How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction

This blog for independent authors explains how to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction, and why it matters to readers.

Why does character speech and dialogue need to be punctuated?

Character speech and dialogue needs to be punctuated to make it clear that a character is speaking, or that two (or more) characters are having a conversation or exchanging words.

How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction

Where does the punctuation need to go?

As The Copyeditor’s Handbook explains:

“At the end of a quotation, the terminal punctuation mark is placed inside the closing quotation mark.”

Example:

Jones asked, “Where is everyone?”

In this complete sentence, the reader understands that:

  • Jones is speaking.
  • Jones is asking a question.
  • The words “Where is everyone?” are being said aloud, which is clear because of the speech marks around them.

A comma should always be used directly after ‘asked’ and before the speech begins.

Flipping the sentence to lead with the dialogue would make the comma redundant due to the question mark. However, a full stop would be needed at the end:

“Where is everyone?” Jones asked.

If a character’s speech is more than one sentence and their following words don’t need a question mark or an exclamation mark, a comma should always be used directly before the closing speech mark(s). In that case, a dialogue tag would be needed:

Where is everyone? I need them here,” Jones said.

Without the question the sentence would be:

“I need them here,” Jones said.

The character’s speech plus the dialogue tag creates one full sentence altogether. Therefore, a full stop is not used within the character’s speech when a dialogue tag is added.

When do I need to use dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag needs to be used when a character has spoken.

Example:

“I think it’s time we had a chat,” she said.

Using said, asked or replied with the character’s name is plenty. Be careful of using ‘they‘ unless your characters are speaking (or perhaps singing) in unison. Use synonyms sparingly unless it is to emphasise the way a character is speaking e.g. whispered or shouted. Including a wide variety of synonyms for ‘said‘ is not necessary e.g. uttered, verbalised or commented. ‘Said‘ or ‘says‘ (depending on the tense you are writing in) is clear enough. It is far more effective to show how the character is speaking through their dialogue:

“I’m not sure,” she stammered.

“I..I’m not sure…” She cast her eyes towards the floor and pressed her lips together, trapping her words inside.

The second sentence helps the reader understand the character and what is happening to them much more than the first. Using dialogue this way also negates the need for a dialogue tag at all. Leading us on to…

When don’t I need to use dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag is not necessarily needed if a character is performing an action.

Example:

“Would you recognise the man again?” she questioned, looking up from her notepad and waiting for a response.

“Would you recognise the man again?” DCI Smith looked up from her notepad and waited.

Similarly, verbs should not be used as dialogue tags. People can’t say something at the exact same time as sighing or yawning or coughing. Therefore, the dialogue tag needs to reflect exactly what the character is saying and doing:

“I don’t think so,” she sighed.

“I don’t think so,” she said, sighing.

Should I use single or double speech marks?

Generally, the UK convention is to use double speech marks while the US convention is to use one. However, as an indie author, it is your preference. That being said, it is important to consider reported speech within direct speech.

Example:

“What did he say?” she asked, twisting her hair around her fingers.

“He said ‘over my dead body’ and stalked off!” Annie replied.

If the reported speech – ‘over my dead body’ – also used double speech marks, the same as the direct speech, it might confuse readers:

“He said “over my dead body” and stalked off!” Annie replied.

Therefore, it is often better (although not essential) to differentiate between the two for clarity. However, as long as who is saying what is obvious to your readers, there are no hard and fast rules about speech/quotation marks, except one – be consistent throughout the entire manuscript!

How do I set out a conversation between two (or more) characters?

Beginning a new line for each character within a conversation helps the reader immensely. However, rather than a back and forth volley, adding description embellishes the writing.

Example of a volley conversation:

“Cheers yourself,” she said.

“So what made you want to go on the show?” he asked

“Exposure and money,” she said.

“Me too. I’m an actor slash model,” he said. “But times are hard. My mate Rex bet me I wouldn’t apply, so I did. So, what are you going to do with the money?”

“Plastic surgery,” she said.

Example of a descriptive conversation:

“Cheers yourself.” She clinked his glass and laughed, the sound taking her by surprise.

“So what made you want to go on the show?” he asked.

“Exposure and money.”

He nodded. “Me too. I’m an actor slash model.” He made a karate chop gesture on the word ‘slash’. “But times are hard. Or they were, anyway. Better now, though. In fact, my mate Rex bet me I wouldn’t apply, so I did. Won a tenner. So, what are you going to do with the prize money?”

“Plastic surgery,” she said, without a trace of humour.

Note that each new line can begin with an action or dialogue, as long as the action and dialogue belongs to that particular character.

More examples of how to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction can be found here.

A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors

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