Formatting Dialogue

When you’re inside quotation marks, someone’s speaking

Following the usual rules when writing a dialogue in a piece of fiction makes it so much easier to read. Fortunately, those rules are quite straightforward. Much more so than their French equivalent.

Now, I’d like something to be clear: I focus on formatting here, which helps making a dialogue clear and frees some brain load for your readers. There’s much more to writing good dialogues, though, but you’ll find better advice than mine on that topic.

The rules #

  • When someone starts speaking, use an opening quotation mark ().
  • When someone stops speaking, use a closing quotation mark ().
  • When a new speaker begins, start a new paragraph.

The quotation marks #

That’s the basic part: the quotation marks delimit the portions that are spoken. You open them when someone starts talking, you close them when you’re coming back to the narration.

Sometimes, you may have punctuation that doesn’t belong in a quotation. In any case, the punctuation should go within the quotation marks.

Paragraphs #

Each speaker gets his or her own paragraph. It makes it much easier for the reader to keep track.

In a post on the topic, Maeve Maddox chose this example:

The phone rang, and they heard Clare answer in the kitchen. After a few minutes, Clare came back in. She was smiling. “Was that Paul?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” Clare said. “He’s in the park, tracking an owl.” “He called to tell you that”
Clare nodded, her smile growing. “Grit, I think you’ve brought us luck.” “I doubt that,” Grit said, before she could stop herself. Luanne Rice, Luanne Rice

Now, let’s see how it should be formatted.

The phone rang, and they heard Clare answer in the kitchen. After a few minutes, Clare came back in. She was smiling.

“Was that Paul?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” Clare said. “He’s in the park, tracking an owl.”

“He called to tell you that?”

Clare nodded, her smile growing. “Grit, I think you’ve brought us luck.”

“I doubt that,” Grit said, before she could stop herself.

Isn’t that clearer?

Speech Tags #

As you’ve seen, when there are more than two speakers, adding speech tags helps keeping track too.

If the speech should end with a period, replace it with a comma. Otherwise, punctuate as normal.

“Was that Paul?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” Clare said.

If the speech tag comes first, always separate with a comma.

Marci said, “Please, don’t leave.”

The speech tag doesn’t begin with a capital letter, even when you might think it does.

“What would you drink?” the pretty waitress asked.

In order not to add “he/she said” on each line, you can also mix it up a bit with narration. All you need is to make clear who’s speaking.

Clare nodded, her smile growing. “Grit, I think you’ve brought us luck.”

Monologues #

Some characters talk a lot. That’s the case of Sherlock Holmes almost every time he explains Watson how he cracked a case.

But you can’t write it as a single, illegible block of text. Just like narration, you need to be able to create paragraphs.

So, when you have a talkative character, just create new paragraphs. Don’t close the quotation marks—your character isn’t done speaking—but add an opening quotation mark in front of each new paragraph this character speaks.

“On entering the house this last inference was confirmed. My well-booted man lay before me. The tall one, then, had done the murder, if murder there was. There was no wound upon the dead man’s person, but the agitated expression upon his face assured me that he had foreseen his fate before it came upon him. Men who die from heart disease, or any sudden natural cause, never by any chance exhibit agitation upon their features. Having sniffed the dead man’s lips I detected a slightly sour smell, and I came to the conclusion that he had had poison forced upon him. Again, I argued that it had been forced upon him from the hatred and fear expressed upon his face. By the method of exclusion, I had arrived at this result, for no other hypothesis would meet the facts. Do not imagine that it was a very unheard of idea. The forcible administration of poison is by no means a new thing in criminal annals. The cases of Dolsky in Odessa, and of Leturier in Montpellier, will occur at once to any toxicologist.

“And now came the great question as to the reason why. Robbery had not been the object of the murder, for nothing was taken. Was it politics, then, or was it a woman? […]” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Words of Parting #

That’s it! Now get to your pen and write us a great story!