Like every grammatical or usage rule, there are exceptions to what I’m about to tell you, and if you want to find out what those exceptions are, you can visit websites like this one. But the stuff I’m going to cover today is the standard American way of formatting dialogue (the British way is slightly different), and it is 99% of the time how your dialogue should look.
Being cutesy with your formatting is not cute. It distracts the reader. It makes me put your stuff down and go read somebody else who’s done their legwork or has had a beta reader correct it for them. Yes, I know writing mechanics don’t come easily to everybody. That doesn’t forgive laziness. And yes, not getting help when you’re in trouble or not bothering to learn the rules is laziness in my book. You want to be taken seriously when you write something, you make the effort to make it the best you can.
Rule One: He Said, She Said
Here are two examples, A and B. Let’s see if you can tell which one is properly formatted.
A: “Knock it off,” Casey said suddenly, interrupting Chuck’s thoughts. “You’re pissing me off.”
B: “Knock it off.” Casey said suddenly, interrupting Chuck’s thoughts, “you’re pissing me off.”
Hint: It’s not B.
The proper way to format “He said/She said” dialogue tags is to keep them lowercase, even when the person is asking a question.
Sarah glanced down at the dart and sighed. “Really, Chuck?” she asked.
So you end your dialogue with a comma, exclamation point, or a question mark if you’re going to use a he said/she said tag. Every single time. If you end with a period, you don’t get to use that tag.
In addition, when formatting your he said/she said tags, remember to keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks. Not after! Your dialogue should not look like this:
“A Bacta Tank”? Sarah said. “That’s the tank they dumped Luke Skywalker in to heal after he nearly froze to death on Hoth”.
Rule Two: Only Use Lowercase When It Is Still the Same Sentence
Let’s take a look at A from our first example:
“Knock it off,” Casey said suddenly, interrupting Chuck’s thoughts. “You’re pissing me off.”
Now, in this sentence, Casey is arguably using two different sentences: Knock it off and You’re pissing me off (two very Casey-like sentences). So after Chuck’s thoughts, I put a period. It’s a new sentence after that. Ergo, it’s a period. And then the dialogue starting that new sentence is capitalized.
Let’s say you want to put the Casey said tag in the middle of a longer sentence to break it up. Here’s how it would look:
“You put,” Casey said, “an official government-use training dummy in a dress, Bartowski!”
See? Same sentence, it gets a comma leading into that second spate of dialogue, every single time. Otherwise it gets a period/question mark/exclamation point/em dash/ellipsis. And you don't capitalize the second spate because it's still the same sentence. Very, very simple.
Rule Three: New Paragraph, New Paragraph, New Paragraph
EVERY time a new speaker begins, you need a new paragraph. The only exception to this is if two people are talking at the same time, which looks like this and should be used very sparingly:
“You did what?” Sarah asked at the same time as Casey said, “Haha, Frea couldn’t find an example of this in Fates, so she had to make one up!”
So yes, that’s very, very rare, as you can see. 99 times out of 100, if you have two people having a dialogue (see what I did there?), there needs to be a new paragraph for every new speaker. This is really so that your readers can follow along. Skipping this rule makes them have to stop and really make sure to see who’s talking, which takes them right out of the narrative, which is the last thing you want.
Here’s how it should look:
“No offense,” he said after he’d shut off his comm link, “but I’m starting to regret that you won the coin toss to be the one to go into the estate with me. He really doesn’t wait very well, does he?”
“Shh.” Sarah gave him an aggrieved look and pointed at her open comm unit.
“Hey, Casey,” Chuck said at it, and ducked back into the console.
“Hey, CIA, here’s an idea: this goes faster if you quit making googly eyes at the blonde and get your bony ass in gear!”
Here’s how it should not look:
“Good.” Sarah tried to wiggle out. It didn’t quite work: she ended up elbowing him in the ribs and smacking her head on the top of the console. They both swore. “What’s going on out there?” Casey demanded.
Rule Four: Quotes Within Quotes
Let’s say somebody is quoting somebody else directly in your fictional work (I say fictional because this rule is slightly different for research papers). This is how it looks:
“He wasn’t born yesterday. He said,” and now Sarah dropped her voice in a horrible imitation of Casey, “‘as long as the moron keeps his lady feelings to himself, I don’t care what sort of sick things you two get up to in your spare time.’”
Again, we’re working off of the American system here. You use ‘ and ’ to show what’s being quoted, and you put the comma/period/question mark inside of those brackets, not outside of it. Like your regular dialogue, in which the comma is inside the quotation marks, the comma will be inside both the apostrophes and the quotation marks.
Rule Five: Said Works Best
This is not a hard and fast rule like the others. This is a suggestion. The English language is vast, awe-inspiring, and very, very utile. So there are hundreds of verbs out there that can denote how we speak, holler, yell, mutter, whisper, screech, scream, shout, whimper, input, gush, whoop, etc.
And honestly, you should ignore about 99.5% of them.
Seriously, the only words you really, really need are “said” and “asked.” Let your dialogue speak for itself. The words the characters are speaking will tell the reader exactly how the character is saying. You can say things like, “In a quiet voice” or “quietly” if you feel the emphasis is needed, but the great thing about human brains is that most of the time, your readers don’t need those fancy speech verbs to get it. They’re smart people. Let them figure it out, I promise you nobody will mind.
So yeah, there’s five rules on how to format dialogue. Please, do me a favor and pass this along to anybody who is having a problem with it! The only way we all improve is if we help each other!
Thanks for listening to my rant,