Fiction Style Guide: Dialogue

The more you get right in your manuscript before submitting to your editor, the less work they'll have to do on mechanical issues—and the more time they can spend on making your writing shine. Plus, learning the conventions of fiction style* can save you money.



*This is Articulate Editing house style, which is based on generally accepted fiction conventions (in the US) and a tiny pinch of personal opinion. Most of what is written here will apply across the board. If a guideline has wiggle room, I'll let you know. And if you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their specifications as their house style may differ slightly. (This style guide also applies to creative nonfiction.)



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Quotation marks with dialogue


Surround dialogue with double quotation marks. This is the convention in US English. Use curly—or "smart"—quotation marks, not straight like the ones in this sentence.


Use single quotation marks in fiction only when embedding quotes inside quotes. All other instance—whether showing irony or indicating titles of songs—take double quotation marks (unless nested inside a quotation).


Gary snorted. "Right! Next you'll be telling me she said, 'That Gary is quite a catch.'"
"Is 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' your favorite song?"

But ...


"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was his "favorite" song.

This is reversed in British English. Across the pond, single quotes are used for the initial quotation, and double quotes are nested inside.



Alternatives to quotation marks


Occasionally, em dashes are used to set off dialogue. The example below is from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.


(This dialogue starts with an em dash.) Damn me, said Mr. Dedalus frankly, if I know how you can smoke such villainous awful tobacco. It's like gunpowder, by God. (This next line also starts with an em dash.) It's very nice, Simon, replied the old man. Very cool and mollifying.

Writers of literary fiction sometimes forgo quotation marks and run dialogue through the narrative to create a desired effect. The example below is from William Carlos Williams's short story "The Use of Force."


(This passage is all one paragraph with no quotation marks. They were new patients to me, all I had was the name, Olson. Please come down as soon as you can, my daughter is very sick. When  I arrived I was met by the mother, a big startled looking woman, very clean and apologetic who merely said, Is this the doctor? and let me in. In the back, she added. You must excuse us, doctor, we have her in the kitchen where it is warm. It is very damp here sometimes.

Not using quotation marks has had a resurgence recently—award-winning novelists Junot Diaz and Louise Erdrich are excellent examples—but in genre fiction, following convention is usually preferable.



Dialogue tags


Dialogue tags are set off with commas even though technically they're independent clauses (since they have a subject and a verb). Like tag questions,* they're a special case.


Dialogue tags must contain speech verbs such as said, asked, murmured, whispered, shouted, answered, replied, and continued. Fancy speech verbs such as opined or ejaculated(!) should generally be avoided. Some verbs that don't really describe speech are still sometimes accepted as speech verbs, such as barked, hissed, snarled, spat—but use these sparingly.


Said should be your go-to speech verb. It's practically invisible—unless you overuse dialogue tags in general. Your dialogue should be the center of attention, not your dialogue tags (though the acceptability of fancy dialogue tags—also known as "said bookisms"—is somewhat genre specific). Please note that though this the current style, it is not a rule.


***

*Tag questions are questions that follow a statement and ask for confirmation of that statement. Technically they're complete sentences, but they're separated from the main clause by only a comma: "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" In the preceding sentence, "isn't it?" is a tag question.


Punctuating dialogue


Capitalize the first word of dialogue whether it's a complete sentence or not. The only exception is when dialogue is resumed after an interruption (see section on interrupted dialogue below).


End a line of dialogue that has no tag with a period. It's considered a complete sentence. The period always goes inside the ending quotation mark in American English.


"Well, that just stinks."

This is true even if it's followed by an action beat. Since the action beat is a new sentence, it starts with a capital letter.


"Well, that just stinks." He sniffed contemptuously.

Since sniffed isn't a speech verb (you can't create words with your nose😉), it can't be part of a dialogue tag.


"Well, that just stinks," he sniffed contemptuously. X

If a line of dialogue is followed by a tag, the dialogue ends with a comma and the comma goes inside the closing quotation mark.


"Well, that just stinks," Tom said.

The first word of the tag is lowercase. (Unless it's a proper noun).


"Well, that just stinks," he said with a contemptuous sniff.

If the dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, the tag ends with a comma, and the dialogue starts with a capital letter.


He sniffed and said, "Well, that just stinks."

The first word of the tag needs to be lowercase after exclamation points and question marks— even though these are generally terminal punctuation.


"Well, that just stinks!" He bellowed. X
"Well, that just stinks!" he bellowed.
"Well, that just stinks, doesn't it?" he asked.


