Grammar Dialogue Writing Tips |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Dialogue Writing Tips

The most common way to indicate a new speaker’s dialogue is to start a new paragraph.

Here is an example from my novel Touched:

Rashan slouched into a nearby folding chair, not bothering to get one for Georgia. He moved a few braids from his forehead, but they fell back over his eyes. After a silence, Georgia, still standing, took the conversational lead. “So you’re a basketball player?”
“Varsity. Point guard.”
“Do you know what a point guard is?”
“Not exactly but it sounds important.”
Rashan laughed. “It is. Hey, you wanna dance?”

Different speakers’ words may be written in a single paragraph to save space as long as the change of speakers is clear by prompts to the reader such as Rashan laughed.

Single words such as yes, no, where, how, and why are not enclosed in quotation marks unless used in direct dialogue.

She said yes when he asked her to marry him.
When Howard asked Mary to marry him, she shouted, “Yes!”

With thoughts and imagined dialogue that are unspoken, you may enclose the interior discourse in quotation marks or not.


“If he asks for chocolate ice cream one more time,” Benny’s mother thought, “I’ll scream.”
If he asks for chocolate ice cream one more time, Benny’s mother thought, I’ll scream.
“Why,” she wondered, “did I worry about the test so much?”
Why, she wondered, did I worry about the test so much?

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

26 responses to “Dialogue Writing Tips”

  1. Keith D. Moser says:

    How do you properly write this sentence?

    When are you going, he replied?

  2. Ravinder says:

    Please write a dialogue on
    “Asif meets his teacher Mrs. Kaul ten year after passing out from school./ They both catch up on news about Asif’s career , the school & Mrs. Kaul’s health.

    • says:

      Dialogue refers to a conversation between characters in a story, movie, play, etc. Since your sentences do not contain any dialogue, no quotation marks (or slash mark—perhaps you meant to type quotation marks here) should be used. You need the plural word years after the word ten. We are unsure what you are trying to say in your first sentence. If Asif quit school, you would say “after dropping out of school.” If he finished school, you would say, “after graduating from school.” You should use the word and instead of the ampersand in formal writing, and we recommend inclusion of the series comma before and.

  3. Jack says:

    I understand that in English, speakers’ words are enclosed in quotation marks. However, recently I saw a book where the author uses quotation marks in some chapters, and dashes in others. I was quite surprised to see it as dashes are used in dialogues in some other languages (e.g., Polish). I wonder if it is possible and correct to use them in English instead of using quotation marks?


  4. Collin Bautista says:

    When each person says something do you put and indentation. this is an example from a book I’m writing. if there are other things wrong with the dialogue please feel free to tell me
    “I’m certain that they have been watching over you.” He said. “Yeah…” she said still looking up at the stars.
    “Shall we call it a night Aira, it’s getting late.” Alistar said. “Sure, but don’t think I’m not coming back tomorrow.” She said with a grin.
    “Ok.” Alistar said with a sarcastic sigh, “I’m going to set you down near the edge of the forest where your home is. Is that alright?”

    • says:

      You do not need to indent; however, start the next speaker’s dialogue on a new line. The following is punctuated correctly:
      “I’m certain that they have been watching over you,” he said.
      “Yeah … ” she said, still looking up at the stars.
      “Shall we call it a night, Aira? It’s getting late,” Alistar said.
      “Sure, but don’t think I’m not coming back tomorrow,” she said with a grin.
      “Ok,” Alistar said with a sarcastic sigh, “I’m going to set you down near the edge of the forest where your home is. Is that all right?”

  5. Ruth says:

    can you correctly punctuate this quotation: Does it all go into one paragraph?
    A boy held back the aggressive dog as he pulled tightly on the leash. He bent down to inspect his findings and wondered, “What’s this?” Quickly the boy opened his sack, threw the doll into the darkness, and muttered, “What’s this old, ugly thing worth?”
    Also this:
    “Help!” she yelled, “where am I?”

    • says:

      Your first quotation is punctuated correctly.
      For the second one, we recommend writing the following:
      “Help!” she yelled. “Where am I?”

  6. Sue says:

    I’ve been proofreading/editing a charity book anthology and have run into a comma issue I can’t seem to find a rule for (or I’m not searching for with the right keywords!). Do I need a comma after “say” in the following sentence?

