Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
August 2, 2023

How to Format Dialogue in Novels

The Art of Clear Conversations

By Sandy Vaile

Silhouettes of three people seated in a semicircle. A woman on the left has a notebook & is holding a pen & is looking up at  a speech bubble above her head. The man on the right also has a speech bubble above his head. The man in the center has a question mark above his head.

Dialogue in fiction stories is a reliable way of bringing characters to life and immersing readers in their lives, but for it to be effective, it needs to be understood. As Michel de Montaigne said in his essay, On the Art of Conversation, “The most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind … is conversation.” It stimulates thinking, engages facial expressions and has the magic to convey complex ideas to others. In fact, we were communicating verbally long before we decided to write down ideas.

Engaging conversations that add value to narration, need to:

  • Make it clear who is speaking to whom;
  • Use succinct and authentic language;
  • Compliment the surrounding narrative; and
  • Be correctly formatted and punctuated.

Dialogue definition - For the purposes of fiction, it is any words that are spoken aloud by a character, which support what is going on in the plot.

It doesn’t include private thoughts, dreams or narration.

Make it Clear Who is Speaking

It’s important that readers can easily determine who is speaking, so they can follow the conversation and don’t get the wrong impression of what’s going on in the story. Ambiguity can lead to misinterpretation, but this can be prevented by:

  • Separating the speech and actions of each character into different paragraphs.
  • Not going too long without a dialogue tag to establish who is speaking.

Clear paragraph deliniation

The dialogue (and attached narration) for one character must be put into a separate paragraph.

Clear dialogue tags

Dialogue tag definition – The words that frame dialogue (just before, in the middle of or after it), which identify the speaker and provide context for what’s being said.

Here are some tips for using dialogue tags effectively:

  • Don’t wait too long to identify the speaker. If the dialogue is long and it’s not immediately clear who is speaking, then interrupt it early on to slip in their name or another way of identifying them.
  • If it’s clear who’s speaking, you don’t need to have a tag on every line. This is especially true when there are only two people having a conversation and it’s easy to keep track of for a few lines.
  • Often the simplest tag, like he/she said, is best because a reader’s mind will naturally skip over it. Going overboard with adverbs and unnecessary actions can be distracting. You can always enhance it with cues to how they feel about the conversation. Often adverbs can be avoided with a little effort to find a stronger verb. For example:

“How dare you,” Jane said indignantly. [‘Indignantly’ is the adverb, which is telling readers how this character feels.]

“How dare you!” Jane snapped, a tide of angry red rising up her neck and cheeks. [‘Snapped’ is a stronger verb that tells readers how Jane spoke, and then I’ve added a description of what her physical reaction looks like to the Point of View character.

  • Vary the type of dialogue tag you use (e.g. he said, actions and narration) so they don’t become repetative.

You can also use thoughts, actions, body language, facial expressions and thoughts by the Point of View character in the surrounding narration, to not only make it clear who is speaking, but how they feel about it and what else they’re doing. For example:

“Um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His face flushed and gaze darted towards the exit.

“Like hell,” Jane said, stalking towards him with clenched fists.

  • Minimise narrative and tags before dialogue because it detracts from the key information and speed readers may miss it.

How to handle multiple speakers

Of course, things become more complicated when there are three or more characters participating in a conversation. When there’s a crowd:

  • You will need more dialogue tags to help readers identify who is speaking, but mix up the type of tag, so you’re not saying he said/she said all the time. For instance, also use actions, body language and facial expressions to show how they are reacting to what’s being said.
  • Consider whether all of those characters really need to be involved. Can fewer characters present the same information? Does each one have somethig valuable to contribute or are they just there filling the room?
  • You can sometimes move the Point of View character’s attention to the speaker physically or through their thoughts.

Correctly Format and Punctuate Dialogue

Joining dialogue tags

Dialogue should only be joined to a tag with a comma if the tag is something that can actually be said, e.g. he said, she whispered, he yelled, she mumbled.

“Hey, Dan, wait up a minute,” Jenny called as she jogged across the oval. [‘Called’ is something spoken.]

If the tag can’t be said, then you must use a full stop to separate them, e.g. he grunted, she waved, he chewed on his lip, she glanced around the room.

“Gosh, I didn’t expect to see you here.” Dan stopped walking and smiled. [‘Stopping’, ‘walking’ and ‘smiling’ aren’t something that can be spoken.]


The punctuation related to dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, except when em dashes are used like brackets for non-spoken narrative that breaks dialogue (see the example below), or the tag is situated before the dialogue.

Tag before – Sally called across the oval, “Hang on a minute, Dan.”

Tag after – “Hang on a minute, Dan,” Sally called across the oval.

Tag in the middle – “Hang on a minute, Dan,” Sally called across the oval. “I need to talk to you.”

Tag in the middle – “Hang on a minute,” Sally called across the oval, “I need to explain.”


When dialogue commences at the beginning of a sentence, captialise it, even if there was a tag before it.

“A snake just slithered behind the shed.”

Sally said, “A snake just slithered behind the shed.”

Tags that are joined to dialogue with a comma because they can be spoken, are not capitalised unless they are a proper noun; even if the dialogue ends with an exclamatioin or question mark.

“A snake just slithered behind the shed,” said Sally.

“A snake just slithered behind the shed,” Sally said.

“A snake just slithered behind the shed. What do you think we should do?” said Sally.

Quotes within quotes

When quoting someone within dialogue, use a different style of quotation mark, e.g. if you’re using double quote marks, then change to single, or if you’re using single quote marks, change to double.

“Look, I specifically heard Mum say, ‘Don’t go to that party,’ and you still went.”

‘Look, I specifically heard Mum say, “Don’t go to that party,” and you still went.’

Dialog Formatting examples in a box
When interrupting the flow of dialogue:
  • Refer back to the above rule about whether it can be spoken and therefore be joined by a comma. If not, separate it using a full stop or em dash. For example:

“I just can’t believe I forgot to bring it,” Sally said. “I even wrote a note to remind me.”

“I just can’t believe I forgot to bring it,” Sally said, “after writing a note and everything.”

“I just can’t believe I fogot to bring it,” —Sally was flustered as she searched her handbag for the offending envelope— “after writing a note and everything.

  • An ellipsis ( … ) signifies that words are missing, i.e. when speech trails off, and goes inside the quotation marks.
  • An em dash ( — ) signifies speech is cut off, i.e. when someone interrupts it, and goes inside the quotation marks.
  • A hyphen signifies stilted speech, like stuttering, e.g. “I h-h-haven’t seen it, honest.”
Dialog Formatting examples in a box
When you have a long passage of dialogue:
  • There might occasionally be instances where you have a very long amount of dialogue from one character, and this can look cramped on the page. You can break it into paragraphs without breaking the dialogue.

[Paragraph of dialogue that will continue in the next paragraph has no closing quotaion marks.]

[Each subsequent paragraph of dialogue has opening quotation marks.]

[The final paragraph of dialogue has closing quotation marks.]

A couple of warnings

  • Breaking up dialogue too often or with large sections of narration can cause its message to be disjointed, and will slow the pace.
  • Beware of overusing names in the dialogue, because this sounds unrealistic, e.g.:

“Hi Sally, it’s great to see you.”

“You too Jane. How has your week been?”

“Fabulous, Sally.”

  • When using dialogue to reveal information, like backstory, make sure it is relevant to what’s going on in the narration and doesn’t sound forced. For example:

“Hi Jane. As you know I’m a horse-riding instructor and got my certificate in 2015. What do you do for a living?” [Awkward. People just don’t talk to one another like that.]

But look at the same information revealed using a more conversational tone:

Jane picked up the photo of a younger Emily atop an impressive black horse. “Wow, I didn’t know you rode.”

“For years.” Emily said. “Actually, I’m a riding instructor. Got my certificate just last year. What do you do for a crust?”

Bonus Tip for Quotation Marks

I recommend authors use double quotation marks (“) no matter where they are planning to submit their work, because it provides flexibility.

It’s easy to use the Find and Replace function to replace all double quotation marks with singles. However, if you have used single quotation marks, the Find feature will pick up all of the apostrophes too, so you’ll have to manually change each one. Tedious!

