He said, she said - Mechanics of Dialogue

By Cogito · Jan 2, 2008 · ·
  1. Dialogue is a prominent component in fiction, but is probably one of the least understood, at least in terms of punctuation. Before I dive into this though, I will offer this disclaimer:

    The discussion below follows the standards established for US English. In the UK, the roles of the single quote and double quote are often reversed, although the US English convention is still widely offered as the preferred form. Other systems exist as well; a largely obsolete French convention is to begin quoted dialogue with a dash in the left column, then a space, followed in turn with the dialogue.

    So far as punctuation within a quoted dialogue is concerned, you should always end the quotation with an ending punctuation before the closing quote. If the appropriate punctuation is a question mark or exclamation point, it remains unchanged, irrespective of what immediately follows the dialogue element.

    If the dialogue would normally end with a comma, you will almost certainly be following the dialogue with a tag (e.g. he said, or Eric whispered, etc.), and the comma should remain a comma. If the dialogue ends a sentence, that is it does not flow into a tag, and the dialogue would naturally end with a period, the period is again retained. However, if the dialogue normally ends with a period, and the dialogue has a tag appended to it, then you replace the period with a comma:
    When the dialogue ends a sentence, retain the punctuation that ends the quotation, but discard the punctuation that would end the full sentence, even if they are different marks:
    The dialogue itself is enclosed in double quotes, as shown above. If the dialogue itself contains quoted dialogue, the inner dialogue should be enclosed in single quotes:
    As noted above, it's not uncommon in the UK to see this convention reversed:
    Notice that the tag conventions are adhered to for the inner quotation as well, except that the final punctuation for the inner quotation is ommitted if there is a punctuation mark immediately following the inner quotation.

    In addition to tags, you should also understand beats. The purpose of a tag is to indicate who is speaking the dialogue item. A beat, on the other hand, is an action taken by the speaker before, between, or after dialogue fragments. It serves to insert a pause, while also connecting the dialogue to the person and to the scene:
    Note the absence of a comma. The beat is a separate sentence, unlike a tag, and begins with a capitalized word, even if it isn't a proper name as in this instance.

    Thought dialogue is a bit more controversial. The mainstream rule is usually that though dialogue is neither enclosed in quotes nor italicized:
    Again, the punctuation rules are still followed for the transition between the thought and the tag, excluding the quotation marks.

    In some instances, you may see the thoughts italicized, but that is not the preferred form, and should be avoided:
    Again, the preferred style in this case is not to italicize the thought dialogue, nor enclose it in quotes. Just enter it as normal text. The context should make it clear that it is literal thought.

    One other comment. Only one speaker's dialogue should appear within a single paragraph. If two or more speakers are conversing, it's important to start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. You don't have to have a tag for each speaker, but make sure the context makes it clear who is speaking each time. Don't rely on published fiction to guide how often you need to identify the speaker, though. I have encountered many published works in which the author fails to indicate the current speaker often enough. If you find yourself backtracking to try to figure out who is speaking, the author has fallen short in his or her responsibility!

    If the same character speaks more than one dialogue fragment, they can go into the same paragraph, as long as the fragments express a single overall idea. If the second dialogue piece is a separate thought, it should begin a new paragraph. In this case you will certainly want a tag to make it clear you are not alternating speakers.
    Of course, if the same speaker is speaking a longer section of dialogue, it should be broken into paragraphs whenever the speaker progresses from one thought to another. Use the same rules for paragraphing dialogue you would use for paragraphing narrative. However, with continuous dialogue over several paragraphs, omit the closing quotation mark at the end of each continuous paragraph of dialogue except the last. Begin each paragraph with a quotation mark:
    I won't go into the more subjective guidelines of good dialogue here, other than to say, "Keep a good balance between dialogue and narrative."

    In this article, I have used verbs in tags other than said or asked. In practice you should not seek variety in the tag verbs. Tags using said or asked virtually disappear to the reader, and that is desirable. Tag verbs are syntacic glue, like articles and conjunctions, so there is no real need to vary them. Trung too hard not to repeat said or asked invariably backfires and sticks out like the proverbial throbbing swollen thumb.

    Another of our members, Terry Ervin (TWErvin2), has written an article on dialogue from a more contextual perspective: Dialogue Basics.
    Maverick_nc, Rumple, Kikijoy and 6 others like this.


  1. Crazy Ivan
    Wow...this is actually really helpful! (Wait, why do I sound so surprised?) Thanks for this...I'll remember to come back here in the future whenever I hit a bump in the proverbial dialog road.
  2. Klee
    This is very very helpful. I think it should be made a sticky instead. I have one question though, what is the preferred form to mark thoughts when not with italics?
  3. Torana
    Cogito this is absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much for typing this out! I will definately be reading over this blog post again a number of times that is for sure.

  4. Cogito
    Klee, I edited that section to try to make it clearer. Let me know if it helps.

    Everyone: I also added guidelines for multiple dialog fragments by the same speaker, when to combine them in the same paragraph, and when not to.

    I have also addressed multi-paragraph dialog.
  5. Zetta
    There were actually things here I didn't know.

    I guess I shouldn't be so surprised, but I guess I thought I was a dialogue master or something...:p

    Anyway, this was really helpful, especially the points on punctuation when the dialogue is at the end of the sentence. It seems I have been messing that up for a while now.

  6. bone jaw
    I'm ok with basic quoting, but I always seem to screw up badly when it comes to dialog.
    Thanks a million for this. It's incredibly helpful.
  7. Greg
    This was very helpful for me too! Thank you.
  8. penhobby
    Thanks Cogito, I was unsure of the tag preceding the dialogue and you cleared it up for me …and helped it make more sense to me. Wuhu I learned something! ~Amy
  9. CobaltLion
    That's very helpful. Thanks for posting that.
  10. TimWesson
    This post is simply brilliant. Thanks for ironing out the creases.
  11. eclecticism7
    I have always had difficulty understanding that a character's thoughts were being quoted directly when they weren't italicized--is that the writer's fault, or is the less-preferred way actually more easily comprehended?
  12. Zcreative
    Of course I'm a very new member here, but this article is more helpful than any Grammar Mechanics book I've read before. It answered some very irritating questions for me. I was really stuck on the thought dialogue, and although I've never put any of my stories anywhere for anyone else to see, I've always thought that my method was wrong (putting the thoughts in quotes). I have also read in books thoughts being italicized, but I never really thought of it being plain text.

    Thanks again! :p
  13. soujiroseta
    I've constantly referred to this blog and i think it's time i thank you Cog :cool:
  14. Forgetmenot77
    Thank you this is very helpful.
  15. x_raichelle_x
    Thank you for that! Cleared up a lot of my confusion :)
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