by Jodie Renner, editor and author
See also my Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.
In another article, I talked about how to make your dialogue less stilted and more natural-sounding. This article just provides a reference for the grammatically correct way to write dialogue, as well as some style tips for dialogue tags. Correct punctuation and form for dialogue will keep your readers from becoming distracted or confused, and maintain their focus on your story. So if you want your manuscript to look professional and your story to read smoothly, follow these technical guidelines.
First of all, start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. On the other hand, don’t start a new paragraph if it’s still the same speaker.
Punctuation for Dialogue:
1. Put quotation marks around all spoken words. Although in Britain and Australia, it’s more common to use single quotes around dialogue, in the United States and Canada, the standard is double quotes around dialogue, with single quotes for quoting or emphasizing words or phrases within the quoted dialogue. (Italics are also used for emphasizing words or short phrases – but don’t overdo it.)
2. In North America, the punctuation always goes inside the end quote, not outside it:
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.
3. If the person is asking a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation mark, and a period goes at the end of the whole sentence. The same goes for exclamations.
“Where were you?” she asked.
“Help!” he shouted.
Note that in the above examples, even though your word processor wants you to put a capital letter for “she” or “he”, these need to be lowercase, as they don’t start a new sentence.
4. If the person speaking is making a statement (or a suggestion or a command), replace the period (which would follow if it weren’t in quotation marks) with a comma. Then put your period at the end of the sentence.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
5. If there’s no attribute (he said, she said), put a period inside the closing quotation mark.
“Turn off the TV.”
6. If you start with the dialogue tag, put a comma after it, before your opening quotation mark and the dialogue:
He said, “My game is on.”
7. If you want to put your dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence, put a comma inside the first set of closing quotation marks, and also after the dialogue tag:
“I can never understand,” she said, “what you see in him.”
8. If one person is speaking and the dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph (not a great idea), you leave out the closing quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, but put opening quotation marks at the beginning of the next one. Use closing quotation marks only when that person is finished speaking.
“…no matter what you do.
“And another thing, don’t ….”
Finally, a few style tips:
1. The best dialogue tags are the simple he said and she said (or asked), or John said and Carol said (or whatever their names are). These simple dialogue tags don’t draw attention to themselves or interrupt the story line, as they’re almost invisible. Avoid tags like queried, chortled, alleged, proclaimed, conjectured, etc., which are distracting.
2. You can’t use words like “laughed” or “grinned” or “smiled” or "grimaced" as dialogue tags:
“Why, thank you,” she smiled. (wrong)
Why not? Because smiling is not talking; you can’t “smile” words. Change it to something like:
“Why, thank you.” She smiled at the compliment. (Note period and capital “She”)
Or “Why, thank you,” she said, as she smiled at him.
3. Use adverbs very sparingly. Avoid:
“Come here,” he said loudly.
“I’m in charge,” she said haughtily.
The words they say should express how they’re feeling and how they’re saying them.