How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction
One of the earliest forms of literature was plays (often written to the end goal of being staged). As a form, it heavily depends on people speaking – characters being direct is one of the most effective ways to advance a story, plus it provides insight into human nature and behaviour. With the rise of novels, this aspect of storytelling was morphed into dialogue writing. To capture direct speech can often become difficult if you have to carefully weave it into a narration. There is an art to this, no doubt, but that’s a conversation for later. First, let us tackle the science – the mechanics – of writing dialogue in fiction. In this article, we have laid down the laws of language to address the question: how do we punctuate, structure and format dialogue in fiction writing?
I. How to ‘Quote’ Speech
The first rule of dialogue writing 101 is that you only put direct speech or things that you want to record verbatim within quotation marks. If you’re paraphrasing somebody’s speech (indirect speech), there is no need to enclose it in quotes. For example:
“I read a wonderful book last night,” Penny was telling us excitedly.
Penny was telling us, rather excitedly, that she had read a wonderful book the previous night.
You might have noticed that there are two types of quotation marks on your keyboard:
single quotes (‘ ‘) and double quotes (” “). We use them in different contexts for different purposes.
Quote level ⬇️
|UK English: single followed by double||US English: double followed by single|
|1st level||Penny gushed, ‘I read the most wonderful book last night.’||Penny gushed, “I read the most wonderful book last night.”|
|2nd level (quotes within quotes)||‘I read the most wonderful book last night. It’s called “A Hundred Days in Solitude”, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.’||“I read the most wonderful book last night. It’s called ‘A Hundred Days of Solitude’, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”|
You can also enclose, in quotation marks, partial quotes. Any of the following qualifies as a partial quote:
- Incomplete speech
- Sentence fragment
- a name or a title
- explanations of terms that are foreign or unnatural to the flow of the sentence
Now, although these two systems seem definite, there are many instances of authors trying to switch things up. With international collaboration as a norm, who’s to say what’s truly right? Irrespective of what system of punctuation you use, the bottom line is this: be consistent.
Punctuation across multiple paragraphs:
If you are punctuating dialogue across multiple paragraphs, the conventions remain the same, provided there are two or more people in the conversation. For example, look at this excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.‘I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,’ added littleAmy, with an injured sniff.‘We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,’ said Beth contentedly from her corner.
However, if only one of your characters is speaking through multiple paragraphs of your writing, this is what you do:(The following example was originally a dramatic monologue from the 1987 film Wall Street by Oliver Stone.)
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.
“Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
“Thank you very much.”
All the paragraphs of quoted text have opening quotation marks. Only the last paragraph has closing quotation marks. Despite the speech being demarcated into multiple paragraphs, the lack of a closing quotation mark shows an extension of the same person’s speech.
II. Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is the part of the sentence that points you to the person speaking. For example, take the sentence: ‘I read a wonderful book last night,’ Penny told us excitedly.
“Penny told us excitedly” is the dialogue tag in the sentence.
You can place a dialogue tag either in the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. But, there are also specific rules about where you should place commas:
A comma immediately follows an introductory dialogue tag.
Penny was telling us, excitedly, ‘I read a wonderful book last night.’
A comma precedes a concluding dialogue tag.
‘I read a wonderful book last night’, Penny was telling us excitedly.
A comma precedes and follows an interrupting dialogue tag.
‘I read a wonderful book last night,’ Penny told us excitedly, ‘it’s called “A Hundred Days of Solitude”.’
III. Punctuation in Dialogue
In American English full stops – or periods – always appear before the closing quotation mark, irrespective of whether the quotation in question is full or partial.
In British English, on the other hand, it varies by context.
For partial quotations, full stops never go before the closing quotation mark.
Harry would not give the textbook to Hermione because “the binding was fragile”.
For full quotations, full stops go before the closing quotation mark only if they are viewed as part of the quoted text
When Hermione asked him for the mysterious textbook, Harry was desperate to stall her any way he could think of, “No. You’ll tear it. The binding is fragile.”
Can you tell how this changes the sentence?
If your sentence continues after your dialogue, replace the full stop in the sentence with a comma.
The rest of the rules about using commas in dialogue writing are usually the same that apply for full stops.
“I don’t think I can make it to dinner tonight,” Liz was fiddling with her fingers as she confessed to me she’d already made other plans.
Again, these rules are just preferential; just be consistent.
Question marks and Exclamation points
Irrespective of what system you’re following, question marks and exclamation points are placed within your dialogue only if they are a part of quoted speech. Look at these two examples to understand the difference:
Amanda was furious, “You can’t just cancel plans whenever you please, Liz!”
To think Harry got away with keeping the book a secret by just saying that “the binding was fragile”!
Do you see how the placement of the punctuation changes the tone of the entire sentence? In the first sentence, it makes sense to keep the exclamation point within the sentence, since it shows that Amanda is furious and indignant.
The rest (semicolons, colons, hyphens, etc.)
Okay, don’t worry. We’re not going to do this for all the 14 types of punctuation one by one. You’ve got the drift. So, we’ll let you go do your own thing.
Long story short, the rule for every other kind of punctuation is this: we place them before the closing quotations only if they are a part of the quoted text. Look at these sentences to see how you can use them:
Before the study, participants described their attention span as ‘low to medium’; after, this changed to ‘medium to high’.
Hermione was tired of Harry taking credit for someone else’s hard work. When she finally confronted him about the contraband textbook, she was blunt, “Look, I’m going to be straight with you: you need to tell someone about this book.”
IV. Formatting and Structure
Grammar and punctuation are only a part of the mechanics of dialogue writing. There are also formatting and structure related concerns to think about.
Since dialogue is a device to make the narration more engaging, it is important to not forget how to blend the two elements. There is a way to structure the rest of your sentence around the dialogue. Look at this sentence:
Cecelia said, “The sky is blue today,” she coughed, “I wish it looked like this every day.”
This is incorrect. A sentence cannot have multiple dialogue tags. A better way to reconstruct the same sentence, would be:
Cecelia said, “The sky is blue today.” She coughed. “I wish it looked like this every day.”
V. Bonus Round: How The Right Punctuation Impacts Writing
Knowing the rules of standardized language makes your book reader-friendly only to some extent. You can use or subvert rules to make your writing impactful. You can use punctuation to enhance the tone and intent of your dialogue:
“I’m sorry… I’m late… to the meeting,” Paul apologized, as he approached his seat. He had to climb 11 flights of stairs after a series of disasters with the building’s elevator. “I didn’t know that the elevator wasn’t working -“
“We know, we got your text,” Mr. Keating replied curtly, as he gestured for the meeting to continue.
As shown in this example, an ellipsis ( … ) is used to show that Paul is tired. A hyphen is included at the end of the dialogue to show that Mr. Keating has interrupted him.
Phew! This is a lot of information, isn’t it? While you mull over the mechanics of dialogue writing, just remember this: the dialogue of dialogue writing is not over just yet. You can quote us on that!
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