Interrupting speech with dialogue tags


If a dialogue tag interrupts mid-sentence, commas both precede and follow the tag, and the first word of the second part of the dialogue is lowercase.


"I don't believe," Jeremy said, "that this is happening to me ... again!"

If the second part of the dialogue is a complete sentence, the dialogue tag should end with a period and the second part of the dialogue should start with a capital letter.


"I don't believe it," Jeremy said. "Why is this happening to me ... again?"

But ...


When a coordinating conjunction starts the second part of the dialogue, the writer can choose how to punctuate, depending on the rhythm desired.


"I don't believe it," Jeremy said, "and I don't understand why this is happening to me."
"I don't believe it," Jeremy said. "And I don't understand why this is happening to me."


Interrupting speech with action


If an action beat interrupts dialogue in the middle of a sentence, em dashes are needed to set it off. While commas are enough to set off dialogue tags in the middle of a sentence (dialogue tags are not treated like independent clauses even though technically they are), the same is not true of action beats.


"I don't believe"—Jeremy grabbed fistfuls of his hair—"that this is happening to me ... again!"

The dashes are outside of the quotation marks and there are no spaces on either side.


If an action beat interrupts dialogue after a complete thought, the initial dialogue should end with a period (or other terminal punctuation). The action beat should also end in a period. The first word of the second part of the dialogue begins with a capital letter.


"I don't believe it." Jeremy grabbed fistfuls of his hair. "Why is this happening to me ... again?"


Punctuating speech that is abruptly cut off


Punctuate dialogue that is cut off with an em dash, whether the interruption is by another speaker or by something else. This is true in both American and British English. Since the dash shows the interruption, it's usually unnecessary to tell the reader of the interruption with a dialogue tag like "he interrupted."


"Speaking of the girls, I want to make sure--" "Don't worry, everything will be fair"

Ellipses are often mistakenly used for interruptions, but ellipses at the end of the dialogue indicate a trailing off. In the example below, a hesitant pause is created that changes the emotional tone of both lines of dialogue. (There is no space between the final dot of the ellipsis and the closing quotation mark.)


"Speaking of the girls, I want to make sure ..." "Don't worry, everything will be fair."

Only the interrupted dialogue gets an em dash. The interrupter's dialogue does not, even if it finishes the sentence of the first speaker.


"Speaking of the girls, I want to make sure--" "that everything will be fair?"X (this is incorrect because "that" is lowercased))

If a speaker continues on with their dialogue despite the interruption, an em dash interrupts the first part, and introduces the second part. The first word of the second part is lowercase.


"Speaking of the girls, I want to make sure--" "That your favorite wins?" "--that everything will be fair."


Stammers and stutters and pauses (oh my!)


Though there's some overlap and flexibility, ellipses and dashes (and hyphens) play different roles in dialogue.


Use ellipses to show faltering speech, hesitation, uncertainty, pauses, and trailing off.


"Um ... I ... I think ... would you consider it? The proposal, I mean."

Use em dashes to indicate abrupt shifts in thought or interruptions in the middle of the dialogue. (British English uses en dashes with spaces on either side.)


"I'll pick up the—wait a minute, I forgot I have an appointment scheduled."
"Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?"

Be careful when choosing between em dashes and ellipses, since they're often not interchangeable. In the above sentence (from CMOS 6.87), the speaker is deliberately choosing to say "can he" in order to clarify his meaning and make a point. But changing the em dashes to ellipses communicates something different: that the speaker is struggling to find the right words.


"Will he ... can he ... obtain the necessary signatures?"

Use hyphens to show that a speaker is stuttering (stuck on a consonant sound in a word). Only capitalize repeated letters if the word is a proper noun.


"M-my c-c-cat is lost!"
"M-my name is B-Bobcat."

But ...


If the repeated sound is a consonant blend, repeat both letters.


"She has br-brown eyes, cl-cl-clearly."

When a whole word is repeated instead of a consonant sound, it's can be punctuated with em dashes.


"I—I—I just don't believe it."

But ...

Ellipses are preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style.


"I ... I ... I just don't believe it."
"But ... but ... but what about me?" said Harry.



Styling ellipses and em dashes


This section is true for narrative text as well as dialogue.


Ellipses for print


In fiction manuscripts that will be formatted for print, the convention is to not use the ellipsis character in your word processing software, but to instead type space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. The book designer will then tweak it to look nice with whatever typeface is used.


"Well . . . I'm not sure about that."

Ellipses for e-books


When formatting for e-books, many prefer to use the ellipsis character (with spaces on either side if it appears mid-sentence), since the spaced periods of Chicago Style ellipses can cause issues with wrap—the way text breaks onto a new line. I've seen e-books with no spaces on either side, but this can look cramped and cause issues with wrap.


