By : Rynne
Dialogue Formatting 101
The ABCs of proper formatting.
A guide to the correct ways to format dialogue within your story, including common errors to avoid.
Ah, the dreaded dialogue formatting ó something that many people get right, but many more get wrong. Where do you use a comma and where a period? What should be capitalized and what shouldnít, and why? Dialogue formatting isnít easy to get right, and itís easy to forget the rules, especially when published authors do it too. But, just as in the rest of the rules of grammar, dialogue formatting has its own reasons for whatís correct and whatís not, and hopefully once you know why commas go here and periods go there, and this is capitalized and that isnít, you can keep this in mind when you write people talking to each other. Note that most of my examples are canon pieces of dialogue, but some are off the top of my head.
Letís start with something simple. Here is a piece of correctly formatted dialogue:
"No, I am your father," Darth Vader said.
Look at the word "said". That is whatís known as a dialogue tag; tags are verbs that connect the dialogue itself to the rest of the sentence. Other tags include "asked", "exclaimed", "replied", and all those variations. Dialogue tags are ways of describing the dialogue, if itís being said, or asked, or screamed, etc.
One of the most important things to know about tags is that on their own, or with only a subject or subject pronoun, they are fragments, which are incomplete thoughts. Every single dialogue tag is a transitive verb, which means that they require direct objects to be part of a complete sentence. A direct object, for those who donít remember, is what the subject of the sentence does an action to. In the sentence "the boy caught the ball", for example, "the ball" is the direct object because it is what the subject (the boy) is committing an action (catching) upon.
And the direct object of a dialogue tag is the dialogue itself. This means that the dialogue is part of the same sentence as the tag, and they therefore must be connected to each other. To continue using my example:
"No, I am your father." Darth Vader said.
There is now a period after "father" in the dialogue, and because periods signal the completion of a sentence, what should be one sentence has become two: "No, I am your father" and "Darth Vader said" are separate. But remember, "said" is a transitive verb that requires a direct object! Because its direct object is now part of another sentence, it is now a fragment, and an incomplete thought. It is the job of a comma to connect parts of a sentence to each other, which is why the original formatting is correct.
Letís extend the idea.
"No, I am your father," he said.
All I did was substitute a proper noun for a pronoun, which is not capitalized. That is because the dialogue and "he said" are still part of the same sentence, and you wouldnít capitalize a pronoun in the middle of a regular sentence, would you? (Unless youíre speaking to or about a divine being, which Darth Vader certainly is not, despite the Christ parallels ó you can write "ĎNo, I am your father,í He said" only if the person speaking it is God.)
Itís for the same reason that you wouldnít write something like:
"No, I am your father." He said.
The "He said" is still a fragment! I donít think I can emphasize that enough. Dialogue tags set apart from their dialogue with periods are fragments. The dialogue tag and the pronoun in front of it are still part of the sentence ó treat them that way by using a comma and not capitalizing the pronoun.
Letís switch it around a bit. You can capitalize the pronoun, but only if itís at the beginning of the sentence, like this:
He said, "No, I am your father."
In this case, the pronoun is capitalized only because the beginning of a sentence is capitalized. Note that there is still a comma connecting the dialogue tag to the dialogue; the only difference is that the tag is now in front of the dialogue, and not after.
Maybe now youíre wondering why the beginning of the dialogue is capitalized in the above example ó after all, itís still inside the sentence, isnít it, and arenít you not supposed to capitalize random words inside a sentence? Dialogue gets away with it because itís a sentence within a sentence ó the dialogue is its own sentence, but itís still part of the overall sentence that contains a dialogue tag. Thatís also why dialogue can be said on its own, without a tag, but there canít be a tag without its dialogue. Itís also why you can use question marks, exclamation points, dashes, and ellipses instead of a comma: question marks and exclamation points usually signal the end of a sentence themselves, but not always ó you understand, donít you? ó but periods are more final.
Now moving on to continued dialogue.
"No, I am," he said, "your father."
Continued dialogue, also known as interrupted dialogue, is one sentence of dialogue interrupted by a dialogue tag and continued after the tag. All the rules still apply. For instance, you wouldnít write
"No, I am," he said, "Your father."
any more than you would write
"No, I am Your father," he said.
Itís still the same dialogue sentence, itís just that youíre putting the dialogue tag in the middle. If you capitalize the word after the dialogue tag inside the continued dialogue, then thatís just as if you were capitalizing that same word in a regular sentence.
Thatís also why you wouldnít do things like
"No, I am," he said. "Your father."
"No, I am," He said, "your father."
