That's What She Said!

I’m going to address a pet peeve today, and I apologize in advance for the toes I’m about to step on, but it can’t be helped. I’ve got to say something.

Today’s topic:

How to Format Your Freaking Dialogue

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,



  1. Haha. You should tag this under rants, too. :D Semi-kidding aside, this was a wonderfully written post, as always. I know I'm a major Grammar Nazi, but dialogue is also the biggest thing for me, so you've hit every nail on the head for my biggest pet peeve about it. Too many times I've had to click out of a fanfic not because it didn't have potential (some have had great starts and compelling storylines), but because the way the dialogue was formatted was just plain horrendous. And yeah, maybe people will get into our faces for "being so nitpicky and anal about it," but that's just how it is. Someone who takes the time and effort to use correct formatting will always take higher precedence in my book, because I can SEE it with my own eyes. It not only looks aesthetically better, but it flows better, too.

    I would elaborate on other things, but it's current 4:45 in the morning, and I'm typing this on my itouch in bed. (Blame any typos on autocorrect.) My eyes hurt. I need to sleep. Sooooo...I'll probably just come back to this later. Other people (who are not insane like me and actually read this blog at normal hours of the day and night) will have hopefully posted their feedback by then as well. :)

  2. nnegandhi9.3.11

    Utile. Heh. That one had me reaching for a dictionary (okay, Googling) for the first time in ages.

  3. I'm a little sad the dictionary calls it obsolete, as I find it to be a good useful word for "useful."


    And Crystal, thanks! You do excel at making me blush.

  4. Anonymous9.3.11

    Nice little rant there, Frea! I enjoyed all the contextual Fates/non-Fates quotes.

    I was wondering if you happened to have a link to site that lists the differences between British and American dialogue that you mentioned. I've tried Wikipedia to no avail. Would be quite useful to know. :)

  5. Becca9.3.11

    "Thank you!" Becca said. "This should be distributed to all fiction writers!"

    And that's where I stop before I make a mistake. This is such a pet peeve of mine, and you hit 5 pretty key impact areas. My favourite, which many a fanfic writer has fallen to is the new paragraph. I don't understand - it was one of the first things I was taught as a child in English. Weren't they?

    What's most annoying (new paragraph for a new topic... Though it's not an entirely new topic. Ooh, look! A capital letter after '...' Sorry. Getting off topic) is that most of these are common sense! It makes sense to put new characters on different lines, because then it's easier for us to follow the conversation.

    I, too, have clicked the 'back' button on far too many fics because of bad grammar. More often than not the writers who pay attention to presentation have appreciated that just because this is a hobby, doesn't mean the work should be sloppy, and their fics are much better organised.

  6. Anonymous9.3.11

    Yep, I too had seen uses of quotations abused and abused and abused in Fan Fiction and it drove me up the wall. You are exactly right here. And I see lots of other mistakes too. One in the top 10: Using "loose" when they mean "lose" and using "lose" when they mean "loose." They are not the same word people!

  7. Nice little tactical nuke there, Frea. I don't make most of those mistakes anymore, but there was surely a time I did. Still feeling a little burn. :)

    But as I've gotten better, I've become incredibly less tolerant for stuff that takes me out of the flow. Most times I just hit the back button at the first sign of trouble. After all, is it likely to get better later? And will I be less or more irritated after the tenth or fiftieth occurrence?

    Yeah, that's what I think too.

  8. Anonymous9.3.11

    I've had all these rules drilled into me since childhood (in two languages no less... things get interesting with Continental French vs American French and it's descendants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English_usage_of_quotation_marks#French ). The thing is, when reading my own attempts at fiction, the dialogue always ends up sounding like a court transcript - boring blocks of he saids and she saids. Getting dialoge to flow naturally is a skill I've yet to truly master, and one that has kept me from posting much.

    My other main pet peeve in fanfic is when authors mix narratives. It depends on the fandom, but I really notice it in the Dresden Files since the canon is always first person, but often novice authors drift into third person several paragraphs into their work. You have more freedom when writing for TV, where the narrative isn't quite as clearly defined, but I find it hugely aggravating when an author starts out "I thought she looked nice", then ends up with "he thought she looked nice". Pick on and stay with it damn it!

  9. The Difference Between American and British punctuation

    I noticed this when--nerd alert--I was reading my British copies of HP and I noticed the apostrophes vs. the quotation marks (I got the British copies because GoF had a dragon on the cover).

    Becca, with ellipses, it's always been my understanding that three dots indicates a pause and four dots indicates the end of a sentence, which means you would only capitalize after four dots. I may be wrong (it's been known to happen), but that's the way I've always played it.

    Oh, man, Anonymous2, lose and loose drive me NUTS. As do your and you're. I have a "grammar eye twitch." :)

    Aardie, we've all made some glaring grammatical and usage mistakes. We just have to grin and bear it, right? Knowledge is power, you know (and power corrupts, so study hard and be evil). And unfortunately, knowledge is also knowledge, so we tolerate less when we know more about something. Them's the breaks. :-P

  10. Anonymous3, knowing when to include tags and the like is unfortunately one of those skills you have to practice, practice, practice. Trends in writing recently have moved to fewer he said/she said tags and into what's called beats: pieces of action in between the dialogue.

    Here's a bit from Chapter 40 of Fates that has beats instead of tags:

    "I'm fine, Sarah's fine. Dr. Zarnow of Intersect Project fame is apparently a traitor, given that he came by to try and kidnap Sarah."

    "What? He kidnapped Walker?"

    "Didn't I just say that—no, he didn't. He's unconscious now."

    There was a pause on the other end of the line. Chuck could hear traffic noise and wondered just how badly Casey was breaking the speed limit. Finally, the NSA agent spoke. "Should've let him get away with the blonde."

