Good dialogue, well formatted, can bring a story to life and see you rocket up the mark scale. Learn how to format dialogue in GCSE English Language exam stories here.

These tips are designed for students taking the GCSE English exams and follow current British practice closely. Most published short stories and novels will format dialogue in a way similar to the one described here so why not read one and see for yourself!

1. Punctuation of Dialogue

Different writers, different cultures, even different publishers format dialogue in stories differently. This can be very confusing so use the following pointers and examples to guide you.

  • “Use double speech marks around everything a character says.” These are much better than ‘single speech marks’ in handwriting as they are clearer and your reader is less likely to confuse them for other punctuation.
  • “Don’t forget to punctuate inside the speech marks because characters speak using sentences too. Really? Yes. And they even ask questions or exclaim!”
  • “When using speech tags you will need to use commas,” said Sonia, thoughtfully. “This allows you to identify the speaker.”

2. Speech Tags

Use speech tags to show who is speaking. The most common speech tag is: said <NAME>.

Punctuate speech tags carefully. The piece of dialogue should end with a comma and speech marks and then the speech tag should start with a lower case letter (with some exceptions).

“It’s what she would have wanted,” said Sonia.

“Yes, you’re right. It is. She would have loved this,” said Efan.

You can choose to place the speech tag in the middle of a piece of dialogue. If you do this, use your common sense to punctuate correctly. For example, if the sentence continues after the speech tag, use commas. However, if one sentence ends and another begins, you will need full stop – capital letter.

“It’s what she would have wanted,” said Sonia.

“Yes,” said Efan, “you’re right. It is.” He sighed. “She would have loved this.”

“Come on,” said Sonia, taking Efan by the hand. “Let’s go before the heavens open.”

3. Advanced Speech Tags

Other verbs can be used as speech tags: asked, shouted, cried, murmured, whispered, exclaimed, hissed.

Also, as you can see in the previous examples, other information can be added by the narrator to a speech tag to tell the reader about the character’s tone of voice, emotional state or to show any physical movement they make whilst speaking.

Indeed, the narrator can add information about almost anything else: reactions of other characters, aspects of the setting, comments by the narrator on the character.

“It’s going to be the best night of my life,” cried Sonia, lifting her arms to the sky, joy etched on her face as lightning streaked across the darkness.

Exception 1. If the piece of dialogue ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark the speech tag still begins with a lower case letter:

“That can’t be true. Can it?” asked Efan.

Exception 2. If the speech tag begins with a character name, the speech tag should begin with a capital letter, as we would expect for proper nouns:

“I think I'm starting to get the hang of it now,” Efan declared, his confidence maybe ever-so-slightly misplaced.

4. More on Speech Tags

Speech tags are not always necessary. If two characters are speaking for an extended period, and taking turns to speak, it may not be necessary to use speech tags more than a few times.

In other words, you should trust your readers to remember which character is which and the order they are speaking in.

However, if the order changes, because a character is speechless and chooses not to respond and the other character speaks again, you will need to show that clearly to the reader with speech tags.

5. Paragraphing Dialogue

Many students find it difficult to format dialogue in stories and paragraphing is often a problem. However, it is actually very simple.

Each time a speaker speaks you should begin a new paragraph. This applies even if the speaker only says one word.

Show new paragraphs in the same way you would any new paragraph: either with an indentation or with an empty line. Below are four separate paragraphs of dialogue.

“It’s over,” said Efan, gazing into the valley as the fires took hold. “We’ll never see them again.”

“No!” shouted Sonia.

“It’s true. How can we…?” He tailed off into silence.

“We can’t lose hope. Not now we’ve come so far,” said Sonia, a steely look in her eyes. She turned. “Are you with me?”

6. In Conclusion

Formatting dialogue clearly and correctly can be very difficult but it is well worth the effort because a story that uses dialogue well comes to life and feels ‘real’. So let the reader plunge into the world you are creating and hear what your exciting, complex and compelling characters are saying.

Keep practising for your exams and good luck!