Em dashes


Something similar happens with em dashes. For print, the preferred style (in American English) is to not have spaces on either side of the dash, but this causes some e-readers to treat the dash and both words on either side as a single long word, leading to ugly wrapping. So for digital text, it's better to use spaces.


If you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their style guidelines for dashes and ellipses.



Other punctuation with dashes and ellipses


Em dashes and other punctuation


Exclamation points or question marks can precede an em dash, but commas, semicolons, and colons cannot. A period can only precede an em dash if it's part of an abbreviation (though abbreviations shouldn't be used in dialogue unless they're commonly spoken as abbreviations).


"Roger, if it comes to war—and I pray to God it won't!—will you enlist?"
"I do not—especially at five a.m.—enjoy exercise."

If a dialogue tag follows interrupted speech, the em dash takes the place of the comma.


"Speaking of the girls—" he began, but Julia cut him off.


Ellipses and commas


There is very little in CMOS about using ellipses in fiction dialogue, but the guidelines for using ellipses for omitted text in quoted material is spelled out in great detail. This has led to confusion regarding other punctuation with ellipses in dialogue. CMOS didn't help the matter by including this example:


"But ... but ...," said Tom. X (even though CMOS says it's okay)

It seems inconsistent that the comma would be dropped after an em dash but retained after an ellipsis. And though I see it occasionally in published fiction, the house style of most publishers is to not follow trailing ellipses with commas before dialogue tags. This doesn't mean it's wrong, just that it isn't what's most often done.


Ellipses with periods


You may have read that if the ellipsis follows a complete sentence, that there should be a period before the ellipsis, creating a "four dot ellipsis." This is the case with quoted material in non-fiction, but most publishers' house styles call for no period before an ellipsis in fiction, regardless of whether a sentence is complete. (Even among fiction editors there is some disagreement/confusion on this.)


"I want to go.... Tim wants to go too, but ..." X
"I want to go ... Tim wants to go too, but ..."

But ...


With one-sided telephone conversation, you can use a period before the ellipsis that indicates the pause while the person on the other end of the call is speaking. This distinguishes it from trailing off. However, I have seen the period left out as well.


"I don't know what you're talking about, George. ... Yes, but you're still not making sense. ... Fine. You know what? I'm done. Goodbye, George!"

Ellipses with exclamation points and question marks


Exclamation points, as seen in this example from CMOS, can precede ellipses in fiction dialogue. (Though I personally think the ellipses work against the urgency of the exclamation points.)


"The ship ... oh my God! ... it's sinking!" cried Henrietta.

Question marks can work this way, too.


"The ship ... why is this happening? ... it's sinking!"


When an ellipsis comes at the end of dialogue to indicate trailing off, an exclamation point or question mark follows the ellipsis. (Though it's hard to imagine a scenario where an exclamation point would feel appropriate with trailing off.)


"Do you think she meant ...?"

There is no space between the final dot of the ellipsis and the following punctuation. (Though, I've noticed book designers often add some space between for aesthetic reasons.)



Capitalization after dashes and ellipses


Dashes


The only words capitalized immediately after dashes are words that would be capitalized anyway (proper nouns).


Ellipses


Whether or not to capitalize the word following an ellipsis really depends on the rhythm of the dialogue and the effect desired by the writer. But generally, if the ellipses are used to show faltering speech or muddled thinking, don't capitalize after the ellipsis, even if what preceded it is technically a complete sentence. In the example from CMOS above, notice they didn't capitalize "it's sinking" even though it's a complete sentence and follows terminal punctuation (exclamation point).


If the speaker trailed off or paused at the end of one sentence before shifting direction with a new thought in the second sentence, then capitalizing the first word after the ellipsis is appropriate.


"I sure wish my master would give me a doggie treat ... Is that a squirrel?"


Monologues


People rarely speak as if they're behind a lectern. They get interrupted, fiddle with things, cough, stare off into space while trying to remember what they were going to say ... So it's usually preferable to use action beats and dialogue tags to break up the speech and to help the reader visualize what the character is dong while speaking.


If a monologue can't be avoided, break it up into paragraphs for ease of reading. With dialogue that spans multiple paragraphs, each paragraph begins with an opening quotation mark, but only the last paragraph has a closing quotation mark.


Three paragraphs with opening quotation marks at the start of each one, and a closing quotation mark after only the last paragraph.
Not only is this character long-winded, they speak Latin!

