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  • Rachel Paige

Formatting Dialogue

Dialogue is tricky at first and there's several punctuation rules you cannot break. The following are the most common errors I see. When in doubt, pick up a published book and see how its dialogue is formatted.


Dialogue ending with a dialogue tag:

-Should have a comma, exclamation point, or question mark before the ending quotation marks. Never a period.

Ex:

"I'm not going," he said.

"I'm not going!" he said.

"I'm not going?" he asked.


When a dialogue tag comes first:

-Use a comma after it and normal punctuation at the end of the quote.

Ex:

He said, "I'm not going."


Dialogue with an action beat:

-May end with a period.

Ex:

"I'm not going." He crossed his arms.

"I'm not going!" He slammed his fist on the table.

"I'm not going?" He looked at his shoes.


Dialogue followed by either of these:

-Follows normal punctuation rule.

Ex:

He crossed his arms. "I'm not going."

"I'm not going."


When a character gets cut off:

-Use an em dash

Ex:

"I don't want--"

"We're going."


When a character trails off:

-Use an ellipsis

Ex:

"That's not what I..."


When a new character moves or speaks:

-Use a new paragraph.

-The actions and dialogue of a single character should be together.

Ex: (correct)

He looked at his shoes. "I'm not going?"

"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't take you with me this time." I hugged him and said goodbye.

He kept his eyes on his shoes. "Okay."

Ex: (incorrect)

He looked at his shoes. "I'm not going?"

"I'm sorry," I said. "I can't take you with me this time."

I hugged him and said goodbye. He kept his eyes on his shoes.

"Okay."


When quoting in a quote

-Use single quotation marks.

Ex:

I picked up the paper. "It says 'be home at nine.'"

"She said 'the blue octopus has it.' Do you know what that means?"


Often, the single quotes can be omitted

Ex:

I picked up the paper. "It says be home at nine."

"She said the blue octopus has it. Do you know what that means?"


But never omit them when:

-Quoting something that isn't yours, like a famous work or quote.

Ex:

"The first line is, 'hope is the thing with feathers.'"


Two things to never, ever forget:

1. Don't make multiple characters talk in the same paragraph.

"I'm not going?" I asked. "Sorry, I can't take you this time," I said. He looked at his shoes. "Oh."


2. Never put punctuation outside of quotation marks.

Ex:

"I'm not going", I said.


Exercise 1:

Write a short conversation between two of three characters. Try to use dialogue tags, action beats, and multiple types of punctuation.


Exercise 2:

Find all the errors in the following:

I slipped my shoes on and started towards the door. He followed me and had his shoes on too. "I already told you," I sighed.

He looked at his shoes, "I'm not going"?

I shook my head.

"But I want to..."

'Sorry Buddy, I can't take you with me this time.' He kept his eyes on his shoes. "But next time I will," I said

"Promise?" He took a step back. "Promise," I said.


There are 11 errors, did you find them all? The revised section is below. Changes are in bold and underlined.


I slipped my shoes on and started towards the door.

He followed me and had his shoes on too.

"I already told you." I sighed. (sighed is an action)

He looked at his shoes. "I'm not going?"

I shook my head.

"But I want to--" (should be an em-dash)

"Sorry Buddy, I can't take you with me this time."

He kept his eyes on his shoes.

"But next time I will," I said.

"Promise?" He took a step back.

"Promise," I said.


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