and keep your characters from seeming like chatterboxes. 


As in the second example above, where Judy slams the door, the action beat conveys the meaning of how the dialogue is spoken. Without the slamming of the door, her line, “Suit yourself,” could be read as flippant instead of angry.


How to punctuate action beats

Action beats are punctuated just like a complete sentence; they start with a capital letter and end with a period. Note: any dialogue preceding the action beat will end with a period rather than a comma. For example.

For example:


“I don’t understand what you’re so mad about.” Mary was fed up with Judy’s manipulative behavior. “You’ve been cranky ever since I mentioned the piano.”


Apply these basic rules and guidelines to your written dialogue, and you will be sure to engage and keep your readers’ attention.


Have fun, and let me know how it goes.

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I’m Kathryn Kay, the founder of A Writer Within. I offer support and inspiration to women writers through one-on-one coaching, editing services, and week-long retreats in Tuscany. My focus is on getting writers into the creative flow, beyond their internal critic, and their very best stories onto the page. If you have a writer within, let’s set her free!

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