Writers vary greatly in how much dialogue they use to suit varying purposes. No matter the amount incorporated into a book, properly punctuated dialogue makes the effort disappear before the reader because the punctuation cues draw them effortlessly through a text.

This year, I will be covering a revision exercise on photography and writing, outlining a novel, rendering thoughts, using past perfect, and bringing setting to life. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of writing posts. In particular, you may find Narrative Distance and Filter Words of interest.

How to Punctuate Dialogue

Experimenting with standard conventions can be fun, but should be done sparingly or when doing so accomplishes a desired stylistic effect. General rules exist as a way of making the reading experience the most comfortable for the greatest number of readers. While experimental writing can often come off as an amateur effort, amateur writing rarely comes off as experimental–just amateur. The old saying of knowing the rules before breaking them certainly applies wheni it comes to how to puncutate dialogue.

Punctuating Dialogue Correctly

While some authors like Cormac McCarthy prefer to write dialogue without using quote marks to enclose it, such stylistic choices are best left to seasoned writers who know full well the effect they are going for. Besides, even though I count The Road among my favorite books, I will admit to finding it a bit difficult to read due to the lean approach to dialogue punctuation. Sometimes, single quotes will be used rather than double quotes, but at least this approach is a bit easier to follow. Please note as well that curly/smart quotes are considered proper typography. Learn more on how to change such quotes in Word here.

Start a Paragraph for Each New Speaker: Every time a new person speaks should start a new indented paragraph. This holds true no matter how short or long a character’s spoken response may be.   

Keep Punctuation Inside Quotation Marks:  American use favors double quotes over single quotes for dialogue. However, internal thoughts should never be enclosed in quotation marks. It’s generally accepted to use italics for thoughts, though not necessary so long as the context of the paragraph makes the situation clear.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something for a long time now,” George said.

 

Joan replied, “Oh really? Sounds serious.” I wonder what he’s going to ask? 

 

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot.” George continued, “You’re amazing.”

Follow Standard Capitalization: The flow of dialogue needs to pay close heed to when capitalization is and isn’t required. Also, in the middle sentence below, note that single quotes are used for a quote within a quote.

“You’re not too shabby yourself. What is it?”

 

“Would you like to move in together?” he asked. [Note the h is lowercase as the speech tag completes the line of dialogue and is not starting a new sentence.] “Every other week I hear you say, ‘I miss you during the week.'”

 

Joan’s eyes twinkled from the smile that spread across her face. “I was starting to think,” she sighed, “that you would never bring it up.” [The second part finishes the sentence, so should not begin with a capital letter.]

picture of book and seedling from iStock

Use Ellipses and Dashes Correctly: An ellipsis mark (notice the difference between the plural and singular form] should be used to indicate speech that trails off, and a space should appear on other side of the the three-character glyph. On the other hand, a dash should be used to indicate when a character’s speech ends abruptly or is being interrupted. If an action interrupts speech, it should be set off by an em dashes.

“Really? I wasn’t sure if–”

 

“If I would be on the same wavelength?”–Joan shrugged her shoulders.–“Well I am.”

 

“That takes care of that then. We should do something to celebrate …” George let his words hang in the air.

Handling Long Speeches: While it’s best to keep dialogue on the shorter side to maintain an engaging pace, there are times a character will need to speak at length. When this is the case, the quote mark should be omitted at the end each paragraph until the character is done speaking. Leaving the quote unclosed is the reader’s signal the same character is still speaking.

“Okay. What do you want to do? We could grab a bite to eat and talk about whose apartment is the better one to move into. I have way more stuff than you, so I suppose that’s one thing to take into consideration. It would be such a pain to get it across town to your place.

 

“But on the other hand, I really love the view from your patio. We can see the whole city from there, and the skyline is amazing day or night.”

 

George shrugged his shoulders, soaking up her enthusiasm while also wondering what he may have gotten himself into. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

Mind Dialogue Tags and Stage Business: The purpose of dialogue or speech tags is to assist the reader in keeping track of who is speaking on the page. Such tags are only associated with the words spoken. Any expressions or movements are treated as stage business surrounding the dialogue. It’s generally best to stick with “said” and “asked” in order not to draw attention to them, tough the occasional “replied” or other bland dialogue tag can also get the job done. Resist the temptation as well to couple dialogue tags with adverbs such as “wildly,” “loningly,” or “sadly.” Let the words spoken convey the proper tone and emotion. Avoid being overly repetitive by leaving speech tags off when the context makes it clear who is speaking.

“Or maybe it would be better to move into an entirely new place.” Joan raised her eyebrows.

 

George laughed. “How about we save that decision for the wedding?

 

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Joan said. She drew closer and wrapped her arms around him.

How to punctuate dialogue might not be the most exciting aspect of the writing process, but like all parts of a whole, knowing how to do so correctly plays a crucial role in the impression your writing will make on readers.

What issues do you notice known writers having when it comes to how to punctuate dialogue? What authors can you think of who write dialogue exceptionally well and why? Which authors come to mind who break standard conventions in writing dialogue? How does that sit with you as a reader?  

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Image Credit: Book and Seedling.