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.]
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.
Good post. Will keep this in mind as a reference. Only thing that confused me a bit is the dashes that show interruption of speech and when they should be inside/outside of quotes. As a reader I’m not sure that I capture that meaning.
Ken, dashes can definitely be one of the trickier parts of writing dialogue to keep straight. I hope my examples help.
Good to know I’ve been punctuating in the right places.
I just wrote a story that is all dialog. Now, I’m going to go through it and make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. Useful post!!!
I love writing dialogue. The only thing I realized after reading this is that I don’t use em dashes when action interrupts speech. I have to admit that I don’t put too much time into punctuation in my story or as a reader. If a comma goes here instead of there, it doesn’t bother me. The writing bothers me more than grammar and punctuation.
In regards to dialogue tags, I’m not one who likes to read lots of them. In fact, it drives me crazy and I try to be aware of it with my own writing. I can’t think of the book right now, but I read a known author who overuses tags.
My favorite dialogue writer of all time is Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author of The Shadow of the Wind. Best dialogue I’ve enjoyed in a book, because he develops the characters within his dialogue and stage business, and it feels realistic.
One author who comes to mind about different standards is Maggie O’Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, who uses single quotes. As a reader, it doesn’t bother me to see single or double quotes, as long as there’s something to differentiate from the story.
I haven’t written anything with characters for a long time. Though I did a lot of this in my younger years. I never knew about using an ellipsis when conversation trails off. Really good to know, as you never know when I might start writing things with dialogue again.
Excellent how-to post, Jeri. Thanks for this! I’m editing my last story in my collection and dialogue is always a concern for screwing up the correct punctuation.
I recently read Liane Moriarty book and was quite taken with her dialogue. She has a talent for rich dialogue that makes you as the reader feel like a fly on the wall. Very inspiring. Also, Hemingway was famous for his simple yet profound dialogue scenes that were quite lengthy. Can I also add that Kurt Vonnegut has a talent for humorous dialogue that makes me laugh out loud (Cat’s Cradle).
Lisa, I love Vonnegut’s dialogue!
Bookmarked for future reference!
Good tips. Thanks. Reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. No attributions and sparse punctuation with the dialogue, making it difficult to figure out who was talking to whom. Finally had to check out an audio version, and then it was great!
Julia, how interesting that the audio version went down much better with you than the print version. I’ll have to find it on Audible and listen to a sample.
This was so helpful to me! I don’t remember learning these rules in school, so I’m sure I usually do them wrong. I love your point about the effort disappearing for the reader.
Erroneously used quotes anywhere in any writing make me absolutely bonkers. Thanks for such a clear post, Jeri.
Good tips. When these rules are followed, the reader will be unaware of the punctuation and just follow the dialogue. But when the rules are broken, he/she will notice something wrong or confusing. I’ve read a few books where dialogue was not enclosed in quotes. Sometimes it worked well and everything flowed easily, but other times it jarred.
Excellent share Jeri. Those single quotes in double quotes can be so tricky, so thank you. 🙂
And THIS is why I need an editor for my next book! So much to know… Thanks for always offering great resources here, Jeri xo
Christy, thanks as always for reading.
The part I get confused on is action interjecting the dialogue. Previously, an editor had me em-dash the dialogue, not the action.
“But–” He pointed at her face. “–I’m doing it.”
Guess that was wrong?
Loni, an em dash does indeed go around the action, not the other way around. Personally, I am not a fan at all of em dashes in dialogue. It looks awkward and unpleasing to my eye.
This is a very interesting post… In Spanish, sometimes we replace the ” using « and … If we use “, when there is a dialogue within a dialogue we are allowed to put off the last second quote (´) . We also put the point (or comma) after the quote (I think the same happens in British English)
Hence: Your example:
“Every other week I hear you say, ‘I miss you during the week.’”
In Spanish (written in English):
1. “Every other week I hear you say, `I miss you during the week”.
2. Or «Every other week I hear you say, “I miss you during the week”».
2. a. ((Variation including ´): «Every other week I hear you say, “I miss you `Boo´ during the week”». 😉
So much to learn here. Excellent!. Thanks for sharing, dear Jeri. Love & best wishes 🙂
Aqui, thank you for pointing out the various ways dialogue can be rendered when writing in Spanish. It’s enough to make one’s head swim at times! I edited a few books that used British English, and it’s a shift to keep the use of quote marks straight. Love & best wishes to you as well.