When composing a narrative essay, you have to tell a story. In telling a story, it’s always more effective and engaging to tell the story in recreated scenes. In scenes, you’ll have people, and those people have to talk. Writing a scene where people talk to each other sounds simple, however, writing dialogue can be complicated. Do you include author tags, like he said/she said? If not, how can you tell who is speaking? If more than one person is speaking, how do you format the interchange between two people? How do you format the interchange between three or four people? What if you’re just talking to yourself? (I talk to myself all the time, but I wouldn’t want to put it in quotes!) Is talking to yourself considered dialogue? Are you confused yet?
Formatting with Speaker Tags
When beginning with the speaker tag:
John said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Note that in this example, a comma is placed after the speaker tag. The first word in the dialogue is treated like the beginning of a sentence, so the first word is capitalized. The quote is ended with a period which is placed inside the quotation marks.
When the quotation ends with speaker tag:
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said.
Here, use a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence of the quotation. A comma is placed at the end of the quoted dialogue, inside the quotation mark, before the speaker tag. A period completes the sentence, but after the speaker tag.
When the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:
“I’ll call you,” John said, “tomorrow.”
In this example, a capital letter begins the quoted sentence. A comma is used inside the quotation mark preceding the speaker tag, and again after the tag, before the quotation mark that completes the quote. A lower case letter indicates the second part of the quotation is a continuation of the first part of the quotation.
When the speaker tag separates two complete quoted sentences:
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”
A capital letter indicates the beginning of the sentence, and a comma ends the quoted sentence before the speaker tag, followed by a period after the tag. The quoted sentence after the tag is again capitalized just as any sentence would be.
Note that the second part of the quote remains on the same line. This indicates that the same person is speaking. If a different person was speaking, the second piece of quoted material, “Have a nice day,” would go to a new line/paragraph.
Formatting Two (or more) Speakers
When two or more people are speaking, each line of dialogue must go to a new line or paragraph. It’s a new “paragraph” because each time a new person speaks, the line must be indented.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”
“But I thought you might stay,” Diane said.
“I can’t. I have to go.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“Mom! I need a drink of water!” Diane’s daughter yelled from her bedroom.
Even though the lines are short, they each must begin on a new line. Note that two exchanges have no speaker tags. In this example, it is clear who is speaking, as each person’s name has been given previously, and the order of exchange established. Only drop the tags when it is clearly evident who the speaker is.
In the final quoted dialogue, notice that the quote ends with an exclamation point. The exclamation point (to indicate yelling) is placed inside the quotation mark, and no other punctuation is used until the end of the tag.
In this example, if the tag did not happen to include a proper name, you would not capitalize the first word, as in the following example:
“Mom! I need a drink of water!” her daughter yelled from her bedroom.
Even though the quote ended with an exclamation mark, the tag is not capitalized, as it is not a complete sentence. If it were a complete sentence, it would be capitalized, as in the example below:
“Mom! I need a drink of water!” The young daughter, tucked in her bed, never went to bed without at least one request for water.
Also note in this example that the tag remains on the same line as the dialogue, as the “action” described in the speaker tag is related to the speaker who has been quoted on the same line. If any action needs to be described of John or Diane, that action would be placed on a new line.
Even though we’ve all spent a lifetime reading, until we actually have to write dialogue, we don’t often realize the intricacies involved. How do you decide where to place a dialogue tag? That’s often a stylistic choice, and not necessarily any hard and fast rule. I often incorporate the tag where it seems least intrusive. A speaker tag, when necessary, should be as “invisible” as possible so as not to detract from a smooth reading.
Next week, we’ll delve further into writing dialogue, and discuss the secrets to effective dialogue.
Published by E. Mack
Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack
For all questions regarding style and documentation refer to your Longwood Style Manual or the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
The paper must be double-spaced in its entirety, including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited. In no case do you single-space anything.
According to MLA style, a paper does not present a title page. Begin one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin and include your name, the instructor's name, the course number, and the date on separate lines. Double-space and center your title. Double-space and begin your text.
Set only left justification. Be sure that the right margin is not justified.
"While quotations are common and often effective in research papers, use them selectively. Quote only words, phrases, lines, and passages that are particularly interesting, vivid, unusual, or apt, and keep all quotations as brief as possible. Overquotation can bore your readers and might lead them to conclude that you are neither an orignal thinker nor a skillful writer" (MLA 56).
1. Quoting a passage which is shorter than four lines and is to be incorporated as part of your sentence:
Hawthorne emphasizes the prying character of Roger Chilling worth early in the novel: "The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her, that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest he should read the secret there at once" (Hawthorne 76).
Note the positions of the quotation marks, citation, and period at the end of the sentence. If the quotation ends with an exclamation point or question mark, that punctuation is included INSIDE the quotation mark. The period after the parenthetical reference is also retained.
2. Quoting a passage which spans two pages of the original text:
"read the secret there at once" (Hawthorne 76-77).
3. Quoting a passage which is four lines or longer in your text (this passage should be indented ten spaces from the left margin):
It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony. (Hawthorne 54)
In practice, the offset quotation should be double-spaced and you should double-space before and after the inserted quotation too. Note that there are no punctuation marks after the closing parenthesis and there are no quotations marks around the text itself.
4. Quoting a portion of dialogue:
If you quote something a character says, use double quotation marks on the outside ends of the quotation to indicate that you are quoting a portion of the text. Use single quotation marks inside the double quotation marks to indicate that someone is speaking.
"'Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine!'" (Hawthorne 97).
If you cite a passage of dialogue of four lines or more, follow the rule for offset quotation, but remember to use double quotation marks at the beginning and end of the spoken portion to indicate that a character is speaking.
5. When you quote a passage, you may occasionally want to alter the original text by either deleting some or by supplying your own material to make the sentence grammatically sound or to provide some explanation.
A. original: The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners.
In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires.
B. added: Edith Wharton describes the village of Starkfield as "lay[ing] under two feet
of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung
like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires."
C. deleted: Wharton's depiction of the hardness of environment is especially apparent
in her description of the "sky of iron [in which]. . .Orion flashes his cold fires."
D. If you quote from one sentence, skip over some text, and then quote from a later one,
you need four ellipsis points to indicate that you've quoted material from two separate sentences:
"The village lay under two feet of snow. . . .[and] the Dipper hung like icicles. . . ."