Basic Dialogue Formatting & Punctuation for Novels

Okay, so this is something I had to learn when I first started writing for publication and, as an editor with Little Green Eyed Press, it’s something I try to help teach my fellow writers.

While some of this can be stylized (like how to use, write, and tweak dialogue tags to their fullest) and highly specialized, there are some basics that a lot of new writers, or even seasoned writers, miss or forget.

So, here’s my own way of remembering dialogue formatting and punctuation…

I hope it helps you like it does me… and that it allows for creativity on your end once you’ve mastered it! Of course, this won’t cover everything, and stylized writers might find some tidbits to disagree on, but these are, as I live and breathe them, the basics.

I don’t know if they still teach sentence diagramming in schools, but if you know it (or once made paper airplanes out of your worksheets on it), then this might come a bit easier…

Let’s strip down our dialogue in 3 basic kinds…

1. A tag introduces the dialogue line.

Emily smiled with wet lips and said, “I’m so freaking hungry right now!”

2. A tag the concludes the dialogue line.

“I want to go outside for a walk,” he said with a twitch of disdain.

3. A tag in the middle of the dialogue line.

“Well,” she said harshly, “I think it’s utter crap. Okay?”

Now, let’s strip our basic kinds into base parts.

1. [TAG] comma or colon [DIALOGUE] ending punctuation mark* 

In this example, you’re going to treat this entire line, dialogue tag included, as a single sentence. This is, literally, the key to the palace.

Think about it!

The tag is almost always an incomplete thought (a fragment) that depends upon the dialogue line that follows for clarity. That said, they must be punctuated as one sentence.

So, no matter what the tag is… you will have a comma or colon (uncommon) after the tag that introduces the beginning of the quotation marks. And, at the end of the dialogue line — before the closing quotation marks — there will be an ending punctuation mark.

With the dialogue line, you’ll want to capitalize the first word inside the quotation marks.

*Ending punctuation marks are either: periods, em dashes (indicative of being cut off), ellipses (indicative of trailing off), exclamation marks, or question marks.

Examples:
He smiled and shouted, Woo! Party!
Elizabeth said, No, Darcy. I don’t understand.
Lionel shrugged and asked, What do you mean by that?

 

2. [DIALOGUE] transitioning punctuation mark**  [TAG] ending punctuation mark

In this example, we’re looking at the mirror of #1. Just like before, and like all dialogue lines with tags, we must consider the tag + dialogue part of the same sentence.

The main difference here, is that after the opening quotation marks, followed by the dialogue line, we need a transitioning punctuation mark before we put up our closing quotation marks.

Why? Because this will take us into the second part of this sentence, the tag, which depends on the dialogue line for clarity. Only at the end of the tag will you find the ending punctuation mark (almost always a period in this structure).

CRITICAL: The tag, unless it starts with a proper noun, will not be capitalized.

Why? If you capitalize it, you’re indicating a new sentence, when it truly isn’t… which makes everything super confusing and flow-impeding. It doesn’t matter if the transitioning punctuation mark is a ! or a ? here. It’s still lowercase. It’s still the same sentence.

**Transitioning punctuation marks are never periods. Ever. (A period equates to a stop in the thought, right? So it isn’t transitioning us into anything. Make sense?) Transitioning punctuation marks are, more often than not, commas. But, they can also be: exclamation marks, question marks, em dashes (rare), ellipses (indicative of trailing off or rambling/stumbling), or semi-colons***.

***Please, if you are not familiar with the role of a semi-colon and its function/purpose in a sentence, please don’t dive too deeply into the pool of scarcely-used-anymore punctuation marks.

Examples:
I don’t think I can do that, she said sadly.
You don’t like chocolate? the baker asked, shocked beyond belief.
Best day ever! she squealed as she hugged her stuffed teddy.
Charlotte he breathed.

 

3. [DIALOGUE PART 1] transitioning punctuation mark [TAG] transitioning punctuation mark [DIALOGUE PART 2] ending punctuation mark

Okee dokee…this is the most tricky, in my opinion, but if you remember how to offset prepositional phrases (and incomplete thoughts) with commas, you’ll have an easier time with this format.

This format is sort of the culmination of the first two and is used far, far less than the other formats. It’s a great tool for suspense, purposefully breaking flow, and/or breaking up monotonous syntax.

Here, we are starting the sentence with the first part of the dialogue line, so it will be capitalized like the beginning of any sentence. At whatever interval you’ve decided to split the dialogue up, you’ll need to insert a transitioning punctuation mark. Eighty percent of the time (and for simplicity’s sake here) this specific instance of a TPM (transitioning punctuation mark) is going to be a comma.

Are there exceptions? Yes. Just follow the rules for formatting after TPMs in #2, and you’ll be fine!

After you’ve got the first part of the dialogue, plus the TPM comma, you’re going to close the quotation marks and put in your tag. It is crucial to note that, unless the first word of this tag is a proper noun, that it is not capitalized. Again, this is in the middle of a sentence. We don’t want to be signaling a new sentence, and a new thought here. So, lowercase it is.

At the end of this tag, will be a comma TPM and then a fresh set of opening quotation marks. And, here’s the catch… unless the second dialogue line begins with a proper noun, do not capitalize it. Why? It’s still the same sentence, right? Cool! So, lowercase it out and finish strong with an ending punctuation mark before closing the quotation marks.

Bam! Nailed it.

Word of Caution: The #3 format only works when the dialogue line is truly split into two parts. 

If the dialogue lines can function separately – as independent clauses – then you should not write them in this format. You should use #2, and then add another line of dialogue, without a tag, after it.

Examples:
Really, Todd, she began flatly, it’s just not that simple.
I say, Mrs. Cordial, said the colonel, you are spoiling the ending.

And… those are the basics, for 3 common structures.

Of course, there are two more things you’re going to want to remember…

1. Always remember that punctuation marks go inside the quotation marks.

Your editor (and grammar police everywhere) will greatly appreciate it!

2. Remember that with large amounts of dialogue, the kind that spans over multiple paragraphs…

Start with opening quotation marks, but not to put up the closing quotation marks until all the paragraphs of dialogue is done.

You will also want to remember to always cue your reader in that those paragraphs are continuous dialogue, but putting starting quotation marks on every new paragraph (leaving the closing quotation marks off until the final sentence.)

Example:

Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah.

Blah blah blah… blah blah! Blah blah di blah blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah.

Blah di di blah di blah. Blah blah blah…. blah blah di blah, Stan said.

 
Yes, there are nuances and some other situations that will arise, but these are the bare bones. But, this is what helps me ensure that my editor kills my novels with a red pen, not me.

Note: I owe some of the examples wholly to the amazingly talented, awesome, inspiring Miss Shannon Hale and her Midnight in Austenland novel. I love it. You should, too.

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