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 The Chicago Manual of Style (the style guide most often used with fiction writing), generally accepted fiction conventions, 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.)
Styling ellipses and em dashes
Quotation marks with dialogue
→ Surround dialogue with double quotation marks. This is the convention in American 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?"
"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 Ulysses.
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."
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 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 since 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 is somewhat genre specific).
→ 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 still needs to be lowercase after exclamation points and question marks, even though they can be 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?"
→ 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 the action beat interrupts the dialogue after a complete thought, the initial dialogue should end with a period (or other terminal punctuation), and 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."
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.)
→ Only the interrupted dialogue gets an em dash. The interrupter's dialogue does not, even if it finishes the sentence of the first speaker.
→ 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.
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).
"M-my c-c-cat is lost!"
→ 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 (stammering), it's sometimes styled with em dashes.
"I—I—I just don't believe it."
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, it's better 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 have seen e-books with no spaces on either side, and this looks cramped and also causes 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 it's occasionally seen in published fiction, the general consensus of fiction editors and 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 ..." ✔
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 in dialogue
The only words capitalized immediately after dashes are words that would be capitalized anyway (proper nouns).
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?"
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.
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.
I'm starting to see this done occasionally 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 preferable to use an action beat, an em dash (as in the following examples), or an ellipsis.
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.
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 the rules" for readability and practicality.
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 words instead of symbols for degrees, number, hashtag, percent, etc., and spell out 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?
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.
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 in a way that "others" people who speak languages other than English. Opinions differ and situations vary, 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?
Hesitation markers and interjections
I find it really distracting when writers use nonstandard spellings for grunts and snorts, hems and haws, especially spellings that don't match up well to the sounds. (I'm particularly bothered by vowels used to spell closed-mouth sounds.) If the sound you want to recreate isn't listed in the dictionary (the common ones are), search existing literature for ideas, invent a plausible sounding spelling, or consider describing the sound in narrative rather then attempting to spell it.
Ah: An exclamation of realization, agreement, or surprise. (Sometimes used in place of "uh," which has a different meaning; this may be a British English thing, but in American English, the meanings are distinct.)
Uh: A hesitation marker, used to indicate hesitation, doubt, or a pause.
Er: The British spelling of "uh," since people from England usually don't pronounce Rs. (Not pronounced like the Sumerian city-state Ur, which is—true confession—how I pronounced this in my head for years.) So if you're using American English, please use "uh."
Um: Also a hesitation marker, same meaning as "uh."
Erm: The British spelling of "um." Does not rhyme with "worm."
Mm or Mmm: Can be a hesitation marker (the closed-mouth version of "um") or indicate deliciousness or approval.
Hmm: Used to express that you're thinking; used to express that you're waiting for an answer; used to express mild doubt: used as a closed-mouth version of "huh?" to request clarification or repetition of something just said.
Huh: Used to express surprise or disgust, indicate disbelief, or (with a question mark) request clarification or repetition of something just said.
Hmph, Hmmph, or Humph: Used to express contempt or disbelief, similar to "huh," only with a closed mouth (except for "humph," which requires an open mouth).
This next group is the most problematic. I've seen lots of strange variations that mix open-mouth spellings with closed-mouth spellings, which speakers don't do in real life. But first the standard spellings.
Uh-huh: indicates agreement. Said with an open mouth.
Mm-hmm: Indicates agreement as the closed-mouth version of "uh-huh." Can also indicate satisfaction or deliciousness, be used to encourage a speaker to continue, or be used to express mild doubt (similar to "hmm").
Uh-uh: indicates refusal or disagreement. Careful not to confuse with "uh-huh" since they have opposite meanings.
Mm-mm: This is the closed-mouth version of "uh-uh," but it can be problematic because the meaning changes so much with different inflections. The reader can be confused whether a character is disagreeing, agreeing, or finding something delicious. I suggest using "uh-uh" instead, or making sure the meaning is clear from the context.
And now for the interesting variations I've seen recently.
X Um-hum: I've seen this spelling for "mm-hmm." It appears to be a combination of "uh-huh" and "mm-hmm," but I've never heard a real human being utter this combination of open-mouth and closed-mouth sounds. Try to say it; it's a workout for your jaw muscles! I can't imagine why anyone would expend this effort when saying "uh-huh" and "mm-hmm" are so much easier and more natural. (This one is in Webster's—I really hope that doesn't mean it's gaining popularity.)
X Um-huh: Another hybrid I've seen. But people don't add an M sound in "uh-huh." At least no one I've spoken with. It's less work to say than "um-hum," but more disjointed.
X Um-hmm: Similar to "um-hum," but with only one open vowel sound.
Clearly this is a pet peeve of mine😉—but if inaccurate spellings annoy me so much, they may turn off other readers as well. Just saying.
Tsk and Tsk-Tsk: Admittedly, this spelling doesn't really capture the disapproving sound your tongue makes when it clicks juicily on the roof of your mouth. But it's been around for so long that readers know what it conveys and aren't pulled out of the story. I've seen writers try to come up with more accurate spellings, and the results weren't pretty. It's just not possible to convey this sound with our alphabet, so I suggest sticking with tradition in this case.
eh: Most of my life I had no idea how to pronounce this when I saw it in books. "Eh" is usually meant to be pronounced like the letter A, rhyming with "day." This is how Canadians and New Zealanders use it. It means "excuse me?" "please repeat that" or "huh?" It can also take the place of the end-of-sentence question, "do you understand?" or "do you agree?" But pronounced with a short E it can be used similarly to "meh," to indicated lack of excitement or certainty. "Eh" is often misspelled as "aye," which looks like it should be pronounced like the letter A but is actually pronounced like the letter I.
aye: Pronounced like the letter I; indicates agreement. Said most often by pirates and members of parliament.
meh: I wonder if this word gained popularity because of the confusion surrounding "eh." It's certainly useful to convey a verbal shrug without being misunderstood.
The following are less utterances than words, but I still think they fit here.
Yeah: An informal way of saying yes. Rhymes with "nah."
Yea: A vote in favor. It rhymes with "nay" and is not an alternate spelling for "yeah."
Yay: Also rhymes with "nay," but is a synonym of "hooray!" and an expression of joy.
Yah: An expression of contempt.
Ya: A slang form of "you." Sometimes mistaken for the Scandinavian word "ja," meaning yes.
Phew! There's a lot to say about dialogue. I originally planned to include thoughts and telepathic communication in this style guide, but decided to give internal discourse it's own separate post.
*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.