5 Rules for Punctuating Dialogue

Some say that punctuating dialogue is more a matter of style than following the rules. And they're right, up to a point.

The novelist Cormac McCarthy, for example, doesn't use quotation marks. That's a deliberate stylistic choice and, for him, it works. I suspect that readers, though, put up with the lack of speech marks rather than actively welcome it.

If you've got a hankering to do something avant garde like that, I'm not going to tell you it's wrong. But I would advise sticking to what everyone else does – which in the case of punctuation for dialogue means following the guidelines below.

Why? Because using what is standard is invisible, and it therefore doesn't act as a barrier between the reader and the story. And if you're worried that "doing what everyone else does" is boring, there are many other (and better) ways of standing out from the crowd than making a wacky punctuation choice.

Now for the rules...

I'm sure that you're already familiar with at least some of them (if not all). But it's worthwhile at least refreshing your memory. There's nothing worse than writing great dialogue then ruining it with poor punctuation.

The Rules of Punctuation

1. Keep Punctuation Inside the Quotation Marks

Like this...

"Hello," said John. "How are you?"

Not like this...

"Hello", said John. "How are you"?

Okay, I'm sure you all knew that one, but I'm being careful to cover all the bases here! The next one, though, is something many novel writers get wrong.

2. Start a New Paragraph for a New Speaker

Why? Because it makes life so much easier for the readers of your novel to follow the dialogue (and doing that is the whole purpose of good punctuation).

Starting a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes looks like this...

"Hello," said John. "How are you?"
   "Can't complain," said Eleanor. "Well, I could, but nobody listens to a word I say."
   "I'm just on my way to the coffee shop. Want to join me?"
   "I'd love to, John, but I'm already running late."

The same thing applies even if one of the characters doesn't speak...

"Hello," said John. "How are you?"
   "Can't complain," said Eleanor. "Well, I could, but nobody listens to a word I say."
   "I'm just on my way to the coffee shop. Want to join me?"
   "I'd love to, John, but I'm already running late."
   John smiled. He couldn't stand Eleanor, and he was certain she hated him. But with John's brother being engaged to Eleanor's best friend, they at least had to pretend.
   "How about next time?"
   "Looking forward to it already," said John.

3. Omit Quotation Marks in a Long Speech

The art of writing dialogue is to keep most of it short and sharp and punchy. Occasionally, though, a character will say something that simply can't be said in a single paragraph, much less in a sentence or two.

When this happens in your novel, punctuate the dialogue like this...

"The usual way of punctuating dialogue," he said, "is to start the speech with quotation marks and to close the marks when the character stops speaking a sentence or two later. However, if it is a long speech then you will want to break it up into paragraphs.
   "Like this. Notice that there are no quotation marks at the end of the previous paragraph, but that they do appear at the start of this new one. It's only when you reach the end of the final paragraph of the speech that you close the quotation marks. Like this"

4. Use Quotation Marks According to Taste

Strangely, there is no definitive answer to the question of whether to use single or double quotation marks in dialogue.

Pick some novels off your shelves at random and you'll find that some will use single quotation marks and some doubles. It often comes down to the "house style" of the publishing company – or your personal preference if self-publishing.

Personally, I prefer doubles. I don't know why – they just look better, at least to my eye. Oh, and it makes them stand out from apostrophes.

(Incidentally, it also looks better to use quotation marks which 'curl in' towards the speech, rather than the stand-up-straight variety.)

The folks from the single-quotation-mark school of punctuation say that it is logical to keep double quotation marks in reserve for when there is a speech within a speech. Like this...

'I saw Eleanor yesterday,' said John. 'I asked her how she was. "Can't complain," she told me.'

Of course, it's just as possible to stick to double quotation marks and use singles for any speeches within speeches!

Bottom line? Single or double quotation marks are equally correct, so use whichever variety you prefer. When you publish your novel, the publishers will have their own house style on dialogue punctuation (and on everything else, for that matter), so they will use whatever they usually use, irrespective of what you have used in your manuscript.

If you self-publish, you're free to have your own "house style"!

5. Use Dashes and Ellipses Correctly

Use ellipses to indicate a character's words trailing off. Like this...

"The reason I wanted to talk to you, Frank, is to ask you..."

You would do that if the speaking character was distracted or forgot what they wanted to say.

But if they were cut off, use a dash...

"The reason I wanted to talk to you, Frank, is to ask you-"
   "Yeah, well I don't want to talk to you."

Wrapping Up

And that is all there is to say about punctuation. Like I said, you probably knew most of this stuff already. If not... now you do!

If you haven't already read the main article on how to write dialogue, go check it out next...

9 Rules For Writing Dialogue.

Unlike with punctuation, those are rules that I do encourage you to break – at least a little!