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Formatting Dialogue: Wading Through the Confusion

featured image that says How should I format dialogue? she said.

Okay y’all. Let’s talk about dialogue. When I was just getting started as an author, dialogue was by far the part of grammar that I messed up the most.

Thankfully, I’ve got a pretty good handle on it by now.

So in this article I’m going to tell you everything I’ve learned about it so far, and what you can do to make your dialogue practically jump off the page!

Let’s Start With the Basics

Let’s dive into the Basic Dialogue Rules that will take your writing from blah to BAM!

  • New Paragraphs: First things first, you need to know that every time a new person speaks, you gotta start a new paragraph! Yes, even if that character is alone or speaks a single word. It’s all about keeping your writing clean, organized, and easy to follow. Trust me, your readers will appreciate it.
  • Indents: Now, when it comes to formatting those paragraphs, you’ll want to make sure you’re indenting them properly. Of course, there are some exceptions like at the beginning of a chapter or scene break, but for the most part, an indentation is the way to go.
  • Quotation Marks: And let’s not forget about those quotation marks! They’re your best friend when it comes to dialogue. Make sure to enclose your dialogue in them, and any punctuation related to the dialogue should stay inside the quotes. Don’t worry, I know it can be a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature.

Now, these are just the basics, but there’s so much more to learn! So don’t be afraid to dive into the specific rules of grammar and punctuation when it comes to formatting dialogue.

My Old Enemy…Puncutation

Do you ever find yourself feeling unsure about the rules of punctuating dialogue? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! Let’s dive into some of the key points you need to know.

  • Using Quotation Marks: you gotta use quotation marks when writing American English. Make sure to keep all punctuation marks inside the quotes, even if it doesn’t make sense grammatically.
  • Dialogue Tags: Dialogue tags are optional, but they can be super helpful in avoiding confusion. If it’s unclear who is speaking, use a dialogue tag to help the reader out. And when it comes to question and exclamation marks, they go inside the quotation marks too!
  • Incomplete Dialogue: But what about when dialogue is incomplete? Well, that’s where em-dashes and ellipses come in! They’re perfect for showing that the dialogue is unfinished or trailing off.
  • Capitalization: Oh, and don’t forget about capitalization! The first word of dialogue should always be capitalized.
  • Multiple Paragraph Dialogue: Now, if you’ve got a lot of dialogue, it’s important to divide it into multiple paragraphs. Just make sure to put quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph except the first.
  • Direct vs Indirect: And speaking of paragraphs, there’s a difference between direct and indirect dialogue. Direct dialogue is written within quotation marks, while indirect dialogue is paraphrased without quotes.
  • International Dialogue Use: Last but not least, keep in mind that the use of quotation marks and the rules for punctuation vary across different cultures and style guides. So, make sure you know what style guide you’re using and adjust accordingly.

Curly or Straight?

Now let’s discuss the difference between curly quotes and straight quotes.

First up, straight quotes don’t bend inward, while curly quotes curve inward. They may seem like a small detail, but trust me, they make a big difference in the appearance of your writing.

Curly quotes are more commonly used in publishing, fiction, and dialogue. So, if you’re writing a book or short story, you’ll definitely want to use curly quotes to give your work a professional look.

But wait, how do you change straight quotes to curly quotes? Well, you can do it manually through keyboard shortcuts! However, the process for using keyboard shortcuts differs between PC and Mac. And, if you’re working on a large project, like a book, using keyboard shortcuts to replace all quotes can be tedious.

Thankfully, there are easier options available for replacing straight quotes with curly quotes. Which leads me to one of my favorite topics to promote…

The Right Formatting in Atticus

Do you want to know the easiest way to upgrade your writing game? Say hello to Atticus! This writing program has a super cool feature that can automatically change straight quotes to curly quotes!

The “Apply Smart Quotes” button is located right on the top writing toolbar, making it easy to find and use. Just click on it, and a pop-up will appear, applying curly quotes to your entire book! Can you say, “easy peasy lemon squeezy?”

And the best part? Doing this for each chapter ensures that your entire book is free of straight quotes! No more searching through every page of your manuscript, trying to find and replace all those pesky straight quotes.

This feature in Atticus saves a significant amount of time and is the easiest way to improve your quotes. So, if you’re ready to make your writing pop, download Atticus today and start using this feature! Trust me, your writing will thank you.

What About Dialogue Tags?

While there are many words that can be used as dialogue tags, it’s generally considered best practice to stick to “said” and “asked”. Using uncommon dialogue tags can actually draw readers out of the book and disrupt the reading experience. So, if you want to keep your readers immersed in the story, it’s best to avoid fancy dialogue tags.

Some authors may occasionally use other dialogue tags like “clarified”, “shouted”, or “whispered”, but these should be used sparingly. Readers expect to see “said” and “asked” and their minds tend to overlook these words while taking in the necessary attribution data.

Here’s a hot tip: using “said” repeatedly does not seem repetitive! Since it’s expected by the reader, it won’t disrupt the flow of the story. So, keep it simple and stick to “said” and “asked”.

What About Formatting Interruptions?

When dialogue is interrupted by a tag and action, there are two ways to format it. In the first way, a comma is used to replace the period at the end of the first sentence, and the second sentence begins with a conjunction. For example, “I love ice cream,” said Sarah, and then she took a big spoonful.

In the second way, the interruption is formatted by separating the spoken pieces into two separate sentences, with the second sentence starting with a capitalized word and ending with a period. For instance, “I love ice cream.” Sarah took a big spoonful.

If dialogue is interrupted by just an action, it is formatted with em-dashes outside of the dialogue. For instance, “I love ice cream!” Sarah exclaimed — then she took a big spoonful. This is because the text would look broken if the em-dashes were inside the dialogue.

Dialogue Beats

So, what are beats? They are small actions given to characters to avoid having dialogue between two talking heads. Instead of having two characters just standing there and talking, you can add beats to make the scene more realistic and engaging.

Beats move the story along and can reduce the number of dialogue tags. They add a layer of depth to the characters and make the scene more vivid in the reader’s mind. Plus, they can be used to convey emotions and thoughts that dialogue tags might not capture.

The great thing about beats is that they can be added to a dialogue tag. For example, “I love ice cream,” Sarah said, licking her lips. Adding a beat to a dialogue tag gives the scene more depth and provides the reader with additional information.

Interrupting the flow of dialogue with a beat is encouraged as it creates diversity in the scene. It can also help to break up long conversations, making the text easier to read and adding more interest.

So, next time you’re writing dialogue, remember to add some beats to make the scene more engaging and realistic.

Inner Dialogue

The first way to format inner dialogue is to italicize it and present it with a tag. This is similar to how quoted dialogue is formatted, but with an added touch of italics. For example, “I can’t believe I just did that,” she thought to herself. This format helps to distinguish the inner thoughts of the character from the dialogue spoken aloud.

The second way to format inner dialogue is to italicize it and present it without a tag, and sometimes with a beat. For instance, She looked at herself in the mirror, thinking, I don’t look good in this dress. Adding a beat, like “She looked at herself in the mirror,” helps to indicate that the thoughts are coming from the character.

The final way to format inner dialogue is to not italicize it and not use a tag. This is common in deeper points of view and first-person point of view. For example, “I can’t believe I just did that.” The reader is inside the character’s head, and the inner dialogue is not distinguished from the character’s other thoughts and actions.

My Final Tips

Let’s talk about other ways to create effective and engaging dialogue for your characters.

  • Tags and Beats: First things first, make sure you’re using effective dialogue tags, beats, and making it clear who is speaking. This helps the reader follow the conversation and stay engaged in the story.
  • Character Voice: But, don’t forget to focus on creating a unique voice for each character. Think about their personality, background, and speech patterns. Avoid overdoing character voice with heavy accents, excessive curse words, or overuse of fillers.
  • No Info-dumping: It’s also important to avoid info-dumping with dialogue. Make sure the dialogue naturally fits the character and situation, and avoid forcing exposition through conversation.
  • Change Things Up: Mix things up with different ways to diversify your dialogue tags. Use beats, use tags before/after/during dialogue, or remove tags when the speaker is obvious. This creates variety and adds interest to the conversation.
  • No Repetitive Styles: Finally, avoid repetitive dialogue styles. Mix things up by varying the length, tone, and style of your characters’ conversations. This will keep your readers engaged and invested in the story.

And I hope that helps! Ultimately the best way to learn to write great dialogue is to work on writing it yourself. The more you can do, the better it’ll work!

Best of luck!


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