However, avoid starting a new paragraph in the middle of short dialogue and leaving off the end quotation mark, as in the below example. This looks awkward and can create confusion about who's speaking the dialogue in the new paragraph.


"That won't work," Harry said. "The forest is too dark to see clearly, and we lost all our night vision goggles when the canoe overturned. (New paragraph here.) "Where you from anyway ? he asked." (This is incorrect because a new paragraph is started in the middle of short dialogue, which makes it confusing who's speaking the next line.)

I'm starting to see this done more frequently and suspect it's a misunderstanding of the guideline for punctuating dialogue that spans multiple paragraphs. Support for avoiding this construction can be found in CMOS 13.39, under Speech, Dialogue, and Conversation: "If one speech (usually a particularly long one) occupies more than a paragraph, opening quotation marks are needed at the beginning of each new paragraph, with a closing quotation mark placed at the end of only the final paragraph." (Bolding for emphasis mine.)


If a pause or a shift in direction is desired, and a period just isn't enough, it's usually preferable to use an action beat, an em dash (as in the following examples), or an ellipsis.


"That won't work," Harry said. "The forest is too dark to see clearly, and we lost all our night vision goggles when the canoe overturned." He peered suspiciously at Gunter. "Where you from anyway?"
"That won't work," Harry said. "The forest is too dark to see clearly, and we lost all our night vision goggles when the canoe overturned--where you from anyway?"

However, even though there's usually a better (read: less confusing) way to indicate a pause in dialogue, there are exceptions. I was recently reading Stranger Things: Darkness at the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, and noticed that he used this technique at the end of a chapter. I thought it worked well in this case, adding dramatic flair to the last sentence of Hopper's dialogue.


Hopper moved over to the counter, unwinding the tangled cord of the telephone receiver as he leaned on his elbows. "Miss Sargeson? Hi, James. Listen, ah, thanks for agreeing to talk." He rubbed his forehead. "And, ah, listen, about Sunday, I really need to apologize. (New paragraph stars here.) "But I wonder if I could ask you a few question."


Numbers in dialogue


The general rule for styling numbers in fiction narrative is to spell out numbers zero through one hundred, and round numbers above one hundred.


But in dialogue, it's best to spell out numbers the way someone would say them in conversation. Even if it's a number that would otherwise be expressed in numerals. Judgement is needed, however, because there will be times you'll need to break this "rule" for readability and practicality. If something feels better expressed as numerals, it probably is.


The first monetary amount in the example below would be styled $153.50 in the narrative. Unless the second monetary amount was close to the first example (in which case it would be styled $140 for consistency), it would be styled "one hundred forty dollars."


"Hey, I loaned you a hundred and fifty-three dollars and fifty cents, and this is only one forty!"

The exceptions to spelling out numbers in dialogue are four--digit years ...


"Didn't the song 'Party Like It's 1999' come out in the eighties?"

trade names that include numbers ...


"Let's blow this 7-Eleven and get to the Motel 6 already."

and long and/or confusing numbers (including phone numbers).


"Wait, I thought he said his mobile number was 555-3456?"

In dialogue, you should use whole words instead of symbols or abbreviations. This includes the symbols for degrees, number, hashtag, percent, etc. and the abbreviations for quantities like feet, inches, miles per hour, pounds, and so on.


"You're 100% correct, sir. I am six ft. tall." X
"You're a hundred percent correct, sir. I am six feet tall."


Dialects and accents


It used to be that writers would try to realistically re-create dialects and accents with unusual spelling choices and contractions. This practice is generally discouraged today because it's tiresome for the reader to have to decode so many unusual spellings. It can also make the character seem like a stereotype or a joke, potentially offending your readers and preventing them from connecting to the character.


So how to convey the flavor of a character's speech?


Syntax

Word choice

Mentioning the character's accent in the narrative

Add just a sprinkling of alternate spellings, ones that convey a distinctive sound associated with the accent/dialect.

For an in-depth article on dialects and accents in dialogue, visit Arlene Prunkl's website, penultimateword.com.



Italicizing foreign words in dialogue


It also used to be standard practice to italicize foreign words, but this has (fairly recently) become controversial since it draws attention to the word and "others" speakers of non-English languages.


But in dialogue there's another reason not to italicize foreign words: it can be mistaken for emphasis and accidentally alter the rhythm of the dialogue in an awkward or misleading way. And in most cases, if the character knows a word well enough to use it, it's not foreign to them, so why italicize it?


There's a balanced and informative article on italicizing foreign words in fiction at CMOS Shoptalk.



Hesitation markers and interjections