How to Punctuate, Use Tags, and Vary the Structure of Your Dialogue
How to Punctuate, Use Tags, and Vary the Structure of Your Dialogue
by Victory Crayne
Dialogue is what the characters say to each other. As writers, we can use dialogue for many purposes beyond just having our characters talk. Dialogue can show emotion, advance the storyline, and provide valuable clues to personalities.
Follow the lessons here and your dialogue will come alive for your readers.
Dialogue can be the lifeblood of a story. Some readers, upon considering the book to purchase, will read ONLY the dialogue parts.
A story with a lot of long narrative paragraphs and very little dialogue can hard to read and can easily become boring to many readers. If you find you’re using a lot of narrative, perhaps you are “telling” the story instead of allowing the characters to carry part of that load. Most modern readers prefer stories that contain a fair amount of dialogue because it breaks up the prose and gives the impression of moving the story along faster.
You can enliven your writing by striving to use some dialogue on almost every page. My personal preference is to have half or more of the paragraphs on every page contain dialogue.
Speech in writing creates “white space” on the page and that in turn makes the reading easier. Especially if you put most of your dialgues on separate lines. Remember: Make your story easy to understand and easy to read and you’ll sell more copies.
Tell your story more through the words of your characters and readers will love your writing more.
However, if you punctuate the dialogue incorrectly, your chances of having your novels accepted for publication decrease markedly. In addition, if you use dialogue in the same way throughout your story, you run the risk of boring your readers. You should strive for variety in the structure of your speech.
Note: The rules and suggestions given in this document apply to writing for American English readers. Non-American English fiction markets may have other rules and suggestions.
For detailed studies of punctuation, I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, ISBN 0-226-10403-6. The book is a little expensive at $55, but I strongly recommend the investment for any serious writer.
Punctuation with speech tags
Pay careful attention to the placement of every comma, quotation mark, question mark, and period on all the examples in this document. Here are some common uses of punctuation and wording for dialogue.
Periods and commas
From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: “Periods and commas precede closing quotation marks, whether double or single … Typographical usage dictates that the comma be placed inside the [quotation] marks, though logically it often seems not to belong there … The same goes for the period.”
You have the option of using the “said” speech tag with a question mark. The following are both correct:
From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: “A question mark should be placed inside quotation marks only when it is part of the quoted matter.”
You have the option of using the “said” speech tag with an exclamation point. The following are both correct:
From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: “An exclamation point should be placed inside quotation marks only when it is part of the quoted matter.”
Hyphens are used in compound words and names and to separate numbers or characters. For example,
They are non-English-speaking people.
In the following example, notice that the speaker will not call attention to the need for a capital “C.” Everyone knows a name starts with a capital letter.
Dashes can be used for a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue.
From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: “In typing, as opposed to typesetting, writers are advised (unless otherwise instructed by their editors or publishers) to use a single hyphen both for a hyphen and for an en dash [and] two hyphens for an em dash.”
For a pause in speech
Use a dash (to replace an em dash) for a pause in the dialogue. For example,
Generally, it is not a good idea to use a lot of dashes in your writing. Beginning writers often do in the belief that they must “direct” the movie they see in their heads for their readers. A more advanced writer will leave it up the reader to understand. For example,
For interrupted speech
Use a dash when someone interrupts a person speaking. For example,
Another example of using the em dash for a speech interrupted by something:
You type the long em dash in Microsoft Word by holding the Ctrl and Alt keys and pressing the minus key on the keypad. Or copy and paste from a previous use. Or Insert > Symbols > Symbol > choose the em dash.
Ellipsis dots (...)
For a speech that tapers off
The dialogue may taper off because the speaker is at a loss for words or doesn’t know what to say next. For example,
To make it clear that the speaker was not interrupted by someone else (in which case you should use a dash [for an em dash] instead of an ellipsis), you should have the dialogue followed immediately by prose instead of another person’s dialogue. For example,
Stuttering or stammering
From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition: Ellipsis point may be used to indicate faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity. In the examples below, note the relative positions of the ellipsis points and other punctuation.
