One of the most important ways to bring creative writing to life is through conversations among characters. To make those conversations clear, proper dialogue formatting and punctuation is important. Fortunately, there are only a few simple rules or conventions to keep in mind when writing dialogue.
Dialogue/monologue is usually denoted by quotation marks.
“How do I set apart the words a character is saying from the rest of the text?” Skylar asked.
Indent for a new paragraph every time a different character speaks.
“How can I show the reader that a different character is speaking in this scene?” Quinton asked. He took a bite out of his sandwich.
“All you have to do is indent for a new paragraph. That will signal that the speaker has changed,” said Jaclyn.
Quinton drank some water. He nodded. “It’s so easy!”
Dialogue tags are signals that tell the reader which character is speaking. There are three types of dialogue tags.
The first type of dialogue tag can be referred to as the “said tag.” “Said tags” utilize verbs for communicating words. Examples of “said tags” are shown below in bold.
“I love writing dialogue,” said Jackson.
“Do you love writing?” asked Cooper.
“I love the EWU Writers’ Center!” Devon shouted.
“It is important to be quiet,” Lacey whispered.
Note that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, and periods change to commas since with “said tags” the spoken words are part of the same sentence as the tag. For the same reason “said” and “asked” are not capitalized in the above examples.
The second kind of dialogue tag can be referred to as the “action tag.” “Action tags” are simply sentences in which the character who is about to speak or has recently spoken does or thinks something. The reader understands who has said the words based on their close proximity to the action. Dialogue that is tagged with action is shown in bold below. Note that with action tags, the action sentence and the spoken words are separate sentences, and are punctuated accordingly.
Tyler threw open the door and ran into the room. “You guys! You’ll never believe what I saw outside! It was incredible.”
“What are you talking about, Tyler? You're weird.” Montague put aside his video game controller.
“It is not weird. It is dignified.” Tyler couldn’t believe Montague had said something so mean. He ran from the room in tears.
Taylor cried and cried all the way home. “Why do I have the hardest life?”
The third type of dialogue tag can be referred to as the “combination tag.” This type of dialogue tag combines the “said tag” with the “action tag.” An example of dialogue tagged with a “combination tag” is shown below.
“Dialogue tags are very useful,” Reginald said, typing his masterpiece novel.
“I like ice cream,” Charlie said, enjoying a tasty treat.
As shown above, the “combination tag” begins with a said tag, followed by a comma, and a gerund phrase.
It is perfectly acceptable and expected that “said tags,” “action tags,” and “combination tags” will be mixed together in the same scene to create variety. Furthermore, sometimes the reader might have a clear understanding of which character is speaking when there is no dialogue tag at all. See the example below.
“We should totally consume several slices of delish pepperoni pizza for dinner tonight,” Ahbdi said.
Fernando dropped his sandwich on the floor. “No, Ahbdi! I will not consume pizza!”
“Why not? Why won’t you consume pizza?”
“Because I will only eat sandwiches!” Ahbdi shouted, stomping his feet. “And stop saying the word ‘consume.’”
Sometimes dialogue tags are used in the middle of dialogue. This should be punctuated like the examples above. More dialogue simply continues after the tag.
“The mechanic told me my brakes are broken,” Rudolpho said. “I guess that is important.”
“I drive a motorcycle.” Hitomi leaned on the counter. “Does that turn you on?”
The goal with dialogue tags is that they should be somewhat invisible, that is, that they do not call attention to themselves, leaving the reader fully immersed in the scene. Some writers may worry about using the word “said” in too many “said tags.” However, the idea is that the word “said” is hardly noticed, so that the reader sees the name of the character speaking and moves on, staying in the scene.
Try to avoid dialogue tags “on steroids,” or dialogue tags that call attention to themselves and become distracting. Examples of dialogue tags on steroids are below.
“I do not think you should have such strong dialogue tags,” Frederick expostulated.
“My head will fricking explode if I do not use strong dialogue tags!” Logan exclaimed.
“But why?” Frederick asked.
“Because they make me sound sophisticated,” Logan answered.
“Why do you think they sound sophisticated?” Frederick inquired.
“Because I am the smartest man in the world,” Logan replied.
In addition to these steroid dialogue tags being tedious and exhausting, many of them are not necessary. The reader knows that Frederick is asking a question, and he knows that Logan is answering. Thus, these dialogue tags become even more tedious because they are redundant.