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How To Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction

One of the toughest tasks for a new writer is mastering the art of writing effective dialogue. It sounds easy enough—just add some quotation marks and write down that conversation between your characters! But it’s not always easy to write realistic conversation, and poorly written dialogue can sabotage even the most clever and engaging novel or short story. At Writer’s Relief, we’ve been in the business of helping creative writers submit their work to literary agents and editors since 1994. Our proofreaders spend countless hours on our clients’ punctuation, and they always pay special attention to punctuating dialogue.

Dialogue sets the tone and scene of the story, revealing the personalities within the characters and creating dramatic intent. Well-written dialogue should stimulate the readers’ curiosity or create tension. It should move the story along, rather than bog it down. And it should provide important information without sounding mechanical or forced. The trick is to convey a natural, realistic conversation while loading your dialogue with meaning rather than wasting words on mundane exchanges.

“Hi, Laura. How are you?” Bob asked.

“Hi, Bob. I am fine,” Laura said.

“That’s good to hear,” Bob said.

You get the drift. Not only is the dialogue bereft of any meaning, insight, or pertinent information, but the speech tags (he said, she said) are boring and repetitive. And this idle chatter, while realistic, is a waste of the readers’ time.

Better to create some tension:

“Hi Laura. It’s been a while! How have you been?”

“Oh, Bob, I didn’t see you…” Laura mumbled.

Laura didn’t answer Bob’s question, possibly implying that things are not well. She sounds distracted, causing the reader to wonder what’s on her mind. Using a little subtext allows your readers to discover meanings that aren’t laid out in black and white for them, reducing the possibility of boredom. Dialogue should be realistic but more revealing than everyday chatter between real people.

Dialogue between characters can also be used to present some history or backstory to the readers. Rather than relying solely on narration, let the characters reveal what you’re trying to tell the readers, and it’ll be a lot more interesting. Make it natural, however, or it will read something like this:

“Oh, Edith! It’s so good to see you! I heard your husband went to prison for killing his secretary’s husband. And they were having an affair, too, right? It must be hard to be forty years old and living in Chicago all alone, especially now that you’ve been laid off from work!”

This one-sided interchange is obviously designed to give the reader as many details as possible in a single paragraph, but it’s an awkward and transparent ruse. Give the characters time to interact, and allow details of their personalities and the plot to come through gradually…and naturally.

Speech tags (he said, she said) are often unnecessary and can clutter up your dialogue. If you’ve clearly defined your characters, the readers will already be able to identify the speaker. You can be a bit creative with the speech tags you do use, but be careful not to overdo it and draw attention to them. The dialogue itself should be the focus. Experiment with the rhythm of your sentences: vary the placement of speech tags or intersperse action instead.

“Laura, it’s so good to see you!”

“Er…you, too, Bob,” Laura replied, a bit less enthusiastically.

“I haven’t seen you around much. Have you been out of town?”

“No.” Laura placed her hand on Bob’s forearm. “In fact, Bob, I’m afraid I’ve been avoiding you.”

And avoid redundancy, which often means eliminating adverbs:

“I am furious with you!” she cried furiously.

“Me? Why, I’m the one who ought to be furious!” he replied indignantly.

Finally, read your dialogue out loud, eliminating the narration and speech tags. Does it sound natural and realistic? Dialogue should sound like people talking together, although, as the author, you have eliminated the normal stutters, pauses, “er’s,” and “ummm’s” that often plague real speech. Consider the following:

“Mikey, you just have to get out of here. Julio’s gang will be here any minute.”

“I know, man, but I can not just run away. That would be cowardly.”

“Cowardly, yes. But would you rather die?”

Would two gang members really speak this way? If it doesn’t sound realistic to you, it won’t sound good to editors either. And that’s who you need to impress. If you would like help proofreading your writing so you can be sure of getting a good read (or if you would like to know how we can target your writing to the best-suited agents and editors), please visit our home page to learn more. And remember: good punctuation in dialogue is imperative to publication!

11 Responses to How To Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction

  1. Dear Leanne,

    Great question! We think you’re asking about constructions like this:

    “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s up to you.”

    “I don’t know,” he said, “but it’s worth looking into.”

    “It all depends,” he said as he smiled, “on how many people arrive.”

    The pattern of capitalization is pretty logical. If it’s a new sentence, the first letter gets capped. If it’s not a new sentence, no caps.

    You can learn more about this here: http://www.writersrelief.com/blog/2008/03/deciphering-dialogue/.

  2. If a speech tag interrupts a sentence is the first word following the speech tag capitalized? What is the rule for that? Thanks Much.

  3. Pepper, We can’t give you a definitive answer without seeing the text in question. What we can do is direct you to two articles that might contain the information you seek. For information regarding dialogue that goes on for multiple paragraphs, please read our article, Further Notes On Punctuating Dialogue. Also read our article, Punctuation and Quoted Material, for information on double and single quotation marks. We hope this helps!

  4. When you have one character telling a story to another and quoting dialogue, do you use double and single quote marks throughout the long passages of dialogue or only at the beginning and end? Thanks.

  5. Good article. I would like to recommend you read anything by Elmore Leonard. He’s the master of conversation. Also check out his 10 Tips for Great Writing.

    Steve

  6. My writing coach told us to "write the way people really talk, even though it may be grammatically incorrect." Such as, "Us older people take time with these things", although the correct first word should be "We".

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