Fiction Editor Beth Hill has written what is possibly the most comprehensive guide on dialogue styling. I’m copying it from the Editor’s Blog, because I think it deserves to feature prominently as a guide.
Dialogue has its own rules for punctuation. Commas go in particular places, as do terminal marks such as periods and question marks.
Only what is spoken is within the quotation marks. Other parts of the same sentence—dialogue tags and action or thought—go outside the quotation marks.
Dialogue begins with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins. (Interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped.)
Only direct dialogue requires quotation marks. Direct dialogue is someone speaking. Indirect dialogue is a report that someone spoke. The word that is implied in the example of indirect dialogue.
Direct: “She was a bore,” he said.
Indirect: He said [that] she was a bore.
Here are some of the rules, with examples.
Single line of dialogue, no dialogue tag
The entire sentence, including the period (or question mark or exclamation point) is within the quotation marks.
“He loved you.”
Single line with dialogue tag (attribution) following
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. A period ends the sentence. Punctuation serves to separate the spoken words from other parts of the sentence.
Because the dialogue tag—she said—is part of the same sentence, it is not capped.
“He loved you,” she said.
Single line with dialogue tag first
The comma still separates the dialogue tag from the spoken words, but it is outside the quotation marks, and the period is inside the quotation marks.
She said, “He loved you.”
Single line of dialogue with dialogue tag and action
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag is next and the action follows the tag—no capital letter because this is part of the same sentence—with a period to end the sentence.
“He loved you,” she said, hoping Sue didn’t hear her.
The action and dialogue tag can also come first.
Leaning away, she said, “He loved you.”
Dialogue interrupted by dialogue tag
Dialogue can be interrupted by a tag and then resume in the same sentence. Commas go inside the first set of quotation marks and after the dialogue tag (or action).
“He loved you,” she said, “but you didn’t care.”
“He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction, “but you didn’t care.”
Separating this into two sentences also works. The first sentence will end with a period and the second will begin with a capital letter.
“He loved you,” she said, hoping to provoke a reaction. “But you didn’t care.”
Questions in dialogue, no dialogue tag
Question mark is inside the quotation marks.
Use this same construction for the exclamation point.
“He loved you?”
“He loved you!”
Questions in dialogue, with dialogue tag
Question mark is inside quotation marks. There is no comma. The tag doesn’t begin with a cap since it’s part of the same sentence, even though there’s a question mark in the middle of the sentence.
Use this same construction for the exclamation point.
“He loved you?” she asked, the loathing clear in her voice and posture.
“He loved you!” she said, pointing a finger at Sally.
Dialogue interrupted by action or thought but no dialogue tag
Characters can pause in their words to do something and then resume the dialogue. If there is no dialogue tag, special punctuation is required to set off the action or thought.
Enclose the first part of the dialogue in quotation marks but omit the comma. Follow the end quotation mark with an em dash and the action or thought and then another em dash. Resume the dialogue with another opening quotation mark, complete the dialogue, and end with a period and a closing quotation mark. There are no spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the dashes and the action/thought.
Thus the spoken words are within quotation marks and the action or thought is set off by the dashes.
“He loved you”—she pounded the wall with a heavy fist—“but you never cared.”
“He loved you”—at least she thought he had—“but you never cared.”
Compare this to a similar construction without dialogue:
He’d forgotten all about me—my heart ached at the thought—but I’d never forgotten him.
Quote within dialogue
A character may be speaking and also quoting what someone else has said. Punctuation is necessary to indicate the difference between what the character is quoting and what are his own words.
The entirety of what a character says is enclosed by double quotation marks. The part the character is quoting from another person is enclosed by single quotation marks.
When single and double quotation marks are side by side, put a space between them.
“He said, and I quote, ‘The mailman loves you.’ ”
“He said, ‘The mailman loves you.’ I heard it with my own ears.”
Indirect dialogue for the inner quote would also work.
“He said the mailman loves you. I heard it with my own ears.”
Direct and indirect dialogue emphasize different elements of the sentence, so choose the one that works best for what you want to convey.
Dialogue abruptly cut off
When dialogue is cut off—the character is being choked or something suddenly diverts his attention or another character interrupts him—use an em dash before the closing quotation mark. Dialogue can be interrupted mid-word or at the end of a word. Consider the sounds of words and syllables before deciding where to break the interrupted word: you wouldn’t break the word there after the T (t—), because the first sound comes from the combined th (th—).