To disguise a common foul word
You have the option of using an asterisk in the middle of a word to indicate the spelling of a word that some readers may not like to read directly. This is sometimes used for common four-letter cuss words. For example,
For a more detailed explanation of the use of the ellipsis in dialogue, I refer you to The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, section 11.51 and others.
Changing Word to not autocorrect with the ellipsis special character
If you find your copy of Microsoft Word automatically converts your typed three periods into an ellipsis, if you wish, you can turn that off by either of two ways:
Turn off autocorrect:
Quotes within quotes
Whenever a character says out loud what some other character said (or wrote), you should use double quotation marks for the speaker and single quotation marks for the quoted material. For example,
However, if the quoted material is only one word, you should not use quotation marks for the quoted word. For example,
Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by the same character
When a character starts speaking, you should use “open” quotation marks and when he stops speaking, you use “close” quotation marks. However, if the dialogue extends to more than one paragraph, start each paragraph of dialogue with an “open” quotation mark, but only use a closing quotation mark for the final paragraph of dialogue.
When the reader comes to the end of a paragraph and does not see a close quotation mark that is his clue that the same person is continuing to speak. Some readers may not be aware of that convention, so if the dialogue goes on for several paragraphs, it may help those readers if you remind them occasionally of the identity of the speaker.
Definition of tags
In this lesson on dialogue, I will talk about “tags.”
Speech tags: said, replied, asked, asserted, queried, begged, retorted, etc.
Action tags: some physical action or activity of the speaker.
Thought tags: an inner thought of either the speaker or the storyteller.
Description tags: some description of the speaker or the speech.
Tags can provide valuable clues not only to who is talking, but also how they say it.
Incorrect speech tags
The following are some examples of words that some writers use as speech tags but are not: smiled, grinned, pouted, etc. Please note: You cannot talk and smile at the same time!
An incorrect example would be:
Adverbs with speech tags
Some writers overuse adverbs with their speech tags, perhaps in the belief that it makes the speech livelier. For example,
If you use adverbs a lot, it can actually detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the story. I recommend you avoid using adverbs with speech tags.
You can use action tags in place of speech tags to identify the speaker.
Dialogue broken by action:
As with action tags, you can use thought tags in place of speech tags to identify the speaker.
Dialogue broken by inner thought:
For dramatic impact, or to indicate the character taking a breath, you can insert your action or thought tags where that character would normally pause speaking, as in the previous example.
You can express the thoughts of a character as either “direct” or “indirect” thoughts.
Direct thoughts are the voices that speak inside the head of the character. You can use italics (or underlining) to show those direct thoughts. For example,
Whether you use italics or underlining depends on your publisher’s editor. I generally find it easier to understand italics as direct internal thoughts, just like it would appear in a printed book. You can always change the italics to underlining later, if your publisher requests it. Most publishers who still rely on typesetters prefer underlines because, in some fonts, italics are not always distinct enough to stand out from normal type.
Some writers prefer to show direct internal thoughts without italics or underlining. For example,
If you use quotation marks for direct thought, you should use a speech tag that indicates it is really internal thinking in order to avoid readers misinterpreting those words as being spoken out loud instead. For example,
Indirect thoughts are those thoughts characters have which are not formed in speech inside their heads. For example,
Jerry lifted the hammer and paused. He had nailed this door yesterday. Slowly, he put the hammer down.
Facial expressions and body language
You can identify the speaker by conveying information about how the character feels by using facial expressions or body language. For example,
Multiple people speaking
If there are several people in the conversation, you need to make it clear who is speaking each time. You can do this with different tags, not just speech tags.
