Last updated on October 4th, 2023 at 02:58 pm
We’re going back to the basics today. Formatting dialogue properly is so important for making sure your reader can easily understand what’s happening. Especially since we as readers are used to a specific format, it can be difficult for readers to parse out what’s happening when your dialogue isn’t formatted correctly.
The basics of how to format dialogue
First, make sure that any new speaker gets a new line. This way, it’s perfectly clear that a new person is speaking. If your speaker has an action before or after, you can keep it in the same paragraph. But the second you change the person doing the speaking or the acting, you need a new line with a new indent.
You also need quotation marks around the actual speech. Quotation marks are only for the thing that is being spoken by the character. You do not put it around dialogue tags. Speaking of dialogue tags…
The next thing you need is some sort of indication of who is speaking. This can be done through dialogue tags or action. In the past, I’ve written about the balance between dialogue tags in detail, and I would recommend checking that out, but I’ll summarize here.
Using dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking
A dialogue tag is your basic indication that someone is speaking. This can be your basic she said, or they shouted, or he whispered. I wouldn’t recommend getting too crazy with your dialogue tags. Despite what you may have heard, using simple verbs, including said, is typically best. Using a dialogue tag can look like this:
“Can you believe she brought him to the party?” she asked.
He said, “I don’t know what else to say to you.”
“I’m ready to go home,” she said. “Can you drive me back?”
Note that the “she” in the first example is lowercase. Also, note the comma after the dialogue tag in the second example and after the speech in the third example. Finally, note that because the first part of the third example is a full sentence, it ends with a period before moving on to the second part.
Using action to indicate who is speaking
The other best way to indicate who is speaking in your work is through action. As readers, if you write out an action and then have a piece of dialogue, we understand that it’s the person doing the action that is speaking. This means that action is a great way to indicate who is speaking, and it helps to make your scene more dynamic. Rather than simply putting in dialogue or constantly using dialogue tags, you can use action.
Here’s what that looks like in practice:
“Did you talk to him about our little problem?” Joey sprinkled some salt on his eggs before picking up his fork and taking a bite.
Tyler glanced around the room to see if anyone was listening before leaning in. “I talked to him. He says it’s not his problem.”
Joey raised his eyebrows. “It’s quickly going to become his problem.”
Note how the action before and after the speech clearly tells you who is speaking. Since you have a new line for each change in speaker or action, you’re able to figure it out.
A note on how to format dialogue with multiple speakers
So, we already know that we need a new line with each speaker, but I wanted to make a note on how to format dialogue when you have two or more speakers. If you only have two speakers, you don’t always need to indicate for each individual line who is speaking. The reader can figure it out.
So, for example:
“Have you ever wondered why everyone is so afraid of you?” the wizard asked, reviving the fire with his poker.
“Jealousy?” the boy answered.
See how you know who is speaking those last two lines despite there being no dialogue tags or action? That’s because you’re able to easily assume based on the information you have. But the second you add a third person, you need dialogue tags to make sure it’s clear who is speaking.
In practice, it’s good to use a mix of dialogue tags, action, and general formatting to indicate who is speaking in your work. This way, you keep your sentence variety, and you’re able to create more dynamic and interesting scenes. But in general, your goal is to make sure the actual formatting is correct and that it’s always clear who is speaking each line.
Got questions about how to format dialogue? Drop them below!