“He loved y—”
Dialogue abruptly cut off by another speaker
When a second speaker interrupts the first, use the em dash where the first speaker’s words are interrupted and again where they resume.
“He loved you—”
“As if I could believe that.”
“—for such a long, long time.”
Dialogue that trails off
When dialogue trails off—the character has lost his train of thought or doesn’t know what to say—use the ellipsis.
“He loved you . . .” A long, long time ago, she thought.
Names in dialogue
Always use a comma before and/or after the name when addressing someone directly in dialogue (even if the name isn’t a proper name).
“He loved you, Emma.”
“Emma, he loved you.”
“He loved you, honey.”
“He loved you, Emma, more than he loved Sally.”
Multiple lines of dialogue
For a paragraph with several sentences of dialogue, put the dialogue tag, if you use one, at the end of the first sentence. The tags are for readers, to keep track of the speaker. A tag lost in the middle or hiding at the end of the paragraph doesn’t help the reader at the top of the paragraph.
This is not an absolute rule, of course. Sometimes the feel or rhythm requires a different construction. But you can use this rule to keep your readers on track. If a group of guys is talking, the reader might guess who is speaking, but there’s nothing wrong with helping out the reader.
“I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game. He wasn’t sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank God I don’t have to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I want. Yep, freedom,” Maxwell said. “Nothing beats freedom.”
“I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game,” Maxwell said. “He wasn’t sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank God I don’t have to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I want. Yep, freedom. Nothing beats freedom.”
Multiple paragraphs of dialogue
Dialogue may stretch across paragraphs without pause. To punctuate, put a terminal punctuation—period, question mark, or exclamation point— at the end of the first paragraph. There is no closing quotation mark at the end of this paragraph.
Begin the next paragraph with an opening quotation mark.
Follow this pattern for as long as the dialogue and paragraphs continue. At the last paragraph, use a closing quotation mark at the end of the dialogue.
“He was my best friend. I told you that, didn’t I? And then he stabbed me in the back. Stole my wife and my future. I hated him for that. Still do. Hate him bad.
“But he’s been punished, yes he has. He went to jail for embezzling thousands. Not even millions. Just thousands. Serves him right, the petty crook. He’s just a petty man.”
Begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.
She looked up at the man hovering over her. “I’d wanted to tell you for years. I just didn’t know what to say.”
“We’ve been married for thirty-four years, Alice. You couldn’t find a way, in thirty-four years of living together and seeing each other sixteen hours a day, to tell me you were already married?”
Exception. There are reasons having to do with style when you could limit a back-and-forth dialogue between characters to a single paragraph, but each speaker’s sentences would need to be brief and you wouldn’t want the paragraph to go on for too long. Keep in mind your readers’ expectations—they expect to find only one character’s words in a paragraph.
Mixing dialogue with narration in the same paragraph
Dialogue and narration can be placed into the same paragraph. If the narration refers to a single character or is in the point of view of only one character, simply add the dialogue. Dialogue can go at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the paragraph and the narration.
If the narration refers to several characters or you can’t tell which character is the focus of the paragraph, begin the dialogue with a new paragraph and a dialogue tag. That is, don’t make the reader guess who is speaking.
If the paragraph opens with a wide view of a group of people but then the focus narrows to a single character, you could introduce that character’s dialogue into the end of that same paragraph. Or, you could begin a new paragraph with the dialogue. The key is to keep the reader in the flow of the story. Confusion over dialogue will pull the reader out of the fictional world.
Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. And at forty-two, she decided she was just entering her prime. She stared at herself in the mirror, patted her hair, and grinned at the man watching her reflection with her. “I still got it, don’t I, baby?”
He reached for her bare shoulders. “And I love every inch of the it you’ve got.”
Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see herself as the ingenue. Carl wanted to tell her she was now more femme fatale than ingenue. And that was all right by him.
“I still got it, don’t I, baby?” she asked his reflection.
“More than ever, honey.”
Rachael was a beautiful woman; she’d been told so since the day she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see herself as the ingenue. “You’re stunning, sweetheart,” Carl said, pausing by the dressing table. He wanted to tell her she was now more femme fatale than ingenue, that she turned him on more than she had as a younger version of herself. But Rachael was not only beautiful. She was touchy. And being reminded of her age wouldn’t keep her happy.
Carl was all about keeping Rachael happy.
“Simply stunning,” he said again
Attributions can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To hide them, put them at the middle or end of sentences. You will typically—but not always—want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.
Older authors like Dorris Lessing and Henry Miller use multiple characters with dialogue in the same paragraph. A visitor to the Editor’s Blog had the following question:
“I am writing some paragraphs in which a person is overhearing or taking in remarks from others. If I give them all a paragraph it feels like it gives them too much importance and makes them kind of stronger characters in the story. But I don’t want them in the story, they are a crowd of people, and I want the character to feel the general sentiment of the crowd.”
He sat on the rooftop listening to them speak to the police. “He went that way,” the girl said. “He was fat,” another stated. “And ugly,” said another. “It was the most awful thing in the world.” “You should kill him.”
Here is what Beth had to say:
I agree with not wanting to give bit characters too much attention by giving each their own line of dialogue. The readers won’t see them again, and there’s no reason for them to have time, space, or attention. So . . .
Report the dialogue rather than having anyone speak it. Or maybe report most of it but let one line stand out as quoted dialogue.
He was on the rooftop, listening to the witnesses speak to the police. One claimed he went east, another called him fat, and yet another said he was ugly. One woman—older, he guessed, because of the tremor in her voice—said, “It was awful. You should kill him. Kill him dead.”
You can weave the character’s reactions through the indirect dialogue.
He rested on the rooftop, listening as the witnesses talked over one another to give their stories. One claimed he ran east down Pope Street, another said he went west and turned at the corner. One man said he was fat. Tommy patted the towels he’d stuffed under his shirt; worked every time. He frowned, however, when another man said he was uglier than his favorite mutt. And Tommy knew his eyebrows rose when he heard, “You gots to catch him and kill him, officers. Else no decent folks will sleep peacefully tonight.”
Use whatever fits the story to bring out even more from the character who is overhearing the conversation. Show his reaction to the dialogue.
Of course, you don’t need to include any of the details at all. Just report that the character heard others talking. This is a good technique if the character can’t see what’s going on. Also good if you just want readers to know what was happening without giving importance to what was actually said.
He crouched on the rooftop, hidden from the witnesses and cops gathered at the west side of the building. Damn, but they wouldn’t shut up, those busybodies giving descriptions of his looks and telling which direction he’d gone.
He crouched on the rooftop, unseen by the cops and witnesses standing outside the library’s side door. He really hated being seen when he did his business, but those blabbering idiots were actually helping him. They had the cops more confused than a hunting dog trapped between a rabbit hutch and a geese sanctuary.
If you want to keep it brief, just go for the basics.
He hid on the rooftop, listening and grinning as witnesses gave the cops conflicting descriptions of his size and clothing, and pointed them in three different directions.
In situations such as this, there’s no reason to describe the speakers or even quote their words. The reader doesn’t need to know who said what, only that certain words were said or that a conversation happened. I’d definitely go for indirect dialogue in such cases.
However, if you still want to quote them for some reason, you’ve got a few options.
You can group the dialogue as though you were presenting a set of quotes.
Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: “He went down that way and you can catch him if you run fast,” from a child; “His face was as ugly as his crime,” from a clearly not hysterical woman; and “I would’ve tackled him, except he had that gun, you know,” from a man. Probably the linebacker he’d noticed a little too late to halt his plans.
To me, this is visually busy and distracting and still gives too much emphasis to the speaker.
A simpler option . . .
Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: he went down Jinzer Avenue; his face was butt ugly, covered in scars and stuff; that loser was one fat, really fat, dude; you got to catch him now, officer.
No, I didn’t use quotation marks. This construction suggests that the character is overhearing bits and pieces and that the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter and/or isn’t known. It can also be used to signify that the hearer isn’t catching every word. This use of italics rather than quotation marks is a stylistic decision. One I would recommend you don’t use often. But it can be effective for just this kind of dialogue. Think of a character walking through a party, overhearing snippets of conversation.
We always want clarity for the reader, so make sure the reader won’t be tripped up by unusual punctuation or constructions. Focus on elements that are important for the reader to notice and present those elements clearly.
What does dialogue do to the character?
Also, as is always good, you can show how dialogue affects the character. Overheard dialogue only means something as it means something to the one who hears it. Consider showing the character’s feelings or actions from these overheard words.
Visit the Editor’s Blog for more great advice on writing and styling!