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Self-Editing Tips: How to Format Dialogue



Formatting dialogue can be tricky, especially because there are different rules for different situations. Here’s a guide to help you figure out the basics of what’s going on with all this he said/she said.

First, here are some terms you will need to know:

dialogue tag: words that explain something is being said, such as “he said”

open quotation marks: quotation marks at the beginning of dialogue

close quotation marks: quotation marks at the end of dialogue

SITUATION 1: TEXT AFTER DIALOGUE

1) If text after the dialogue is a dialogue tag, then a comma goes before the close quotation marks . . .

Example: “I could really go for a jelly doughnut,” he said.

2) . . . unless you are using a question mark, an exclamation mark, or ellipses. Then that mark goes before the close quotation mark.

Example: “I love jelly doughnuts!” he said.

Example: “What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?” he asked.

Example: “I love jelly doughnuts . . .” he said.

SITUATION 2: TEXT BEFORE DIALOGUE

1) If text before the dialogue starts is a dialogue tag, then a comma goes before the open quotation marks.

Example: He said, “I could really go for a jelly doughnut.”

2) If text before the dialogue starts is a full sentence, then the punctuation before the open quotation marks should not be a comma.

Example: His lips trembled. “What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?” he asked.

3) If you have an introductory clause before the dialogue, then you must insert a dialogue tag and comma before the open quotation marks.

Example: Feeling his lip tremble, he said, “I could really go for a jelly doughnut.”

SITUATION 3: TEXT BETWEEN DIALOGUE

1) If you have a dialogue tag between quotes, and there is a full sentence on each side, then a period goes after the dialogue tag.

Example: “I could really go for a jelly doughnut,” he said. “What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?”

2) If you have a dialogue tag between quotes, and there is not a full sentence on each side, then a comma goes after the dialogue tag.

Example: “Oh man,” he said, “I could really go for a jelly doughnut.

3) If you have text between quotes that is not a dialogue tag, then a punctuation mark other than a comma goes before the second set of open quotation marks.

Example: “I could really go for a jelly doughnut.” His lips trembled. “What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?”

SITUATION 4: QUOTE WITHIN A QUOTE

If there is a quote within the dialogue, then the quote is surrounded by single quotation marks, rather than double ones.

Example: “Let me get this straight. He said, ‘What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?’”

SITUATION 5: MULTI-PARAGRAPH DIALOGUE

If the dialogue is two or more paragraphs, then use open quotation marks at the beginning of each new paragraph, but leave off the close quotation marks until the final paragraph of dialogue.

Example: He said, “Oh man, I could really go for a jelly doughnut. What does a guy have to do around here to get a jelly doughnut?

“Does he have to joust a knight or climb to the top of the highest mountain? Getting a jelly doughnut should not be that difficult.

“I should only have to go to my local doughnut shop or, if worse comes to worse, drive to a gas station to see if they have any fresh ones left.”

Note: These rules apply only to American English. The Brits have their own way of doing things.

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