Fiction essentials: how to punctuate dialogue

Punctuating dialogue can feel a lot more difficult than it is. It is probably one of the things I spend the most time on when I’m editing. But once you understand the basic principles, you should be able to wield punctuation confidently and effectively in your dialogue. Here’s my advice on the following:

  1. Indicating speech
  2. Styling pauses or trailing off
  3. Styling interrupted speech
  4. Punctuating tagged speech
  5. Punctuating broken-up speech
  6. Punctuating vocatives
  7. Indicating faltering speech

Indicating speech

Quote marks

Authors usually indicate speech by using quote marks (also called quotation marks or speech marks) and that is the method that will be most familiar to the reader. It’s usual in UK fiction to use single quote marks, while US fiction tends to use double quote marks. (UK children’s fiction does often use double quote marks, though.) Of course, this is a style choice and not a matter of right and wrong. However, it is worth considering what the reader will expect to see. Whichever you choose, the key is to be consistent.

Here are the two styles in action in published novels:

Single quote marksDouble quote marks
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2016) by Natasha Pulley, p. 111Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi, p. 369
‘I … my God, you were serious?’
‘Quite.’
‘Thank you.’
“What would Baba say?”
“Leave Baba out of this—”
“Or Mama?”
“Shut up!”

It’s worth pointing out the placement of the closing punctuation here – it sits within the quote marks.

Nested quote marks

If you need to place speech within speech, use the opposite style for the internal (nested) quote marks. It should look like this:

Single quote marks with nested doublesDouble quote marks with nested singles
Good Omens (2014 edition) by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, p. 320The Starless Sea (2019) by Erin Morgenstern, p. 333
‘One of those blue ones,’ said Brian, eventually, ‘saying “Adam Young Lived Here”, or somethin’?’“‘It’s dangerous to go alone,’” Zachary quotes in response […]

Smart quotes

It is typical in publishing to use smart (curly) quote marks, not unidirectional (straight) ones. The same thing applies to apostrophes.

Image showing straight and curly quote marks.

You can make sure that Word always produces curly quotes when you are typing. This is how you do it in the latest version of Word:

  • Go to File and scroll down to Options
  • Click on Proofing and find the AutoCorrect Options… button (it should be at the top)
  • Make sure there’s a tick in the box next to “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes”
  • Hit OK

If it’s too late and you already have a manuscript full of straight quotes, you can change them quickly by doing a global Find and Replace. There are two ways to access this. On the Home tab, select Find and then Advanced Find… or simply hit Ctrl and H on your keyboard.

  • Type a quote mark into the Find what box
  • Type the same quote mark into the Replace with box
  • Hit the Replace All button

New paragraphs within speech

If a character’s speech moves on to a new paragraph, use an opening quote mark at the start of the new line but don’t use a closing quote mark at the end of the previous paragraph.

The Bone Season (2017 edition) by Samantha Shannon, p. 414
[…] One of our clairvoyants has displayed such disobedience that she cannot be allowed to live. Like the Bloody King, she must be banished beyond the reach of the amaurotic population, where she can do no more harm.
XX-59-40 has a history of treachery. She hails from the dairy county of Tipperary, deep in the south of Ireland – a region long since associated with sedition.’

The em dash

There is another way to display speech. It’s rarely done and it can be difficult to use effectively, especially if there are more than two speakers. But it is an option. Roddy Doyle is well known for using this style. Here’s an example from page 1 of The Guts, 2013:

—How’s it goin’?
—Da?
—Yeah, me.
—How are yeh?
—Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.


Styling pauses or trailing off

An ellipsis is the best way to indicate a pause or that speech is trailing off.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (2020) by Natasha Pulley, p. 134:
‘I think I’m normally mannered, but Mr Vaulker seems like a …’ You couldn’t really say ‘unreserved cock’ in Japanese. ‘Difficult person. May I sit down?’

When you use an ellipsis in this way, you don’t need to tell the reader that the character’s speech trailed off. The ellipsis is telling the reader that, and the reader can be trusted to interpret it.

Spacing

You can use the fixed ellipsis symbol or three full stops (or periods) separated by non-breaking spaces. It’s a matter of style. But I prefer the fixed symbol – it’s simple to insert.

You can insert the fixed-symbol ellipsis by typing 0133 while pressing the Alt tab on your keyboard. You can also find it by going to Word’s Insert tab and selecting Symbol and then More Symbols…

If you opt to use three separate full stops, put non-breaking spaces between them. Non-breaking spaces keep together the elements they are placed between – you won’t end up with one full stop on the line below the other two. You can create a non-breaking space by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Space.

Spacing around ellipses is a matter of style. As with most things, it is just important to be consistent and clear. However, this is how it is typically done:

  • Mid-sentence ellipsis: space both sides [1]
  • Ellipsis at the beginning of the sentence: space after [2]
  • Ellipsis at the end of the sentence: space before [3]
  1. ‘No … I don’t think that was your gateau.’
  2. ‘… I thought I put it there.’
  3. ‘They might have another one at the bakery …’

Styling interrupted speech

If you want to show that a character has been interrupted while speaking, the way to do that is to use an em dash.

Six of Crows (2018 edition) by Leigh Bardugo, p. 481
I didn’t tell Pekka Rollins anything. I never—”
You told one of the Dime Lions you were leaving Kerch, but that you’d be coming into big money, didn’t you?”
Jesper swallowed. “I had to. They were leaning on me hard. My father’s farm—”
I told you not to tell anyone you were leaving the country. I warned you to keep your mouth shut.”

The use of the em dash means you don’t have to tell the reader that the character was interrupted. The punctuation does the job for you. You can also use the em dash to signify a sort of self-interruption, where the speaker breaks off suddenly for some reason.


Punctuating tagged speech

The comma is your friend here. Unless you use an exclamation mark or a question mark, a comma will do the job before a dialogue tag. Here are a few examples:

Dialogue tag after a complete sentence‘I put the milk in the fridge,’ she said.
Dialogue tag after a question‘Did you put the milk in the fridge?’ she asked.
Dialogue tag after an exclamation‘There’s no milk in the fridge!’ she yelled.
Dialogue tag before a complete sentenceShe whispered, ‘I don’t even like milk.’

Dialogue tags always take lower case (not an initial capital letter) – it doesn’t matter if the closing punctuation is a comma or a question mark or an exclamation mark. Also note the positioning of the comma before a dialogue tag – it is placed within the quote marks.


Punctuating broken-up speech

If a character hasn’t finished speaking, but you’ve broken up their speech with a dialogue tag, action beat, or stage direction, you should indicate this using commas or dashes.

Spellslinger (2017) by Sebastien de Castell, p. 387
‘Perhaps,’ An’atria said, her dark eyes peering out from a thick halo of grey hair as she stared at me, ‘but do we still pretend this one comes to pass his mage’s trial?’

It’s typical to add a comma before the first closing quote mark and after the speech tag or additional material.

If you want to break up the speech with description of some kind, rather than a dialogue tag, it is often effective to use dashes. Dashes are a useful way to indicate that an action is taking place at the same time as the speech. US publishing tends to use closed up em dashes; UK publishing tends to use spaced en dashes.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers, p. 31
‘ […] On a long haul, this’ – she tapped the top of Rosemary’s head – ‘needs to be the most important thing you take care of.’


Punctuating vocatives

Vocative expressions identify who is being addressed. It’s not always a character’s proper name – it could be a title or a term of endearment, or something less pleasant. Commas are used to make it clear that it is a vocative expression in action, and this is how to do it:

  • If the vocative expression is at the beginning of the sentence, it needs a comma after it [1]
  • If the vocative expression is at the end of the sentence, it needs a comma before it [2]
  • If the vocative expression interrupts the sentence, it needs a comma before and after it [3]
  1. ‘Barry, is the pizza here yet?’
  2. ‘That’s my slice of pizza, Barry.’
  3. ‘If you wanted pepperoni, Barry, you should have ordered it.’

Vocative expressions need to be punctuated correctly to prevent ambiguity. Missing commas lead to sentences like the classic ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ mistake.


Indicating faltering speech

Sometimes you’ll need to indicate faltering speech – your character is out of breath, scared, surprised… Well, there are lots of ways to style this, and what you choose will depend on the effect you wish to achieve. Options include ellipses, hyphens, repeated letters, en dashes and em dashes.

Ellipses – an effective way to show distress and uncertainty

Crooked Kingdom (2019 edition) by Leigh Bardugo, p. 268
I come for job, yes?” Nina said. “To make sugar.”
We don’t make it here, just store it. You’ll want to go to one of the processing plants.”
But I need job. I … I …”
Oh, hey now, don’t cry. There, there.”

Repeated letters – good for conveying fear

Rotherweird (2017) by Andrew Caldecott, p. 230
Salt took Oblong by both shoulders and shook him twice, firmly. ‘There’s what?’
L – l – legs by the lantern …’ stuttered Oblong.
Show me.’

Em dashes – great for extreme shock/awe/terror

The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) by Samantha Shannon, p.95:
Melaugo was clinging to the ratlines, one eye to a spyglass. ‘Mother of—’ She lowered it, then lifted it again. ‘Plume, it’s— I can’t believe what I’m seeing—’
What is it?’ the quartermaster called. ‘Estina?’
It’s a— a High Western.’ Her shout was hoarse. ‘A High Western!’


Why does it matter?

Getting the punctuation right allows the reader to concentrate on the content of the dialogue, on what it means for the characters, on how it feels. Fiction can accommodate flexibility with punctuation use, but sticking to the general conventions is often the best way to serve the story and the reader. Our aim is for the reader to stay caught up in the story, not for them to become distracted by the punctuation.

Resources:

Quoted works:

  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2016), Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury
  • Children of Blood and Bone (2018), Tomi Adeyemi, Pan Macmillan
  • Good Omens (2014 edition), Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Corgi
  • The Starless Sea (2019), Erin Morgenstern, Harvill Secker (Vintage)
  • The Bone Season (2017 edition), Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury
  • The Guts (2013), Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape (Random House)
  • The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (2020), Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury
  • Six of Crows (2018 edition), Leigh Bardugo, Orion
  • Spellslinger (2017), Sebastien de Castell, Hot Key Books
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015), Becky Chambers, Hodder & Stoughton
  • Crooked Kingdom (2019 edition), Leigh Bardugo, Orion
  • Rotherweird (2017), Andrew Caldecott, Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus)
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019), Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury

Hannah McCall is a line-editor, copy-editor and proofreader who specialises in working with independent authors and publishers of commercial fiction, particularly speculative fiction. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

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  1. Pingback: The Black Cat monthly round-up: July 2020 « Black Cat Editorial Services

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