Writing: Formatting Dialogue

Most students have an intrinsic ability to write dialogue. I see it with every writing project. They understand that characters should speak to each other.

This post will show you the rules for formatting dialogue correctly.

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue occurs when two characters are speaking to each other in a story. It is perhaps the most enjoyable writing process because, when appropriate, you can throw out all those stuffy grammar rules. If you have a character who is a surly bully, you can write his dialogue in his own vernacular:

Napoleon and his tots

Napoleon and his tots

“Hey, Napoleon!” Craig whispered loudly, trying to make sure the teacher wouldn’t hear him. “Gimme some tots!”

Napoleon shoved his hand deep into his cargo pants pocket and grabbed another tater tot. For a moment he thought about giving it to Craig, but then he felt the crispy, fried edges of the potato nugget. Napoleon imagined the salty taste and the gratifying crunch of the tot. “No, not this time,” he said to himself.

“Get your own tots Craig,” Napoleon whispered back.

“Okay, be that way you dumb dork!” whispered Craig vehemently. “I don’t want your dumb tots anyways!” He drew up his big, size 13, cowboy boot and smashed the heel into Napoleon’s pocket. Craig laughed as the grease from the tots began seeping through the fabric of Napoleon’s cargo pants. “Enjoy your tots, shrimp bait! Ha, ha.”

Rules for Writing Dialogue

1. Create a new paragraph every time the speaker changes:

“Hello, Shirley,” said Bob.

“Good afternoon, Bob,” replied Shirley.

2. All dialogue goes inside quotation marks:

“These pretzels are making me thirsty!” exclaimed Kramer.

3. All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks:

“Wow! These pretzels are making me thirsty!” exclaimed Kramer.

Notice that the exclamation mark is before the closing quotation mark.

“What kind of pretzels are they?” asked Elaine.

Notice that the question mark is before the closing quotation mark.

“They’re called Salty Dogs,” replied Kramer.

Notice that the comma is before the closing quotation mark.

4. When a speaker’s quote ends in a period (e.g., a basic declarative or imperative sentence: see Types of Sentences for more information) there are two rules:

1. If you put the speaker’s name before the quote, put a comma before the opening quotation mark and put a period before the closing quotation mark:

Kramer said, “That’s just the way it goes. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”

Notice the comma before the opening quotation mark and the period before the closing quotation mark.

2. If you put a speaker’s name after the quote, put a comma before the closing quotation mark, then cite the speaker, and put a period at the end of the sentence:

“That’s just the way it goes. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” said Kramer.

Notice the comma before the closing quotation mark and the period at the end of the sentence.

5. If you insert the speaker’s name in the middle of a quote, insert it at the end of the speaker’s first sentence and punctuate appropriately:

“That’s just the way it goes,” said Kramer. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”

6. When a speaker speaks more than one paragraph, do not put end quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, only put them at the end of the very last paragraph, and put open quotation marks at the beginning of every paragraph:

“This is a sticky situation,” said Kyle. “It’s similar to that time we went on a school trip with Mrs. Crabtree.

“Mrs. Crabtree was the worst kind of teacher,” continued Kyle. “She made us pay attention in class, and when we didn’t, she’d hang us from the ceiling by our thumbs. She was awful!”

Notice how the first paragraph doesn’t have an end quotation mark. This indicates to the reader that the next paragraph is attributed to the same speaker.

7. If a character is thinking something or saying something to his or herself just use italics to indicate that the speech is internal:

Kyle inched his way to the front of the bus. This is a sticky situation, he thought.

8. When a speaker quotes another speaker, use a single opening and closing quotation mark to indicate the quote. This is done using the apostrophe key:

“I could have sworn he said, ‘Vengeance will be mine!’ not ‘Business is doing fine’,” said Martin.

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