By Edie Melson

Dialogue formatting can cause a lot of confusion. Writing effective dialogue takes skill and a bit of a knowledge base. This is one place where high school or basic college English won’t help.

All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
Speaker tags (like said) are considered part of the sentence and are NOT capitalized.

The words within quotes end in a comma, unless you’re asking a question.

“I can’t believe you did that.” She said.
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said.

“What do you want”? She asked.
“What do you want?” she asked.

A speaker tag is a description of how the words were spoken and who spoke them, like said and asked.

“I can’t believe you did that,” said Susan.

It’s important to keep speaker tags simple. Don’t pull out your thesaurus to find synonyms for said. Said, or asked, is almost invisible and the reader just skims over it, uninterrupted. There are two major problems when you use other words instead of said.

First—it’s distracting. The reader hesitates, needing time to apply the correct definition of the tag you used.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he prevaricated.

Second—you can easily fall into the trap of telling your story through the tags instead of the dialogue, especially if you add an adverb into the line. You want to make sure that the important things happen inside the quotes.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.

A speaker beat is a description of what the character is doing or saying. It’s contained in the same paragraph as the words that are spoken and this shows the reader who’s talking.

I can’t believe you did that.” Susan crossed her arms and frowned.

A beat or a tag can come before or after the spoken lines. Just be sure it makes sense where you put the beat. Some words are spoken as a reaction to an action, so in that case it wouldn’t make sense for them to precede the action.

Susan jumped and placed her hand on her chest. “You scared me. I didn’t know you were there.”

A speaker beat can also show us what the character’s feeling, unlike a tag, which just tells the information.

Telling Example
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.
Showing Example
Simon looked down and dug the toe of his shoe into the dirt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Beginning writers sometimes get confused about whether a short phrase is a speaker beat or a speaker tag. One I see over and over again is she smiled. She smiled is a beat, not a tag. The easiest way to tell the difference is to ask yourself if the can smile (or laugh or whatever) the words. You can’t smile words so you know to punctuate it as a separate sentence.

“I like you,” Angela smiled.
“I like you.” Angela smiled.

Formatting dialogue correctly isn’t difficult, but it’s a skill all fiction writers need to master. Once you’ve got the basics you’ll be able to craft written conversations that flow seamlessly from character to character, adding depth and layers to your novel.


Edie Melson is a freelance writer and editor with 16+ years in publishing. She’s the co-director of several major writing conferences, as well as a popular faculty member at numerous others. That, and her popular writing blog, has allowed her to connect with writers all over the country.

Social Media Marketing for Writers, her bestselling eBook, is available on Kindle and Nook. And her latest project, Fighting Fear, Winning the War at Home, is a devotional book for those with family members in the military. It will debut later in 2011 with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Married 30 years to husband, Kirk, they’ve raised three sons.

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