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Formatting dialogue can be confusing when you start writing.
This blog post will discuss some tips on how to format dialogue in a story.
I had many questions when I had to format the dialogue for my children's picture book and I hope these tips will help you too!
If you haven't started on your book, see my other post on “How to write dialogue in a story“.
Tip 1: Periods and commas go inside quotation marks.
A period or comma always goes inside the quotation marks when you close a quotation.
“Come back here before it starts to rain.”
“It's only a matter of time,” he said.
She said, “You just have to do this once to know how.”
Tip 2: Start by indenting the first line of each new speaker's dialogue
Many speakers overlook one crucial element: starting each new speaker's dialogue with an indentation.
This helps distinguish between speakers and provides a visual cue when a speaker has finished talking and another speaker begins speaking.
“I don't want to go to school,” said Sarah.
“Why not?” asked her mother.
What is a dialogue tag?
A dialogue tag is a short phrase used to identify the speaker in a dialogue.
The most common dialogue tags are “said” and “asked,” but many others can be used to convey a character's emotions or intentions.
For example, “yelled” can show anger, while “whispered” can be used to show secrecy.
Dialogue tags are usually placed at the end of a sentence, but they can also be placed in the middle or beginning. When placed at the beginning, they are typically followed by a comma.
For example :
“I don't want to go to school,” said Sarah.
Sarah said, “I don't want to go to school.”
Tip 3: Know when to use a period and comma
I had quite a lot of difficulty trying to figure this out. But managed to find my way with this video by Alexa Donne and a Reedsy article on “Formatting Dialogue Like A Pro“.
If a dialogue tag follows a sentence, you should use a comma.
Example: “Well, that's a real pity,” he said.
If an action tag follows a sentence, you should use a period.
Example: “Well, that's a real pity.” He closed the car door.
If the dialogue tag is between 2 sentences, you should put a period.
Example: “You can choose to do what you want,” said Lisa. “I am not going to interfere with your choices.”
If the dialogue tag interrupts a sentence, you should use a comma.
Example: “Whenever I come to your house,” said Bob, “you always seem to be eating.”
Is laughed and frowned considered an action or dialogue tag?
In general, it may be helpful to think about whether there is spoken word involved. For example, tags like mumbled, shouted and whispered involve the spoken word.
For frowned, it's quite clear it's an action. There are varying views for laughed, but most editors would say it's an action tag.
What is an action tag?
Action tags are words or phrases that describe an action taking place. They can be used to describe what a character is doing.
Action tags are usually placed between the dialogue and the speaker in the middle of a sentence.
“I don't want to go to school.” He paced back and forth. “Even if I went for all my lessons, I still wouldn't be able to pass my exams!”
Tip 4: Use italics for thoughts instead
Thoughts can be presented in several ways, but one of the most common is to use italics.
Italics help to set thoughts apart from the rest of the text. This can be useful when there is a lot of dialogue or if the thoughts are particularly long.
“I can't agree to this. I don't have the money to bribe Big Leopard.” Aunt pursed her lips. “Unless the Innkeeper is willing to help you.”
The Innkeeper, I hated the idea of owing him a favor, but I was at my wit's end.
Tip 5: Replace some dialogue tags with action tags to mix things up
Dialogue tags tend to be repetitive and can quickly become tedious for the reader.
Instead, let the context and the characters' actions show who is speaking.
John turned to her, his eyes pleading. “Please, just give me another chance.” He reached out to touch her arm, but she pulled away.
In this scenario, it's evident that John is the speaker, so there's no need to mention it.
In short, action tags:
- Provide a way to break up the dialogue
- Add more description to the scene.
- Show a character's emotions
Tip 6: Don't use end quotes if the same character speaks for several paragraphs.
If your character's dialogue spans several paragraphs, don't use a closing quotation mark until the end of the final paragraph.
However, you should still begin each new paragraph with quotation marks.
“Around April every year, the school holds its annual general meeting. This year, the school will be discussing whether to increase enrichment fees across the board.
“As you can all imagine, this is a very sensitive topic. And one that we have been debating for some time now.”
Consistency is key
That's my takeaway after sending my book for 2 rounds of editing, reading a bunch of articles, watching YT videos and lurking in a book editor forum 😛.
There's no one “right” way to format dialogue. However, once you've decided on a method, it's important to be consistent throughout your book.
I hope these tips were helpful! If you have other insights to share, do leave a comment below.
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