Formatting dialogue correctly can trip up even the most talented writer. From the outside it can appear that formatting dialogue is a black box of contradictory rules. Many writers shy away from the nitty gritty of writing and feel the grammar of speech is something an editor or proofreader should be fixing. They are wrong. The grammar of dialogue is the basic building block of your writing, if you have pride in your work then you should be getting it right.
On a more pragmatic level, no one will care as much about your book as you.Yes, professional editors and proofreaders will fix errors, but the more errors there are the more chance a few of the pesky buggers will slip through the editing net.
The best way to explain the rules of formatting dialogue is to use an example. There, we will illustrate the steps required to format the following section of dialogue:
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob. No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is. If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad. Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.
The first rule is — new speaker, new line.
This is a pretty easy rule to apply. Each time a new speaker speaks you place the line of dialogue on a new line. This line should be indented.
We can see how this applies to our example:
Hi have you seen my cat said Bob.
No said Bill I have no idea where your cat is.
If you see my cat will you let me know questioned Bob looking sad.
Of course replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Next, we look at adding speech marks.
Our next rule says that all speech should be placed in speech marks. These can be either single (‘) or double (“), it’s your choice. However, keep in mind that if you use, say single (‘), you need to be using the opposite, in this case double (“) when you are reporting speech inside speech.
‘Hi have you seen my cat’ said Bob.
‘No’ said Bill ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’
‘If you see my cat will you let me know’ questioned Bob looking sad.
‘Of course’ replied Bill with a tone of concern.
Now, it’s time for punctuation.
When writing dialogue you will often use ‘tags’. These are verbs that link the spoken words with the remainder of the sentence. Commonly used tags includes said, asked, replied and many more. Without going into the technical detail, to correctly punctuate spoken words and tags you must link them using a comma. If you use a full stop the sentences are broken and it no longer makes sense.
If we look at the second line of our example we see:
‘No’ said Bill
This is a single sentence and therefore must end with a full stop, giving us:
‘No’ said Bill.
The tag in this sentence is ‘said’ and this must be connected to the speech. If you added a full stop at the end of the spoken words, it would separate the tag and become incorrect:
‘No.’ Said Bill. [WRONG]
Instead we must link the spoken word and the tag with a comma, this gives us:
‘No,’ said Bill. [CORRECT]
If we apply this to the full example we get:
‘Hi, have you seen my cat?’ said Bob.
‘No,’ said Bill. ‘I have no idea where your cat is.’
‘If you see my cat will you let me know?’ questioned Bob, looking sad.
‘Of course,’ replied Bill, with a tone of concern.
Please note that in the first and third lines we have used a ? instead of a , since it is a question.