Long conversations between two people
When you have a long conversation between two characters, you should provide an occasional tag to identify one of them so the reader doesn’t lose track. It is very irritating for a reader to get half way down a long page of such a conversation, get interrupted by something, and then return to the page, only to realize he can’t figure out who is saying what. As a general rule, I suggest you provide at least one tag after every four or five dialogue paragraphs.
You don’t always need to use a speech tag if the identity of the speaker is clear.
There are times when you do not need tags, such as when the conversation turns to only two people in a group exchanging words, as long as it is clear from the dialogue who is speaking each time.
Long speech by one character
When a character has a lot to say, in order to avoid boring your readers with long paragraphs, it is better to break up the dialogue into smaller paragraphs. Put a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but not at the end of the other paragraphs.
This gives the reader a clue that the same person was still speaking.
Put a closing quotation mark after the final paragraph of his dialogue. This tells the readers that person has stopped talking.
However, if possible, break up the long speech by having other people talk or use action description. One rule of thumb is that a character should say a maximum of only three sentences in a row before he will be making undue demands on the reader’s attention. In real life, conversation bounces back and forth.
If you name a character and describe him or her in any detail, readers may think they have to remember that name because he or she they may appear again. In that case, avoid names and use simple descriptions instead. For example,
Cautions to take
Never mix the dialogue of two characters in the same paragraph.
Avoid mixing the actions of one character and the speech of another in the same paragraph. This is not an iron rule, though; such as when the viewpoint character is the one speaking and others react by actions to what he/she says.
Variety in sentence structures
Avoid a boring structure
Some writers prefer to have quoted speech at the start of every sentence of dialogue, such as:
This can be boring to read, especially if the writer believes that every sentence which contains dialogue must start with that dialogue.
It may also confuse the reader because he/she won’t know the identity of the person speaking until the end of the sentence, especially if there are several people in the room. That can make a difference to how easy the writing is to read.
Remember: Make your story easy to understand and easy to read and you’ll sell more copies. The goal should be to entertain the reader, not try to impress him/her with how intelligent or educated the writer is or to impress that old high school English teacher still sitting in your head.
You can liven up such a predictable style by using different sentence structures. For example,
Avoid putting all dialogue at the start of a new paragraph
Some writers always put dialogue at the start of a new paragraph, even if the previous paragraph was a lead-in for the dialogue. For example,
A poor way:
A better way:
I suspect some English teacher somewhere had that as one of his or her rules because I see a lot of that. It looks ridiculous if the dialogue belongs in the previous sentence in this kind of example:
A poor way:
A better way:
Use different tags
Another way is to use different kinds of tags mixed in with the dialogue sentences to identify the speakers. In the following, the rule is given first, followed by an example.
You don't need a lot of "said"
My personal preference is to use very few “said” or other speech tags and rely instead on action, thought, or description to show who is speaking. In the following example, it is always clear who is talking without using a single speech tag.
Your writing will become even livelier if you have each character use a unique voice. Think of the people around you, perhaps friends or family or coworkers. Each person has their own way to talking. If you can have your characters talk differently, they will come alive with more clarity to your readers.
However, when distinguishing a character's speech, do not overuse foreign words or dialect. Many readers may find that irritating or distracting.
Incomplete sentences or incorrect grammar
If you listen to how people around you talk, you will notice they don’t always speak in complete sentences or use correct grammar. For example,
People tend to use a lot of contractions in speech. For example,
Some examples of contractions you might use include: won’t, don’t, and she’ll. So if you want your dialogue to sound realistic, remember to use contractions where appropriate.
In addition, you can use unusual contractions to indicate the incorrect speech that some people use. For example:
Some people use:
Don’t overwrite dialogue
Dialogue is not normal speech. Don’t try to mimic the long-winded and selfcentered speech you hear in normal conversations. Your characters should say what is necessary to advance the plot. Try to keep the dialogue relevant to advancing the plot.
Copyright © 2011 by Victory Crayne. All rights reserved. Please send suggestions and comments to: