Author Tips: How To Format & Punctuate Dialogue


Dialogue is important to any story and can be used to develop characters, develop plots, create a personal connection, put the reader into the story at that moment, strengthen a writer's voice, and make the situation seem real.  

That's what writers want, isn't it?  To suck the reader in to the point they feel invested and involved?

Below are common dialogue errors that we encounter (in the most boring dialogue example possible).

"I see you".
"I see you" He said.
"I see you." He said.
He said, "can I see you?"
"I see you." He said as he smirked, "And I want you to go away."
"Go away" he said,
"I don't want to" She said,

"But I want you to." He said.

Proper Dialogue Formatting

1.    "I see you".

This is considered a single line of dialogue without a dialogue tag.  The entire sentence including punctuation should be within the quotation marks.

The correct writing would be:

"I see you."

2 & 3.  "I see you" He said. / "I see you." He said.

This is a single line with a following attribution.  The dialogue will be safely enclosed in the quotation marks with a comma following the dialogue before the closing quotation.  Also, because the attribution is included in the same sentence and we do not have a proper name as the speaker, the subject will not be capitalized.  (he/she/it/they/we/you)

Likewise, the second example makes a small error with improper punctuation leading into the attribution.  Anytime dialogue is followed by a tag that goes with a particular quotation, the sentence is not over until the dialogue attribute is placed.  Therefore, the dialogue should not be closed until after the attribute and the pause should be put into place with the comma, indicating to the reader how to vocalize the scenario you are writing.

The correct writing would be:

"I see you," he said.

4. He said, "can I see you?"

This is a single line with the attribution leading into the dialogue.  The comma is correct, and will still be used to separate the dialogue from the vocalization.  The comma should be placed immediately after the attribution but before the quotation mark and closing punctuation (. ! ?) should be placed inside of the final quotations.

Also, the first letter of the vocalization or thought should be capitalized.

The correct writing would be:

He said, "Can I see you?"

5. "I see you." He said as he smirked, "And I want you to go away."

Example number 5 is a single dialogue that is interrupted by a dialogue tag.    In this instance, we are still reading one sentence that has been fractured to fit the author's voice for the story.  A comma will be placed inside the first set of quotation marks and after the attribution.  Also, unless we are using a formal name, vague identifiers should not be capitalized.  In this instance, as it is still the same sentence, the second dialogue content will not begin with a capitalization.

The correct writing would be:

"I see you," he said as he smirked, "and I want you to go away."

This dialogue could also be written as:

"I see you," he said.  "And, I want you to go away."

6. "Go away" he said,

"I don't want to" She said,

"But I want you to." He said.

The problem here that we see so frequently is the author not treating each piece of dialogue as a separate statement.  Even though the conversation is a continuing dialogue, the sentences are not all one sentence.

Each statement needs to be properly closed and treated as a separate sentence.

The correct way to write this dialogue would be:

"Go away," he said.

"I don't want to," she said.

"But I want you to," he said.

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Now clearly our choice of dialogue content is basic and would make any editor cringe.  There are other ways to strengthen your dialogue and approach your attribution tags.  We'll touch on that in a future blog.

For now, tell us what your dialogue punctuation questions are, and our editing team will answer these in the comments section.

Cheers and happy editing!