How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction

As an indie author, are you often confused about how to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction?

Are you unclear about what constitutes a dialogue tag?

Do you sometimes get stuck, wondering where the comma(s) need to go?

If so, this blog will help! Read on to learn how to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction, and why it matters to your 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 talking aloud. If it’s not clear, your readers will end up confused, and no author wants that, especially as the consequences of confusing readers may include them:

  • Discarding your book
  • Leaving a negative review online
  • Choosing not to read any of your other books
  • Developing a negative impression of you as an author
  • Being negative about your book on social media or in ‘real life’

So, it’s important to get the basics right – including punctuating character speech and dialogue correctly!

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 makes the comma redundant due to the question mark. However, a full stop would then 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. (‘Jones said’ is the dialogue tag.)

Without the question the sentence would be:

“I need them here,” Jones said. (‘Jones said’ is the dialogue tag.)

Here, the character’s speech plus the dialogue tag creates one full sentence altogether, so the full stop goes at the end. Therefore, a full stop is not used within the character’s speech when a dialogue tag is added, but a comma is needed.

Without a dialogue tag, the sentence would simply be:

“I need them here.”

In which case, a full stop would be added at the end as it’s a full sentence.

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’ or ‘asked’ (or sometimes ‘replied’) with a character’s name (or a pronoun e.g. he/she) is plenty.

Be careful of:

  • Using ‘they’ unless your characters are speaking (or perhaps singing) in unison.
  • Including a wide variety of synonyms for ‘said’. It’s just not necessary to use ‘uttered’, ‘verbalised’ or ‘commented’ instead. ‘Said’ / ‘asked’ or ‘says’ / ‘asks’ (depending on the tense you are writing in) is clear enough, unless you are describing how a character is speaking e.g. ‘shouted’ / ‘shouts’ or ‘whispered’ / ‘whispers’.

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?” DCI Smith asked, looking up from her notepad and waiting for a response.

This could be condensed into:

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

Similarly, verbs should not be used as dialogue tags.

Example:

“I don’t think so,” she sighed.

A character can’t say something at the exact same time as smiling or sighing or yawning or coughing. Therefore, the dialogue tag needs to reflect exactly what the character is saying and doing. If your character sighs, it needs to be added on to the ‘said’ tag, like this:

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

Or, the action of ‘sighing’ needs to be in a separate sentence:

“I don’t think so.” She sighed.

It is also effective to show how the character is speaking through their dialogue, negating the need for a dialogue tag at all.

Instead of:

“I’m not sure,” she stammered.

Try:

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

As you can see, the second example helps the reader understand that the character is stammering without it being stated, as well as how she feels, much more than the first example.

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 is good practice and helps the reader immensely. However, rather than a back and forth volley, adding description embellishes the writing.

Example of a volley conversation:

“Cheers!” 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 but times are hard,” he said. “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!” 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.

There are more examples of how to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction here.

A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors

A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors is available to buy or borrow now! Get it here.

Check out my other writing related posts if you have found ‘How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction’ useful:

How to create a social media content series and turn it into an eBook

What are the differences between line and developmental editing?

7 common mistakes to avoid in your manuscript

How to deconstruct a novel to write your own!

How to easily write a nonfiction synopsis

 

 

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