If the thought of punctuating your novel’s dialogue brings you out in a sweat, let me mop your brow with these 7 tips.
In this article, we'll look at the following:
If you prefer watching to reading, there's a complementary video series on my YouTube channel that covers each of the 7 sections in turn.
1. Indicating speech
Quotation marks – or speech marks – are how authors usually indicate the spoken word. There are two choices – singles or doubles. Either are acceptable.
In US fiction publishing it’s more common to use doubles; in British fiction singles dominate. That doesn’t mean you must use doubles if you’re an American author or singles if you’re a British author. It’s not about right or wrong but about style, preference and convention.
Think about what your reader will expect to see and what’s standard where you live. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommends doubles, but acknowledges that the convention is for singles in the UK and elsewhere.
The most important thing is to be consistent and never use two single quotation marks instead of a double.
The following passages from published works illustrate each style:
Nested quotation marks
Sometimes you’ll need to place speech within speech (or quotes within quotes). To differentiate the speaker, use the alternate style for your internal or nested quotation marks:
Smart vs unidirectional marks
It’s conventional in mainstream publishing to use smart or curly quotation marks, not unidirectional ones. (The same applies to apostrophes, by the way.)
Some online fonts (like the one I use for the body text on my website) don’t do a good job of differentiating smart and unidirectional quotation marks, but word-processing software like Microsoft Word does – even with sans serif fonts.
To prevent the problem occurring from the minute you begin typing:
If you’ve pasted material into your book from elsewhere, or you didn’t check autocorrect options before you began typing, there might be some rogue unidirectional marks in your file. To change them quickly, do a global find/replace:
Alternative speech-indicator marks
An alternative way of displaying speech is via the em dash. This method can get messy if you have more than two speakers in a conversation, so use it with care.
The em is the longest in the dash suite. In the image below (1) is a hyphen, (2) is an en dash and (3) is the em dash.
Sylvain Neuvel uses this technique in Sleeping Giants, the first book in the hugely enjoyable Themis Files series.
While some chapters in the novel use standard quotation marks, most are case-file chapters that are entirely composed of dialogue between a known character and an agent who plays a key part in the story but remains anonymous and elusive to us throughout.
Each speaker’s turn is indicated with an em dash. The agent’s speech is rendered in bold.
If Neuvel had chosen the standard route, he’d have been forced to use clunky speech tags such as ‘the agent said’, and even reveal the agent’s gender to mix things up a little. Instead, the chapters are compelling, mysterious, but cleanly and tightly delivered.
Here’s an excerpt from p. 104:
Same speaker; new paragraph
One final word on quotation marks. If you want your dialogue to take a new paragraph while retaining the current speaker, use a quotation mark at start of the new line but omit the closing one at the end of the previous paragraph.
This example from Jo Nesbo’s The Bat (p. 251) illustrates the convention:
2. Trailing-off and pauses in speech
The ellipsis is used to indicate a pause or speech trailing-off at the end of a sentence.
Here’s an excerpt from At Risk (p. 434) by Stella Rimington:
Notice how Rimington doesn’t also tell us that the character’s voice has trailed off, which would be unnecessary clutter. Here’s how it might have gone if she hadn’t trusted the ellipsis to do its job and her readers to understand that:
She shook her head, her eyes unfocused. Then, draining her pint glass, she nudged it towards him. ‘Could you …?’ Jean said, her voice trailing off.
Here are examples from Sleeping Giants (p. 204) and At Risk (p. 434) where an ellipsis is used to indicate a mid-sentence pause:
‘We discovered it can also be used as a weapon. It took another hole – in the wall, this time – to figure that one out, but the edge of the shield is very sharp … if you can say that about light.’
‘Well … He walked out on us years ago, when I was a boy, so he can’t ever have really cared for us.’
The spacing of ellipses
CMOS asks for three full stops (or periods) separated by non-breaking spaces (1). Non-breaking spaces stop the elements they’re positioned between from becoming separated because of a line break.
You can create one using your keyboard with the keys CTRL+SHIFT+SPACE. However, once again that’s a style choice. It’s perfectly acceptable to use the tighter single ellipsis character in Word (2).
The Unicode character for the ellipsis is 2026. To access it, go to the INSERT tab in Word’s ribbon, select SYMBOL, then MORE SYMBOLS.
Make sure the font is set to normal text (3) before you type the code into the character-code box (4).
From here on in, when you click on SYMBOL the ellipsis will show up in the list of recently used symbols. If you’re using a professional editor, you can ask them to ensure that your ellipses are rendered correctly, though it’s something most pros would check as a matter of course.
CMOS also recommends the following:
Professional publishers use this style, and I recommend that self-publishers follow suit.
3. End-of-line interruptions in speech
To indicate that a speaking character has been interrupted, use an em dash. No matter whether you’re publishing in US or UK style, this is the tool of choice.
It’s a harder piece of punctuation and does a superb job of indicating emotions like impatience, curtness, disbelief, rudeness, frustration and anger on the part of the interrupting speaker.
Here’s a fast-paced conversation between Louisa and Min in Mick Herron’s Dead Lions (p. 115):
This use of the em dash keeps the dialogue moving at a fast pace.
Like Rimington, Herron doesn’t tell it twice. There are no cluttering speech tags or repetitive explanations that tell us how each speaker interrupted the other. The pace cracks like a whip and we’re offered an authentic back-and-forth.
Here’s one more example from Linwood Barclay’s Parting Shot (p. 380). It shows how the em dash evokes a sense of impatience from the speaker who cuts in:
4. Punctuating tagged speech
Your character’s just spoken a complete sentence, and you want to follow through with a tag that tells the reader who said what (e.g. he said, she said). How does the punctuation work before the closing quotation mark at the end of the sentence?
The comma does the job, even when the sentence is complete, unless you’re finishing with an exclamation mark or a question mark. If there’s no tag following the dialogue, you can use a full stop.
Here are some examples from Parting Shot (p. 80) to show you how it works:
Note that when you follow up with second- or third-person speech tags (you said/he said/she said/they said) they always take lower case, whether the punctuation before the closing quotation mark is a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation mark.
5. Punctuating broken-up dialogue
If you want to break up your dialogue with speech tags or other stage direction, but your character hasn’t finished speaking, commas or dashes will help you keep your dialogue in order. The key is to get the punctuation right in the text between the dialogue too.
Let’s look at two more examples, both from The Chosen Ones by Howard Linskey (pp. 295, 306):
The unbroken speech would appear as ‘I assume that this is not the place.’ and ‘Then he gets nothing and he won’t be able to use it, will he?’
Nevertheless, it is conventional within most mainstream publishing companies to add a comma before the first closing quotation mark and after the speech tag. These commas act as parentheses.
If your dialogue is broken with description rather than speech tags, dashes can offer more clarity than commas. If you’re sticking to CMOS style, closed-up em dashes will be your choice. If you prefer the shorter en dash, place spaces around either side of it.
Here’s an example from CMOS (6.87) using closed-up em dashes:
“Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it."
And here’s how it would look using spaced en dashes and single quotation marks if you were following UK publishing convention:
‘Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and’ – his voice turned huffy – ‘I won’t be there to see it.’
6. Punctuating vocative expressions in dialogue
A vocative expression is one where the person being addressed is directly referred to in a sentence. It needn’t be someone’s name; it could be a form of address that relates to their job or position, one that’s a term of respect (or disrespect).
Commas are required for clarity.
Here are some examples:
Punctuating vocative expressions incorrectly can lead to ambiguity. Compare the following examples of dialogue. Notice how the missing comma changes the meaning from expressions of address to instructions to carry out acts of violence!
7. Indicating faltering speech
If your character is out of breath, taken aback, caught off guard, frightened, or nervous, you might want to indicate faltering speech with punctuation.
There are no absolute rules about how you do this because it depends on the effect you want to achieve.
Here’s how Sophie Hannah does it in one of her Hercule Poirot continuation novels, Closed Casket (p. 165):
And here’s a made-up example showing a more staccato faltering:
‘No. I-I-I mean not really. It was an accident. I just s-s-saw him standing there and I kinda flipped,’ Jack said.
And here’s how Sylvain Neuvel handles scientist Marina Antoniou in Waking Gods (p. 103). This character consistently struggles with her speech so Neuvel uses a combo of repeated letters to elongate the starting consonants, followed by ellipses to show her process of forcing out the remainder of her words.
His approach is unconventional but it imparts an authentic sense of Antoniou fighting with her voice:
Use common sense with your speech tags. If you’ve made it obvious from the punctuation that the character’s speech is faltering, you needn’t tell the reader twice:
‘No. I-I-I mean not really. It was an accident. I just s-s-saw him standing there and I kinda flipped,’ Jack stammered.
If your character has a stammer, by all means use these tools to indicate it here and there but don’t feel compelled to litter the dialogue with it. Readers have good memories; nudges are enough. Overdo it and you risk dulling the writing and making your reader frustrated.
That’s it! Happy dialogue punctuating!
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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