Itís all still part of the same sentence, so only capitalize words that should be capitalized (meaning proper nouns and the beginning of the sentence), and donít break the sentence apart to create fragments.
But this does not mean that every dialogue Ė dialogue tag Ė more dialogue structure is continued dialogue. For example:
"He told me enough," Luke said. "He told me you killed him!"
"He told me enough" and "He told me you killed him" are both grammatically complete sentences. The second part is not a fragment if it is not connected to the first, and the dialogue tag is already attached to dialogue. "ĎHe told me enough,í Luke said" is just as much a complete sentence as "He told me you killed him" is.
But it is a fairly common mistake to say things like:
"He told me enough," Luke said, "He told me you killed him!"
The above sentence is an example of a comma splice, where a comma connects two (or more) complete sentences without the medium of a conjunction (and, then, etc), and which is a version of a run-on sentence. It would be like writing "He told me enough, He told me you killed him", which is both improper capitalization and a comma splice. A way of telling the difference between continued dialogue and two separate dialogue sentences is to get rid of the dialogue tag and see if the sentence still makes sense and is grammatically correct.
You can only put two complete sentences of dialogue together in the same sentence if you connect them with either a dialogue tag and a conjunction, or another dialogue tag after the first, like:
"He told me enough," Luke said, and added, "He told me you killed him!"
It would also be acceptable to leave off the second dialogue tag, though itís equally acceptable to leave it in to clarify. But you have to have some way of indicating that the two separate sentence of dialogue are just that ó separate. Giving each sentence its own dialogue tag does that. You could also write it as:
"He told me enough," Luke said, adding, "He told me you killed him!"
You just have to make it clear that theyíre two separate sentences, which using one dialogue tag for both of them wouldnít do.
What about dialogue that is interrupted with a non-dialogue tag?
"No, I am," Vader paused, "your father."
You shouldnít do that. Interrupted/continued dialogue should have a dialogue tag as the interrupter, so it would say:
"No, I am," Vader said, pausing, "your father."
If you want to have an interrupter without the dialogue tag, then you must make it clear that the action is interrupting the dialogue by using dashes or ellipses, so that it would say something like:
"No, I amó" Vader paused, "óyour father."
"No, I amÖ" Vader paused, "Öyour father."
Note that there must be a comma before the dialogue is resumed. This is to show that the interrupter is still part of the sentence, and not way out in left field with no punctuation to visibly connect it to the dialogue.
Acceptable style would also be:
"No, I am"óVader pausedó"your father."
But this can only be used for dashes, not ellipses. Ellipses are to show a slowing down or trailing off of thoughts, while dashes lead directly from one thought to another, so ellipses wouldnít make sense in this case, since you wouldnít want to s l o w l y get to Vaderís pause and then back to the dialogue.
So, how about we move on to dialogue and sentences without dialogue tags?
"Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son." Darth Vader stretched out his hand to his son.
These are also two complete sentences, and there is no tag that needs its direct object dialogue to be complete. But say that instead you write something like:
"Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son," Darth Vader stretched out his hand to his son.
Comma splice! Itís two complete sentences being connected to each other through a comma when they donít need that connection. Itís the same if you put the dialogue after the regular sentence, like:
Darth Vader stretched out his hand to his son, "Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."
Itís just as much a comma splice as before; the only difference is the positioning of the sentences.
Also, for sentence fragments that arenít dialogue tags and are connected to dialogue, like:
Stretching a hand, "Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."
Itís just a fragment attached to dialogue, and incorrect. You need to either add a dialogue tag, to read something like:
Stretching a hand, he said, "Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."
or make the regular sentence complete, like:
He stretched out a hand. "Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son."
Attaching a non-dialogue tag fragment to a piece of dialogue is not correct at all, because it makes the entire sentence a fragment.
What about things that could be either tags or regular verbs? Take, for instance:
"No!" he screamed.
"No!" He screamed.
Both are correct, depending on what youíre trying to say. If he screamed the word "No", then the first example is correct. But if he said the word "No", and then screamed, then the second example is the one you want. The dialogue tag is a way of describing the dialogue, so if youíre describing the dialogue as being screamed, then itís a dialogue tag, and needs to be not capitalized.
Also, please do not forget the rule of new speaker, new paragraph. Every time a different person speaks, that person should get his or her own paragraph. Take the following two examples:
"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father," Vader said.
"He told me enough. He told me you killed him!"
"No, I am your father."
"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father," Vader said. "He told me enough. He told me you killed him!" "No, I am your father."
The second example is much more confusing than the first, because itís much harder to tell who is saying what. The new speaker, new paragraph rule clarifies when thereís a new person speaking ó otherwise, it would seem that Vader was the one saying, "He told me enough." We all know thatís Lukeís line.
The only exception for this rule is if two people are saying something at the same time. In that case, you can say something like:
Han grabbed Leia by the arm. "Come on, Your Highnessness, weíve got to get out of here," he said, just as she exclaimed, "Let go of my arm!"
But each piece of dialogue has to be part of the same sentence, to show that theyíre going on at the same time. And while this kind of thing is acceptable, it would probably be better if you split it into two paragraphs anyway, so it would say something like:
Han grabbed Leia by the arm. "Come on, Your Highnessness, weíve got to get out of here," he said.
"Let go of me!" she exclaimed at the same time.
But no matter what, youíve got to make clear who is saying what.
What about when what one person is saying requires more than one paragraph, because that person switches topics in the middle of the dialogue?
"Flyingís not that hard," Luke explained. "Or at least, it isnít to me. I just tend to know by instinct when to turn and when to keep going straight, how hard and how quickly I need to turn, and all of that.
"Anyway, Iím hungry. Why donít we go eat?"
The first paragraph of dialogue does not have closing quotes, to show that the dialogue is not over and the dialogue right after it is still being spoken by the same person and not a new speaker. But the next paragraph does have beginning quotes, to show that itís still dialogue and not a regular sentence. This pattern continues no matter how many paragraphs the characterís speech is.
Dialogue can also be embedded within a sentence.
With pain wracking his body, Luke shouted, "Iíll never join you," and inched backward on the gantry.
The dialogue is fine in the middle of a sentence as long as it follows all the other rules ó it has to be connected with commas. If you wanted Luke to be exclaiming that so thereís an exclamation point at the end of the dialogue (this also works for question marks), it can read like:
With pain wracking his body, Luke shouted, "Iíll never join you!" and inched backward on the gantry.
The exclamation point at the end of the dialogue takes the place of a comma, just as it would in a dialogue Ė dialogue tag structure.
If the dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, you can use a colon instead of a comma.
Darth Vader said: "No, I am your father."
This is not commonly used anymore, but is still correct; a colon is an indicator of a close, direct relationship between parts of a sentence, and can be used after a dialogue tag to indicate the tagís relationship to the dialogue. However, if the sentence is structured with the tag after the dialogue, like:
"No, I am your father," Darth Vader said.
it canít be used as
"No, I am your father:" Darth Vader said.
Colons are used to indicate further thought, and canít be used to signal the end of a thought, and so canít be used to close dialogue.
Connections. Thatís what grammar is ó how sentences and parts of sentences are connected to each other, how theyíre related to each other. And just like a family tree, those relationships can be pretty complicated and easy to confuse, but once you understand exactly how one part of a sentence relates to another, itís much easier to remember. I hope that this has helped with that understanding.
Current Rating is 9.05 in 306 total ratings.
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Date posted: 12/13/2005 6:54:20 AM
First of all, I would like to thank you for writing an article that I've been dying to write, but too scared to do so, because although I write and speak in English fluently, it's not technically my first language, and I was afraid that I would come across as hypocritical if I wrote something like this.
I am gratified that you laid the grammar rules out clearly and concisely. One of the main reasons why I don't like reading my English textbooks is the dry, uninteresting style of explaining the whys and hows of the English language. You, however, have an upbeat, lively style of writing, and you didn't sound condescending, unlike some articles I've had the misfortune to encounter in various literary magazines and websites. The way you also used familiar lines and settings also helps you connect with your readers - a mark of a good English teacher, I must say. (I've had the misfortune of enduring an entire academic year of unexciting lectures on the English language in my first year of high school, which made me lose interest in creative writing for a while, since the teacher was such a bore.)
In a scale of 1-10, I'd say that this article deserves a 9.8. Good job!
Date posted: 2/26/2006 12:22:39 PM
Great explanation. stephen king also has an excellent explanation about how to handle dialogue in his memoir/handbook on the craft, ON WRITING.
Author: L. Lee Rhoton
Date posted: 11/15/2006 8:18:38 PM
L. Lee Rhoton's Comments:
Thank you for taking the time to write the ABCs of proper formatting and sharing it with all of us. I for one really needed this information to complete a project and was excited when I discovered it on this site. Believe it or not, this really helped me. I cannot thank you enough.
Date posted: 1/4/2007 5:06:13 PM
I liked the dialogue formatting 101 article. Unfortunately, our schools do not teach specifically how to write fiction/dialogue rules. Most writers must absorb the learning through reading lots of fiction. I took a creative writing class, however, it is assumed that we know these rules rather than teach them directly. Look forward to the next article of information.
P.S. I was recommended this site from fanstory where I write short stories. It will be invaluable for me for future writings.
Author: charlie brown
Date posted: 10/2/2007 7:44:38 PM
charlie brown's Comments:
this is terrible
wheres the stuff about ralafooste
Date posted: 10/24/2007 11:23:46 PM
This is a great article, but I must protest the part about using an ellipse to show a trailing off or pause in dialogue. Beware when doing this, especially if you are trying to write something for publication. A lot of writers use the ellipse in this way and some editors accept it, but technically the strict use of an ellipse is only to indicate that some words have definitely been left out. Technically you're not really supposed to use it to introduce meter into your dialogue.
If you don't believe me, look at my story _Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil_. Look at ALL THOSE ELLIPSES I used. :( Drives you crazy, right? That's what happens when you get used to using ellipses for what they're not supposed to be used for. When I began submitting "Midnight" to writing contests I had to go through and take most of these ellipses out, and going through over 500 pages for almost the sole purpose of ellipse removal is not fun, to put it mildly.
Date posted: 2/2/2009 12:28:50 PM
Is there a paragraph about paragraphing dialogue, I can't remember how conversations work, do I block off a new paragraph for a back and forth dialogue? What if only one person says one thing, does that get its own paragraph?
Date posted: 8/23/2010 12:41:06 AM
It cleared a lot of doubts about dialouge. Thanks
Date posted: 1/28/2011 8:14:15 PM
Thank you so much for this informative article, I can't imagine the amount of time and effort you must have put into making this, but it helped a great deal!
I am in the process of writing a novel and have been putting off understanding all the dialogue rules for a while, but I'm glad that I read this because I understand it a lot more now.
I wish you the best, and thank you again!
You will be blessed!
Date posted: 4/27/2011 10:11:42 PM
Thank you for a clear and well written article. It is very helpful to me.
Date posted: 6/20/2011 11:25:04 PM
Your article is excellent! I'll rate it a 10. Your writing style is fluid and not overly serious yet you cover a serious subject exceptionally well. I recently started writing short stories, and I searched high and low for guidance regarding dialogue formatting and punctuation. Thank you very much. I am contemplating starting up a blog. May I link to this article?
Author: Aspiring Novelist
Date posted: 9/22/2011 4:16:03 AM
Aspiring Novelist's Comments:
"Excellent article," she exclaimed. "It answered all the questions I had. Now I can revise the novel I started writing in 1993 with hopes of publication."
Date posted: 10/27/2011 3:30:04 PM
This is the best article I've read on the topic, and the explanations make it easy to understand. Thank you so much for writing this.
Author: Doolittle Ringer
Date posted: 11/10/2011 5:02:34 PM
Doolittle Ringer's Comments:
I came to this site by Googling "formatting dialogue."
The content, while well done, is not about "formatting" but "punctuation," --"punctuating dialogue"
Date posted: 8/1/2012 4:27:29 AM
This article was incredibly helpful. Having been an avid reader my whole life, I thought I would be familiar enough with the punctuation and formatting of dialogue to be able to write it. Turns out I wasn't. I am just beginning to write, and I will keep this info close by while doing so. Thanks for a great article!
Author: SD Denny
Date posted: 9/20/2012 8:42:01 AM
SD Denny's Comments:
Love it! Thanks for providing such a clear document!!!
Date posted: 12/3/2012 6:48:43 PM
What a pleasure to meet someone who thinks so clealry
Date posted: 12/6/2012 3:19:33 AM
What's it take to become a sulmbie expounder of prose like yourself?
Author: Jabbar Lewis
Date posted: 12/6/2012 9:32:57 AM
Jabbar Lewis's Comments:
EXCELLENT! This article was absolutely stellar in conveying the information in an easily understood manner. ^_^
Author: Long Island Gal
Date posted: 1/12/2013 2:20:32 PM
Long Island Gal's Comments:
Great and informative article.
Date posted: 7/10/2013 11:47:35 PM
Tough subject this one. Thank you. Dialogue of any sort is a bear for the beginner and apparently not easy for the seasoned writer either.
Thank you again, I am now off to edit for several hours based on these rules.
Author: Andy M
Date posted: 3/21/2014 9:10:55 PM
Andy M's Comments:
extremely helpful. I've bookmarked this one. I've got an INTUITIVE grasp of this concept, but intuitive grasps are notoriously slippery.
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