• 5-minute read
  • 2nd June 2019

Punctuating and Formatting Dialogue

Dialogue – i.e. the words spoken by characters in a story – is a vital part of fiction. And to make sure your story is a pleasure to read, you need to present the dialogue clearly. So to make sure your writing is perfect, check out our guide to punctuating and formatting dialogue in fiction.

1. Basic Punctuation and Dialogue Tags

The main way that authors mark fictional dialogue is by using quote marks. These are sometimes even known as ‘speech marks’, as they indicate that someone has said something. All you need to do in this respect is place spoken dialogue within quote marks:

That is the biggest horse I have ever seen, said Craig.

In British English, as shown above, we typically use single quotes marks for dialogue. However, this is largely a matter of preference in fiction, so you can also use “double quote marks”. You may have also spotted the words outside the quote marks above. This is a dialogue tag. You can use dialogue tags to show who is speaking (in this case, someone called ‘Craig’).

'Neigh,' said the horse.
‘Neigh,’ said the horse.

Something else worth noting here is that punctuation usually goes inside the closing quote mark in dialogue, even when it is not part of what someone is saying, such as the comma before the dialogue tag above. This is not always how we approach this issue in British English, since punctuation usually goes outside quote marks unless it is part of the quotation.

2. Quotes within Dialogue

If a character in your story is quoting someone else in their speech, you need to place this within quote marks as well. But to prevent confusion, you should use the opposite kind of quote marks as you use for the main quotation. For instance, if we were using single quotation marks for our main quote, we would use double quote marks for the quote-within-a-quote:

‘He called me an arrogant fool when I said I’d seen bigger horses.’

Here, we use double quote marks around ‘arrogant fool’. This shows that the speaker is quoting someone else within their dialogue.

3. New Speaker, New Paragraph

A good guideline when formatting dialogue is ‘new speaker, new paragraph’. This means that when someone new starts speaking, you set the dialogue on a new line. For instance:

Craig stared at the massive horse. ‘So huge,’ he muttered to himself.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Shannon, emerging from the farmhouse.
‘I’m watching this massive horse,’ Craig said.
‘Well, I can see that,’ Shannon said. ‘But you’ve been here for six hours, Craig.’

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In the passage above, we have dialogue from two characters. As such, we use line breaks to help the reader keep track of who is speaking, beginning a new line each time the speaker changes.

4. Formatting Long Speeches

One passage of dialogue may require multiple paragraphs. For instance, a character may be telling another character a story within a story as part of your narrative, which could involve speaking at length. And when this happens, it may not be obvious how to punctuate the dialogue.

The answer here is to use a quotation mark at the start of each paragraph when formatting dialogue. However, you will only use a closing quotation mark when the character finally finishes speaking:

Craig sighed. ‘I’ve always been obsessed with horses,’ he explained. ‘When I was a child, I spent weekends on my grandparents’ farm. But all they had were miniature ponies. And they told me that all horses were the same size. They said the ones I saw on television looked bigger because they hired tiny actors to ride them. And I believed it.

‘Or, I did until I was eighteen, anyway. That’s when I met Clayton Moore, the guy who played the Lone Ranger on TV. And he was over six feet tall, so I knew that Silver couldn’t have been as small as the ponies on my grandparents’ farm! It had all been a lie! I felt so betrayed. And ever since then, I have been looking for the biggest horse I can find.’

In the passage above, for instance, we do not use a closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph because it is only half way through Craig’s speech. At the end of the second paragraph, however, we use a closing quote mark to show that Craig has finished speaking.

5. Ellipses and Dashes

Finally, you can use ellipses and dashes to indicate interruptions in dialogue. There are no strict rules about how this works, but we suggest:

  • Using ellipses to show that speech has trailed off (e.g. ‘I don’t know why you have a problem with…’ Craig said, before falling into silence).
  • Using an en dash or em dash to indicate speech that ends suddenly (e.g. ‘You need to take this seri–’ Shannon began, before the horse neighed loudly).

Formatting dialogue like this will help your reader tell the difference between speech that trails off and speech that is suddenly interrupted.

Comments (5)
Helen Warneryd
4th July 2020 at 09:48
I m so happy to have found this. I am writing my first book but have become very rusty on english grammar as I left school 25 years ago. Huge thanks. Helen
Samantha Rawson
8th November 2020 at 11:23
Thank you for this. You have explained this in a way that I can understand. Similar to your previous reply, Having left education in 1989, I am extremely rusty on grammar. It has also changed, only slightly, in some areas. It seems I have read mainly American edited novels over the years, as I had been under the impression it was a double quotation mark in almost all writing. This has cleared it up for me. I am grateful to you.
    9th November 2020 at 11:21
    Hi, Samantha. Double quotations marks are definitely becoming more common in the UK, with certain publishers and publications preferring them over inverted commas, so that might partially explain your own observations on this count. But we used single inverted commas here in line with the traditional UK English conventions.
Nick Turner
8th February 2021 at 04:39
I have a question: I'm writing a novel, using double spacing for the manuscript, but am a tad confused about spacing for the dialogue...do I start each speaker as a new line (one press of "Enter" key), or double press "Enter" key. I've been doing the latter but there's a lot of white space - same with new paragraphs. This was advice from a website, but it doesn't look right to me. Thanks!
    8th February 2021 at 09:37
    Hi, Nick. As explained in this guide, the rule is new speaker, new paragraph (i.e. hit the enter key once). Most publishers also indent the first line of each paragraph rather than having a gap between lines or paragraphs (with gaps instead indicating a change of scene or focus), which minimises the amount of white space, so you might want to do something similar (and you could always submit your manuscript for proofreading and formatting when you're ready).

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