    He collapsed on the bed, about to say “I’m sorry,” when he felt the corrupt touch of a tendril push through the wall and stand him up.

    Thanks in advance!

    • says:

      Our Commas Rule 13a gives the writer the option of whether to use a comma with one-word quotations. However, this is a gray area, more a matter of guideline than rule. In the case of your sentence, where the quoted words aren’t exactly a direct quotation, it simply doesn’t look or feel right to place a comma after “say.” We would omit the comma, but it is not incorrect to leave it in.

      If you wanted to omit quotation marks, you could rewrite the sentence as: He collapsed on the bed, about to say he was sorry, when he felt the corrupt touch …

  7. Kari says:

    I’ve just come across this sentence in a book: “Is He [“She!” Janet shouted] going to come back?” Is it correct to use brackets for the other character’s dialogue or are parentheses necessary? Thanks!

    • says:

      This is how we would punctuate the dialogue:
      “Is he…”
      “She!” Janet shouted.
      “…going to come back?”

      • Kari says:

        Thanks! What about when one character is just thinking something about what he’s hearing from another character? Example: “I accelerated Joe’s learning curve in learning to swim!” Ben boasted to the group upon their return relishing details as he explained the day’s events. (Accelerated? Joe thought. He threw me into the water!) “But he did great!” Thanks again!

        • says:

          Your intention is not completely clear to us. We will make the assumption that Ben speaks the lines enclosed in quotation marks. Here is one recommendation:

          “I accelerated Joe’s learning curve in learning to swim!” Ben boasted to the group upon their return, relishing details as he explained the day’s events.
          Accelerated? Joe thought. He threw me into the water!
          “And he did great!” Ben added.

  8. Earla says:

    When a character is expressing a thought should it be put in quotation marks? Or single hyphen marks?

  9. Richard Michael Lucas says:

    I’ve a screenwriter working on a few short stories and two novels now. It’s been ages since I wrote outside of the screenplay format.

    Dialogue formatting and punctuation like you explain above is exactly what I want help with. I wrote for newspapers in high and college. And I’ve done tons of proofreading for work over the years.

    It’s specifically like the samples above that I need help with. Do you suggest I buy the the paperwork version of the book? Or is the online membership better suited for my needs? Thanks.

    • says:

      While we think the world would be a better place if everyone owned and carried a hard copy of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation for handy reference wherever they happen to go, it does not currently have content that applies to dialogue writing. We plan to remedy that with the next edition in a year or so. For now, you will find everything we have on dialogue writing contained in articles on our website under the Grammar Blog tab. Also available at no cost is the weekly e-newsletter. Just sign up by clicking the orange “E-NEWSLETTER SIGNUP” tab on any page on our website. The subscription membership provides access to hundreds of quizzes that test your knowledge of a wide variety of grammar and punctuation topics. We hope that helps.

  10. B.Merri says:

    You offer a lot of good advice. I have a question about this I’ve been wondering for a while, and I came across it recently in my writing. It’s sort of unspoken dialogue? I wondered if I might pick your brain.

    The sentence is:
    They both pause and glance away as the unspoken “for now” lingers between them.

    Would I put the “for now” in quotation marks? Is it a stylistic choice, or is there a rule for this? It doesn’t seem right to leave it entirely unformatted; the meaning would be lost, I think.

    Thank you in advance!

    • says:

      Our Rule 8a of Quotation Marks says, “Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.” Therefore, quotation marks could be used to indicate that your use of “for now” as a noun is not how the term is usually applied.

  11. JB says:

    I have a question on inner thought. This was edited by my instructor and the period was removed. I don’t know if it was just a mistake because there should be a period at the end of a sentence or is this considered as one whole sentence.

    The thoughts are in italics.

    Original – I have to deliver the food. She thought.
    Edited – I have to deliver the food she thought.

    Thank you!

  12. Cheryl says:

    I am proofreading a book in which the author is writing introductory phrases with no dialogue tags, then quoted material. For example: Plopping the lug nut in my hand, “You are about five hours away from Houston.” Is this correct? Doesn’t the introductory phrase need a dialogue tag before the comma?

    • says:

      There is no rule stating you must include dialogue tags; however, it is up to the author to give enough information to communicate to the reader which character is speaking.

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