Dialogue Tips and Dialogue Formatting

Two quick-and-dirty nuts-and-bolts dialogue tips for dialogue formatting. But dialogue in fiction has many rules to follow. Writers are always curious about formatting dialogue, or how to write it better. Why? Literary agents and publishers are always looking for examples of sharp, smart dialogue that’s a distillation of real life, or real life enhanced (Read more about writing realistic dialogue here.) This is a very nuanced topic, above and beyond the scope of one post, but here are two dialogue tips that you want to make sure you follow.

dialogue tips, dialogue formatting
“Oh, hello, Susan. Would you like to hear my best ‘Your Mom’ joke? Or is it ‘your mom’?”

Two Simple Dialogue Tips

First, if you are addressing a character by name, the standard formatting includes a comma before and the capitalization of the name. An example:

“Would you like this disgusting tennis ball, Gertie?” (My dog’s favorite question.)

Second, if the character happens to be the parent in your story, you need to make an important distinction. Are you addressing them as Mom or Dad (as if it is their name), or are you referring to them as a noun? I see this all the time in manuscripts. Here’s an example that makes the distinction clear:

“Do you have a mom, too, Mom?”

Here, you can talk about “a mom” or “her dad” or “his mommy” all you want, but it is lowercase. The second you use it to address a character, just as you would a name, it becomes capitalized. A quick proofread will tell you if you’re on the right track. If not, commit this simple dialogue formatting rule of thumb to memory. (Ready for more dialogue tips? Maybe about dialogue tags? Now we’re getting into the real meat of this very important topic.)

Dialogue writing can be tricky for even the most seasoned writer. Not only do I proofread every manuscript for errors like these as your book editor, but I’ll give you bigger picture creative feedback on your work.

3 Replies to “Dialogue Tips and Dialogue Formatting”

  1. Christina C. says:

    I ran into the same kind of thing with place names in an article, where “sea” was always capitalized even if it wasn’t used as a name proper, like the North Sea.

    Good quick way to remember:)

  2. I see that a lot too, but more frequently it’s people capitalizing all the time, even when using the word as a common noun. “I’m looking for my Mom.” = Wrong. “I’m looking for my mom.” or “I’m looking for Mom.” = Right.

  3. I teach my 5th graders a nifty trick for this capitalization rule. Try substituting your mom’s actual name in place of. For example, in the sentence – “I gave Mom a ring for her birthday.”- I could substitute the name Dorrie in place of Mom. The sentence then reads as, “I gave Dorrie a ring for her birthday.” If the sentence sounds right, then the word Mom should be capitalized. Likewise, in the sentence – “My mom is a great singer.” – would become – “My Dorrie is a great singer.” This sentence doesn’t sound grammatically correct, so the word mom should be lowercase.

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