How to Write Dialogue (Punctuation in Dialogue) – Writing Guide

Sentient Ink Logo-01Do your characters babble incoherently and without pause? If so, you might need to sort out your punctuation. The first step to writing good, coherent dialogue – one of the most vital facets of storytelling – is simply getting the punctuation right. Some of the rules of punctuation change in speech, and it’s essential to hone these skills and nail your own dialogue technique to ensure your work is consistent – and consistently well scripted.

Dialogue Tags

Let’s start with dialogue tags, which in their basic form tell the reader who has spoken or who is about to speak. Underlined are the dialogue tags:

“That isn’t my goat,” said Bob.

“Are you sure? You seem like the kind of guy who would own a goat,” replied Malcolm.

When you have a dialogue tag following some speech, a comma is used before the quotation marks. The tag begins with a lower case letter as if part of the same sentence. Obviously if we were to say Bob said instead of said Bob. Bob would still begin with a capital letter – proper nouns always do.

The lower case start of the tag remains a rule even if the speech ends in a question mark or exclamation mark:

“Do you really think I would keep a goat in this tiny treehouse?” asked Bob.

Malcolm shouted, “Why the hell not?”

Notice that dialogue tags can also come before speech, still separated by that comma. They can even interrupt speech:

“I love goats,” said Bob, “but I don’t have the financial stability to purchase my own.”

This tag separated the sentence: “I love goats, but I don’t have the financial stability to purchase my own.” But if you wanted this to be two separate sentences: “I love goats. But I…” then you would have to adjust the dialogue accordingly:

“I love goats,” said Bob. “But I don’t have the financial stability to purchase my own.”

Dialogue tags often describe the speech. Someone can whisper, cry, guffaw or spit. But try to keep them short and use adverbs sparingly. If you are going to use adverbs, they must contribute something. Don’t use them for the sake of it like in the following example.

“You’ve always wanted one, so keep it,” Malcolm whispered quietly.

What’s he going to do next? Shout loudly? Cry sadly? Talk talkatively? ‘Whispered’ alone will do. But one can whisper excitedly, or whisper seductively; it’s just a case of only using the words you need to paint the best picture of your characters and the story they are a part of.

Remember the dialogue tag should only be used to explain who said something and sometimes how they said it.

“Hang on! That’s not a real goat; it’s just Larry wearing a mask,” laughed Bob.

This implies that Bob laughed the words. If we were instead to write:

“…It’s just Larry wearing a mask.” He laughed.

Notice the full stop and then the capital H. Instead this means that Bob spoke and then laughed when he had finished.

Quotation Marks

As a beginner writer you’ll find a surprising amount of subjectivity in punctuation; it’s often consistency that’s more important. One tiny decision you must make is this: do you use double or single quotation marks? It really doesn’t matter between the two, but it would cause confusion if you were to alternate. Hell, use triple quotation marks for all I care (Don’t do that); just be consistent. Whatever you do pick, when you write a quote you must do the opposite.

“Remember when you said ‘you will never convince anyone you’re a farm animal’?” said Larry. “Well don’t you look the fool now?”

Alternatively, if you decide to use single quotation marks for speech, then you would surround a quote with double quotation marks.

If someone speaks for longer than a single paragraph, you must make sure you only place closing quotation marks at the end of the last paragraph of speech, but start every paragraph in the dialogue with opening quotation marks:

“It was two years ago when I first blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

“blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah but he shot me first blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah grizzly bear.

“blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, and that’s when I decided to be a ventriloquist.”

Italics

Now, when is a good time to use italics? Again, this is quite a subjective area and you just need to decide your rules for when you’re going to use them and then stick to them. Times you can include italics are:

In Inner monologue:

Bob buried his face in his hands. I can’t believe he got me again!

When first introducing a fantasy word or phrase:

“Never mind,” Bob began. “Besides, it is the Gruhlkern that I crave to be my pet most of all – the goat-like beast of the Cryston Districts.”

Generally this is not done with foreign/fantasy names and locations, but really it’s a judgement call and another thing you just need to establish early and remain consistent with. Once you have introduced the fantasy word, you can continue using it without italics – it really just highlights the word as foreign and new, and so helps the reader to focus and take in its meaning for future reference.

Titles of works:

Whether fictitious or real, titles of works are best put in italics. Titles of books, plays, movies, games, musical pieces etc.

“They aren’t real, Bob. Eric Donaldson sings of them in The Creatures of Milton Hill, but it’s all made up,” said Malcolm.

Highlight a word being said differently:

Usually adding some sort of emphasis, making something sound sarcastic etc.

“They are real!”

Words as words and letters as letters:

This is quite hard to explain but easy to understand when you see an example. It’s essentially when words are describing the words themselves and not the actual meaning; and it’s the same with letters. For example:

Pogonotomy is the act of cutting a beard.”

“My favourite letter is D.

Onomatopoeia

Some writers put noises in italics but, as always, you need to give yourself some rules and stick to them. Generally if a sound is portrayed in the narrative immediately, such as like this:

Crash!

Bang!

Then I use italics. But if I say:

The gentle clip-clop of the horses’ hooves…

Then I don’t. So I’ll italicize onomatopoeic exclamations, but not descriptions of sounds with the aid of onomatopoeia. Make sense? Even if it doesn’t, just remember to lay your own.

A last note on italics: Don’t italicize punctuation. Look at the ‘crash’ and ‘bang’ above; the letters are italicized but not the exclamation marks. This is the same with quotation marks, brackets, question marks, full stops etc.

A few more bits and pieces

When the speaker is addressing someone directly by name (Even when it’s not a proper name), you must offset the name with commas depending on where it is in the dialogue. Sounds a bit daunting but it’s easy when you get the hang of it. Here are a few examples:

“Would you like a drink, Malcolm?”

“Malcolm, would you like a drink?”

“Actually, mate, I’m fine thanks.”

Use ellipses to trail off dialogue or create a pause:

“You’re right… you’re always right.”

It’s better to use dashes (an em dash to be precise) to signal an interruption. This adds more immediacy compared to using an ellipses in the same situation. I tend to use a dash at the start of the interrupting speech, if indeed it is speech doing the interrupting, though this is my own style and by no means an actual rule of punctuation.

“So are we just forgetting about the whole goat th–”

“–Yes we are!”

I feel that putting both dashes adds a bit more clarity to the fact that this is an interruption, almost as if both dashes represent the same period of time.

So, that’s it for Part 1. Remember, getting the basics right and finding, and sticking to, your style is important. You could have a brilliant and complex cast of characters with interesting insights and things to say, but without mastering punctuation and consistency, readers will be alienated and unable to empathise or care about your misunderstood anti-hero, your rapacious monarch or your audacious heroine.

The second part to Writing Dialogue will focus more on how to portray your story and characters through dialogue – the meat to punctuation’s bones, if you like. Until then, remember that practice makes adequate, perseverance and obsession makes almost perfect. Try not to let it get you down if you become confused when writing; all these dots and dashes are there to make your work as readable as possible – they are your friends, not your enemies.

Good luck.

By D. C. Ward

If you found this article helpful or have any insights of your own, please share them with us. You can subscribe with your email or follow us (Sentient_Ink) for update on when we post new fiction stories, writing guides and book reviews.

Looking to further your skills in writing dialogue? You can read Part 2 here. Or maybe you’re struggling to get stuck into the writing process? If so, have a look at our guide on physically writing a novel or short story.

Want to find out the best way to physically take on that novel or short story? Read Chris Wright’s article here.

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