Your fiction stories will ultimately benefit from succinct, purposeful, authentic and well-formatted dialogue, because those things enable readers to easily understand what’s being said, by whom. They also bring the narrative to life by immersing readers in characters’ lives and moving the plot forwards.

If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering WITS readers the opportunity to get professional guidance about the next best steps to move their writing forwards, from an industry professional.

Book a time in Sandy’s diary here.

What dialog punctuation problems have you encountered? How did you solve it?

* * * * * *

About Sandy 

Sandy Vaile is a traditionally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, with more than a decade of experience in the industry, who empowers authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.

Sandy is also a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. Living in the McLaren Vale wine region means lots of prosseco and cheese platters in her down time.

Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.

Image Credits:

Top image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Dialog Formatting sheets by Sandy Vaile

15 comments on “How to Format Dialogue in Novels”

  1. Fantastic post. I've done workshops on dialogue, and you've hit everything (and more) here.
    When I was with a book club, I commented on the book we'd read, that the author's using more than one person in someone's dialogue paragraph was driving me nuts, and more than one of the group was totally unaware of that "rule". Readers don't read like authors.
    When I was first learning the craft, if I had more than two people in a scene, I'd send one for coffee, or to the bathroom, or anywhere to get around keeping track of who was saying what. I've learned a lot since then, but I still have to watch those "group conversations" to make sure speakers are clear.

    1. Thank you Terry, I'm glad you found the article valuable. Dialogue is something my clients often struggle with.

      You are so right. Readers don't pay attention to all of the minutiae us authors fuss about.

      Group conversations are definitely the trickiest. I try to keep the number of people who are interacting to a minimum. Often we throw "extras" in when they don't really contribute anything important.

      Have fun with your writing, Terry.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Sandy. The habit of some self-published authors to use words you can't speak as dialogue tags drives me crazy! But you are correct, readers don't notice those things. My own reader husband never thought that was a problem until after we married and he overheard me ranting at a book. lol

    1. I love that you've been training your hubby, Lynette.

      Even though readers don't worry so much about correct formatting and other things writers do, I believe it still affects their reading enjoyment.
      These style guidelines are in place to make our writing (and dialogue) clear, so readers understand the meaning we want to convey, and to avoid confusion, which detracts from their focus on the story.

      Happy writing.

    1. Glad you found this information useful, Kris.

      I love to bookmark handy articles too. It's easy to think we have something down pat ... until we go to apply it in our stories, and need a refresher.

    1. I love lots of dialogue in stories, Eamon.

      I'm glad this article was helpful. Keep it bookmarked and you can always refer back to it, and if you ever get stuck with anything, I'm always happy to help via a message on social media or my website @FearlessProse.

  3. Thanks, great advice. Dialogue tags aren't my strong suit, so I tend to avoid them.

    Do you mind if I link to this article from my blog?

    1. Hi Jean,
      You're not alone in dialogue tags giving you grief. The most common issue is knowing whether to join them to tags with a comma or full stop.

      You are most welcome to link back to this article, and drop me a line if you ever get stuck with a tricky dialogue dilemma, on social media or my website @Fearlessprose

      Thanks for reading.

  4. Really, an excellent, excellent article!

    I’m glad to say I already do the many things you explain here, although I’m not sure when and where I actually learned them. Much like my vocabulary, I don’t know how many of the rarely spoken words I recall just pop into my head when needed.

    However, within critique groups I attend, one or two have questioned me on my placement of punctuation in my dialogue, and I’ve always assured them these were the accepted proper practices. Now, I’m saving a link to your article on my cellphone, so I can email it to them. However, I feel it’s a good read even for those like myself who may get it right, but appreciate the sound affirmation.

    1. You are too kind, Jerold, and I am thrilled that you are happy to share this article.

      You sound like me in that a lot of my grammar and punctuation must have been learned through reading osmosis (or maybe back in the dark ages that taught that kind of thing in school and I actually remembered some of it).

      My clients often struggle with dialogue formatting because there are so many different situations to consider, so hopefully having the information in one place will help many.

      Happy writing.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved