Punctuating and Formatting Dialogue in Fiction

Punctuating and Formatting Dialogue in Fiction

Dialogue – i.e., the words spoken by characters in a story – is a vital part of fiction. And to make sure your story is easy to read, you need to present the dialogue clearly. So to make sure your writing is perfect, check out our guide to punctuating and formatting dialogue in fiction.

1. Basic Punctuation and Dialogue Tags

The most important thing about dialogue in fiction is to use quote marks. These are sometimes even known as “speech marks,” as they indicate that someone has said something. All you need to do in this respect is place spoken dialogue within quote marks:

That is the biggest horse I have ever seen, said Craig.

In American English, as shown above, we use double quotes marks for dialogue. You may also have noticed some words outside the quote marks here. This is a dialogue tag. You can use dialogue tags to show who is speaking in a passage of dialogue (in this case, someone called “Craig”).

2. Quotes within Dialogue

If a character in your story is quoting someone else in their speech, use single quotation marks to enclose the quote within the main speech marks. Take the following line of dialogue, for example:

“He called me an arrogant fool when I said I’d seen bigger horses.”

Here, we have single quote marks around the words “arrogant fool.” This shows us that the speaker is quoting someone while they are speaking.

3. New Speaker, New Paragraph

A good guideline when formatting dialogue is “new speaker, new paragraph.” This means that when someone new starts speaking, you set the dialogue on a new line. For instance:

Craig stared at the massive horse. “So huge,” he muttered to himself.

“What are you doing?” asked Shannon, emerging from the farmhouse.

“I’m watching this massive horse,” Craig said.

“I can see that,” Shannon said. “But you’ve been here for six hours, Craig.”

In the passage above, we have dialogue from two characters. As such, we use line breaks to help the reader keep track of who is speaking, beginning a new line each time the speaker changes.

4. Formatting Long Speeches

One passage of dialogue may require multiple paragraphs. For instance, a character may be telling another character a story within a story as part of your narrative, which could involve them speaking at length. And when this happens, it may not be obvious how to punctuate the dialogue.

The answer here is to use a quotation mark at the start of each paragraph when formatting dialogue. However, you will only use a closing quotation mark when the character finally finishes speaking:

Craig sighed. “I’ve always been obsessed with horses,” he explained. “When I was a child, I spent weekends on my grandparents’ farm. But all they had were miniature ponies. And they told me that all horses were the same size. They said the ones I saw on television looked bigger because they hired tiny actors to ride them. And I believed it.

“Or, I did until I was eighteen, anyway. That’s when I met Clayton Moore, the guy who played the Lone Ranger on TV. And he was over six feet tall, so I knew that Silver couldn’t have been as small as the ponies on my grandparents’ farm! It had all been a lie! I felt so betrayed. And ever since then, I have been looking for the biggest horse I can find.”

In the passage above, for instance, we do not use a closing question mark at the end of the first paragraph because it is only half way through Craig’s dialogue. At the end of the second paragraph, however, we use a speech mark to show that Craig has finished speaking.

5. Ellipses and Dashes

Finally, you can use ellipses and dashes to indicate interruptions in dialogue. And while there are no strict rules about how this works, we suggest the following guidelines:

  • Use ellipses to show that speech has trailed off (e.g., “I don’t know why you have a problem with…” Craig said, before falling into silence).
  • Use an en dash or em dash to indicate speech that ends suddenly (e.g., “You need to take th–” Shannon began, before the horse neighed loudly).

This will help your reader tell the difference between dialogue that trails off and dialogue that is suddenly interrupted.

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