How to Punctuate Dialog in Fiction
by Terence Kuch
See email@example.com, “Memorable Fancies,” a daily microfiction. Take a look if you’re curious (in either sense).
[“…punctuation (a subtle resource).” -- George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought, p. 10]
[“The [Russian] revolution of 1905 began with the strike of a Moscow printing plant where the workers were asking that periods and commas be counted as characters in evaluating piecework.” – Albert Camus, Notebooks 1942-1951, p. 212]
What five authorities have said [abridged], followed by my summary and recommendations, and notes on the use of colons and semicolons.
Source 1: The Dabbling Mum
Interior Dialogue – depicts a character’s non-verbal thoughts. Use of quotation marks to set off interior dialogue depends on the writer, according to Chicago Manual of Style. However, many fiction text books discourage the use of quotation marks in interior dialogue. Interior dialogue can be depicted in italics or plain font.
Ellipses: Use ellipses to show faltering, fragmented, speech or dialogue; enclose in quotation marks.
Use em dashes to show abrupt interruptions or broken off dialogue. Again, dialogue is enclosed with punctuation marks.
Correct: “It’s . . . well—”
Use of ellipses shows faltering, fragmented speech enclosed within quotation marks.
Correct: “It’s. . . well—”
Example correctly uses the em dash to portray abrupt, broken off dialogue.
Incorrect: “It’s, well—”
Example is punctuated incorrectly, if the writer intends to portray faltering, fragmented speech.
Source 2: Playwriting 101
When one character interrupts another, use double dashes (–) or an em dash (a long dash) to show that the speaker is being cut off. Below, I make use of an em dash. No need to write “interrupts.”
If my Dad said we’re moving just like that -
You’d move. Hold this cone
(holds out the ice cream cone)
Using ellipses ( … ) does not signify that a character has been interrupted, but rather that she hesitates or trails off of her own accord. For example, Pac can’t bring himself to ask a question:
Would you … ?
Would I what?
Source 3: Deviant Art
[the dash in dialogue]
A dash can be used in dialogue for two reasons (in addition to the standard uses for the dash in prose writing): to represent a shift in tone or to represent a break or hesitation in thought. This is different from the ellipsis (…), which should only be used to represent dialogue that trails off and is likely to begin again.
“My only purpose has been to stop the madness that was started seven years ago. I cannot afford the risk of–” was all he said, not finding the courage to finish the sentence.
Tabitha sighed again and brushed a loose strand of black hair behind her ear. I’m just . . . sick of all the drama going on.”
“Yeah, you and the rest of the world.”
“Then talk to me. What’s going on? I know there’s more that you haven’t told anyone.”
She took a deep breath. “Yeah . . .”
“Dad’s company needs him in Houston by the end of next month.”
“Okay . . .”
“We’re moving in three weeks. The company already has a house for us there and will take care of selling ours.”
“So, it’s really gonna happen,” he said softly.
“I don’t care about having more . . . more stuff!”
In both texts, we see the ellipses but no dashes. Remember, a dash is used to show a hesitation or break in thought or a change in tone. An ellipsis, on the other hand, is used to show thoughts that are trailing off and/or can be picked up again. The difference is subtle, but it’s there.
In the first example, the speaker very obviously cuts off what he is saying and has no intention of picking it back up again. It’s a break in thought and, as such, should be represented by the dash.
In the second example, the ellipsis is used correctly. “I’m just . . . sick of all the drama going on” shows a trailing off that has every intention of picking the conversation back up. It’s not an abrupt change of tone or thought, even though it is a pause, and as such the dash would be inappropriate.
In the third example, we have quite a few things going on. With “Yeah…” the speaker is very obviously trailing off in both thought and speech. It’s not an abrupt break or a change in thought, simply a hesitation. As such, either convention would be appropriate depending on the author’s intention. Using “Yeah—” would represent a cut off with no interest in continuing the conversation in that direction. “Yeah…” shows that the speaker is hesitating and trailing off and probably would like to continue the conversation if given the chance to find the right words (or some gentle prodding). As such, I believe the ellipsis is more appropriate here but, again, either the dash or the ellipsis would be acceptable.
The appropriate way to use the ellipsis is not just through intent, but also in how a writer should punctuate what comes after the ellipsis when that ellipsis is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the sentence. This is the age-old, “Do I really put four dots in a row?” question. The short answer? Probably.
When using the ellipsis in dialogue to end a sentence one must make two decisions: 1) am I putting my punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks and 2) what punctuation mark should end this sentence. The ellipsis used inside quotation marks should never be the end punctuation for the sentence. In other words, “Okay…” should either be “Okay….” with the four dots inside the quotation marks or “Okay…”. with the period outside of the quotation marks. It could also be “Okay…?” or “Okay…”? or “Okay…!” or “Okay…”! (etc.) depending on what the writer intends. Whichever way is most appropriate and comfortable, that end punctuation must be present.
If quotation marks are not being used to represent dialogue anywhere else in the piece, they can be used to represent internal dialogue; all standard rules would apply. If double quotation marks are being used to represent regular dialogue elsewhere in the text, then single quotation marks can be used for internal dialogue—but this can get messy and is often avoided. Internal dialogue is most often italicized in place of using quotation marks, with the dialogue tags in regular print. Observe:
I can’t believe I’m doing this, Amy thought. I can’t believe I actually agreed to go.
Instead of using quotation marks, one sees the italics and is quickly able to differentiate between something said aloud and something thought. Internal dialogue is also one of those places where the dash might be helpful to differentiate thoughts and speakers, but italics seem to be the preferred method.
Most editors prefer underlining to italics, but this varies with the publication. The final product will use italics in either case.
[rules for reference: punctuation]
A comma should always separate the quotation from the dialogue tag.
[e.g., "'I'm hungry,' said Dave." That use of the comma is natural, because there's naturally a brief pause between "hungry" and "said." However, even if there is no pause in speaking or reading, the coma is still required, as in "Dave looked at me and yelled, 'Watch out!" - TK]
[for American publications] Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, [This is the standard practice, even if it results in a misquotation. - TK] and all other punctuation (semicolons, question marks, dashes, exclamation points) goes outside the quotation marks.
If a dialogue tag (e.g., he said) interrupts a sentence, it should be offset by commas; when this occurs, the second part of the quotation should begin with a lowercase letter.
A change in speaker equals a change in paragraph.
The ellipsis (…) should only be used to represent dialogue that trails off and is likely to begin again.
The ellipsis used inside quotation marks should never be the end punctuation for the sentence. You need to add end punctuation after the dialogue.
Source 4: Ginny Wiehardt, About.com
Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line (the words used to identify the speaker: “he said/she said”):
“I would like to go to the beach this weekend,” she told him as they left the apartment.
[for American publications] Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks; other punctuation — semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points — goes outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes.
In general, don’t use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods.
When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case.
For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent.
Source 5: Grammatically Correct, by Anne Stilman
In dialogue, the em dash serves to indicate broken-off speech. One speaker can interrupt another:
“They simply happen to regard sex as both a physical and a spiritual experience. If you think I’m–“
“So do I! So do I regard it as a wuddaycallit–a physical and spiritual [Salinger]
A speaker can stop abruptly without being interrupted:
And when I found the door was shut,
I tried to turn the handle, but–” [Lewis Carroll]
A break can come in the middle of a word:
“Ri–,” he starts, then stops angrily. [Ken Dryden]
The dash also serves to indicate speech that is scattered or faltering: that is, not interrupted by a second speaker, but by the speaker breaking off a thought and starting another, or talking in disjointed sentence fragments.
“She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage, though everything has been done–one door nailed up–quantities of matting–my dear Jane, indeed you must. Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging. How well you put it on–so gratified! … Well, [Jane Austen]
Compare the above uses of the dash with those of the ellipsis.
If you can’t produce [an em dash] on your typewriter or word processor, type two hyphens ( — ).
You may either leave spaces around a dash or have the dash lie directly against the words it adjoins. Be consistent.
Whichever style you choose, do not put a space before a dash that is being used to interrupt dialogue in the middle of a word.
When a dash is being used to indicate broken-off dialogue, follow it immediately with a closing quotation mark. Do not add a comma.
“How was I supposed to–” she sputtered indignantly.
Do not put any other punctuation immediately adjacent to a dash, with the exception of a question mark or exclamation point before a closing dash. Even if the text that is broken by dashes would otherwise take a comma or semicolon, do not include it.
Text that is enclosed within dashes may contain any punctuation mark other than a period. Parentheses should be avoided if possible, as the construction of an aside within an aside would be awkward.
Do not employ both a single dash and a pair of dashes in the same sentence, as it would then be unclear which text is enclosed by the pair.
Summary and recommendations
1 interior dialog (thoughts)
The alternatives are:
1a Ordinary Roman (non-italic) font, if it’s clear from context that we are reading thoughts, not speech. This alternative is always preferable, so long as it’s obvious to the reader that thoughts are involved, not actual speech.
1b Italics. This is the most common practice. However, if italics are being used for another purpose in the work (e.g., for quoting a book), then also using italics for interior dialog could be confusing or graphically distracting.
In standard submission format, italics are represented by underlining. This practice dates from the days when typewriters were used, and italics were not available.
Large blocks of either italic or underlined type are less easy to read than ordinary Roman type; their use should therefore be held to a minimum.
1c Single quotation marks for thoughts, where the writer is using double quotation marks for speech. This practice is uncommon, but there are precedents and it can be effective.
Single quotation marks are standardly used for speech within speech, e.g., “I said ‘Stop that!’ but he wouldn’t listen.” In a particular work, if speech within speech is frequent (as in some of Conrad’s novels), then single quotation marks should not be used also to indicate thought, to avoid confusion.
Whatever alternative is chosen should be applied consistently throughout a work.
Imagined speech (addressed in thought to another person) may be graphically represented as normal speech, not as internal dialog.
2 interrupted speech
The most common practice is to use a single em dash to indicate an interruption, abruptly broken-off dialogue, or a shift in tone.
A pair of hyphens ( — ) can be used in manuscript to indicate an em dash. This is useful where the em dash could be garbled by the receiving word processor.
Some word processors auto-correct two consecutive hyphens as a single em-dash character. It is advisable to delete this auto-correction, so that two hyphens remain two distinct characters. The publisher can convert these back to em dashes as needed.
3 speech trailing off (not interrupted)
The most common practice is to use an ellipsis ( … ) to indicate speech that trails off or fades out and is likely to begin again; also to indicate faltering or fragmented speech. (This is different from, and in addition to, the ordinary use of an ellipsis to indicate missing or redacted text.)
In some cases it may not be obvious whether a dash should be used, or an ellipsis.
4 spacing and punctuation of ellipses
Examples of acceptable practice:
(a) “almost eight years now, if…”
The ellipse precedes the ending quotation mark.
There is no comma before or after the ending quotation mark.
There is no space before or after the ellipsis.
But, as in the following example, when an ellipsis separates two words without any other punctuation, it is advisable to put a space both before and after the ellipsis, as an aid to the reader.
(b) “It’s … it’s a boy!”
If the ellipsis ends a sentence, then it gets a final ‘.’ making four, instead of three, periods in a row. However, ‘trailing off’ expressions are usually fragments, and rarely constitute sentences. For an example of an ellipsis that does end a sentence, see “Okay….” in Source 3.
Some writers letter-space the ellipsis ( . . . ), but this is generally inadvisable. It also distorts the word count.
5 spacing and punctuation of dashes
Examples of acceptable practice:
(a) “How was I supposed to–” she sputtered indignantly.
The dash precedes the ending quotation mark.
There is no comma before or after the ending quotation mark; the dash sufficiently indicates a pause.
There is no space before or after the dash. [NOTE: Some publishers do use spacing here, but most do not. I think that spacing a dash improves readability and enhances the look of print on the page.]
(b) “My God!–” he gasped.
It is acceptable to place an exclamation mark or a question mark immediately before the dash — but not to excess, and doing so is usually unnecessary.
(c) “before the dash — but not to excess”
When a dash separates two words without any other punctuation, it is advisable to put a space both before and after the dash, as a help to the reader. [Repeating the NOTE above: Some publishers do use spacing here, but most do not. I think that spacing a dash improves readability and enhances the look of print on the page.]
Even if the text that is broken by dashes would otherwise take a comma or semicolon, do not include one.
(d) “It’s … well–”
“Shut up, Murgatroyd!”
Faltering speech followed by an interruption. There is no period after the interrupted expression (because it isn’t a sentence), but there must be a paragraph break if the interruption is another character’s speech, as in the example.
(e) “It was a case of ‘hyperexcitement.’”
The (unfortunate) American rule is that the period [or comma] goes inside the quotation marks, whether or not it logically belongs there. In this case the result appears to be a triple quotation mark, which is impossible. Inserting a space between the two closing quotation marks, so: “…‘hyperexcitement.’ ” is not accepted by editors.
[In narrative (not in dialog)]
Paragraph-length is a question of rhetoric, not grammar. Keep paragraphs short, but not too short. About 50 words is typical for most modern fiction. However, many consecutive paragraphs of similar length makes for dull reading; vary the length.
Very short or single-sentence paragraphs can be used for special effects, such as when a startling fact is revealed, or as an ironic comment on the preceding (longer) paragraph.
If there is a change in speaker, there must be a change in paragraph, even if (at the extreme) the characters are speaking to each other in single-word speeches:
The question of judgment arises when narrative intervenes between two speeches. How should the following be paragraphed? (Sentences are numbered for this exercise.)
 “Or she,” Donald added.  Claire looked up abruptly.  “They don’t really do that for girls, do they? My folks sure never did that for me!”  “Well –.”  Donald snickered.  “O great feminist,” he said, “do you think it’s just boys who have their backs up against the wall?”
We need at least four paragraphs here, because there are four speeches, alternating between Donald and Claire. But in which paragraph do sentences  and  belong? With their preceding sentences, or with the sentences that follow them? Or by themselves in separate paragraphs?
In this example, the answer is clear. Sentence  introduces Claire’s speech, and should be paragraphed with sentence ; likewise for sentence  together with . If, however, we have a different sentence ,
 He waited expectantly for her answer.
then  would belong with , not with .
But in the following example, the answer is not so simple.
 “The birth was eight years ago, Donald. Dr. Gordon’s probably moved on by now. Or died. He wasn’t young, remember?”  Just as the same topic had so long ago, once again nothing came of it. There was quiet for the exact amount of time needed to signal a change of subject.  “Look,” Donald began, “I marked up those drawings again and I need to drive over to Danbury and drop them off for Harman.”
Passage  could be paragraphed with passage , or with passage , but not both. Or it could stand alone. Considering that  is from the point of view of a third person external to both characters, and considering that it is a change in tone both from what goes before and what comes after, it could have its own paragraph. This, again, is a question of rhetoric, not grammar.
A note on colons and semicolons in dialog:
Some editors strictly forbid the use of colons or semicolons in dialog. This rule strikes me as, well, stupid. The goal is to record a (fictional) voice faithfully, not to be forced to contrive workarounds. Consider:
” ‘She was really lucky; she will have only bruises,’ Humphrey said.” (Washington Post, 19 February 2011, page B1)
The sense calls for a semicolon here, not a comma and not a colon and not a period. More important, if Humphrey really speaks this way (carefully, but without regard to rhythm), then the dialog as printed should reflect this, as in this case it presumably does.
A note on commas preceding a quotation:
Many editors will insist on a comma after “said” (exclaimed, remarked, etc.). Usually, a comma is called for by the rhythm of the sentence, e.g., “No,” he said, “it was a bird.” But at other times the comma interrupts what should be the normal flow of speech. The comma, after all, must serve two masters: grammar and rhetoric. At times these masters disagree.
<not quite the END>
I heartily recommend Brian Garner’s book Modern American Usage (third edition – Oxford University Press) because it’s pretty good, and because I’m credited as one of the collaborators/contributors/guilty parties, but mostly because it covers more ground, and answers more questions, than any other current book on usage. (Brian is a little too liberal for my taste, even though David Foster Wallace thought he was ‘conservative’. – tk)
<almost the end I promise>
You’re invited to take a look at my writer-promo site http://www.terencekuch.net, or the site where I post a new piece of microfiction every day, http://www.terencekuch.com. If you will see my Amazon author page (www.amazon.com/author/terencekuch) you will be able to buy one of my novels. The punctuation is wonderful, and the plot and characters are interesting too!
<ok this is really the