    Chuck sputtered. "I happen to be fond of the blonde!"

    "That makes one of us. Walk me through what happened."

    I use beats quite a bit when I'm writing. To be fair, I don't really give a lot of conscious thought to when I use "he said" and "she said." I've been writing long enough that that's one of those things I do without thinking and then edit in the second draft. But I do notice that I can overuse beats; in fact, these are the things that get cut most often in the second draft. Unless a lot is happening in the scene or you have a lot of characters (in which case he said/she said tags are pretty necessary), try to minimize the actions you put in the dialogue. It helps your rhythm.

    Hm, maybe I should write a whole in-depth post on this. I hope, however, that this little bit of advice has helped.

  11. Believe it or not, as extensive as the list is, you didn't actually cover one of my biggest pet peeves of dialogue. And that is the proper way to address a character in dialogue.

    For example, this is NOT how you're supposed to do it:

    "Hey Chuck, would you pass me the salt?"

    "Chuck would you pass me the salt?"

    Just...no. That is one of the fastest ways to convince me, as a reader, that you don't know what you're doing quite yet. That you haven't learned the basic writing conventions of dialogue.

    This is how the dialogue SHOULD look:

    "Hey, Chuck, would you pass me the salt?"

    "Chuck, would you pass me the salt?"

    "Let's go home, Chuck. I want to have sexytimes," said Sarah.

    It is important that you offset the name of whoever is being addressed from the rest of the sentence. This is a fundamental part of not just writing good dialogue, but basic grammar as well. I wish most people would remember this. I'd say it's actually the number one mistake I see people make in dialogue.

    The only time that this might not be true or done is if the author has chosen to omit this particular rule for stylistic purposes, but in that case, it's highly likely that the rest of their dialogue (and probably prose, too) is breaking convention as well. At that point, you just gotta go with the flow if you want to continue reading.

  12. "Said works best" is apparently a biggie for Elmore Leonard. I don't remember where I read it (some article on writing, obviously), but it was his opinion that a writer who uses anything other than "said" should be summarily executed.

    I'm glad he doesn't know me.

  13. I don't think it has to go that far. Sometimes I think a different word besides "said" flows better and saves time, but half the time after I use any word other than said or asked, I change my mind in the second draft. It's one of those rules some writers are militant about. Me, I'm okay with letting it slide every once in awhile if it fits the cadence of the piece...

    Except for yelled. I hate yelled with the passion equivalent to the fire of a thousand suns. I don't know why, but it makes me twitch.

  14. Every time I catch myself branching out from simple 'hes said' tags I cringe a little. It just happens subconsciously and I don't catch it until I've already posted or turned it in. And then my fiction classmates yell at me.

    @frea: agree. Yelled is the worst. Maybe because if you need to emphasize that particular line, shouted has an extra syllable to alter the cadence slightly.

  15. Frea/ninja: The worst is when you've got capslock/italics dialogue, an exclamation point (or two...or three) AND yelled in the same sentence. It's like, why don't you just jab me in the chest with every word while you're at it? Or hit me in the face with a baseball bat? *eyeroll*

    Sadly, this even applies to Harry Potter. Yes, J.K. Rowling, I understand from the capslock that Harry is an angry teenager. But every single time you write the word "bellow," I just get this image of a big-headed caricature using a bass opera voice as he talks. Er, I mean, bellows.

  16. Just a question I understand your point, but it has also been drilled into me you should not keep repeating the same words over and over. It's boring.
    Also I am learning you don't-have to put he said at the end of every spoken statement, but I worry the reader may loose track if I overdo it. So how do you keep a balance?

  17. BD, it's true that you shouldn't use words repeatedly, but "said" is actually an exception to that rule, if I remember correctly. I used to think the same as you: that using the word "said" over and over is just plain boring. But think about it. When you're reading a novel, are you honestly paying attention to that word? To me, "said" is a non-intrusive way of letting the reader know who is speaking, while also acting as a break between actual dialogue. Most of the time, I end up skimming over the word entirely because I'm so focused on the dialogue itself. It's when people constantly use words OTHER than "said" that I get distracted from the text. In fact, ever since making the switch to "said," seeing too much of anything else actually affects my enjoyment of the book altogether.

    Okay, I'm kind of sucking at this explanation, so I'll let this link tell you what I'm trying to say. Haha.

    The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags

    I think the gist is this: You shouldn't have to rely on synonyms and adverbs to get your dialogue across. Dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own, y'know?

    As for keeping a balance, it's really just learning to get a feel for rhythm and flow. You don't want to have an onslaught of dialogue, because people do get tired of reading paragraphs and paragraphs without any breaks. But at the same time, you don't want to be plugging in "saids" after every sentence, because then that ends up breaking apart the flow altogether. Honestly, the best thing to do may be to read your writing aloud, making sure to pay close attention to your punctuational pauses. Does it have a nice flow? Do the sentences vary in length? Do the words sound right?

    I know it's a lot to take in, but in the end, it all comes down to practice, practice, practice, and a decent ear. Reading stories by your favorite authors—both published and fanfiction—also helps. :)

  18. Anonymous12.3.11

    As if I wasn't terrified enough when I post something...

  19. Becca12.3.11

    @Frea... whoops. You're right - 4 dots required :)

  20. Aw, Anonymous...it's always terrifying when posting a story. We all know the feeling. But posting is what gets us the feedback and support to help us improve, right? ;)

    ...Unless you're talking about posting comments to this blog, in which case, I know that feeling, too. Haha. I actually don't post comments too often because I'm more the type to sit back and see what others' opinions are, but mxpw has been bugging me to be more interactive on the blog. :P

  21. Anonymous29.3.11

    I wish I could write like you guys... *sigh


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