“I’d like to talk about formatting and punctuating dialogue,” said Erik Harper Klass gleefully.
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
(Preliminary note: The author does not recommend or condone using adverbs with dialogic attributives. In the title above, and occasionally below, when doing so, he is being ironic. Please save your letters of opprobrium.)
I spend an exorbitant amount of time correcting formatting and punctuation in dialogue. So, for reasons of both magnanimity and, yes, pure selfishness (to hopefully reduce my editing time!), let’s get into this, dare I say, intriguing topic. First, two assumptions:
You are writing in American, not British, English (the latter has different rules).
You are using quotation marks to indicate dialogue (some experimental writers use em-dashes to indicate dialogue, à la James Joyce, et al., and others (including, often, yours truly) hoity-toitily eschew marks altogether).
American English calls for double (not single) quotation marks. This means that, unless dialogue (or a quotation) is nested within dialogue (or a quotation), you should basically never use single quotation marks in your writing. To be honest (as an editor), if I never see single quotation marks again (unless embedded, as stated), I will be pleased. They show up too frequently, like moldy berries at the bottom of my punnet. So let’s get started:
They were standing side by side at the bar.
“Why are you acting so funny?”
Placement of Attributives
In the words of Strunk and White (The Elements of Style): “Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is” (76). S&W are perhaps overstating the case, but, indeed, we should generally know who is speaking. And to do this, we use attributives (sometimes called attributions). These are phrases that refer explicitly to the speaker (and usually include some brief information about the speech act)—e.g., “he said,” “she continued,” or “Bob railed pontifically.”
They were standing side by side at the bar.
“Why are you acting funny?” she asked.
Allow me to point out something important: when using a punctuation mark other than a comma (such as a question mark) before a quotation mark, we don’t need to include a comma (“. . . funny?” she asked). The needless comma (“. . . funny?,” she asked) is a common error. (The one exception is an ellipsis, which is usually followed with a spaced comma (e.g., “funny . . . ,” she said, her words trailing off).)
Now, let’s move the attributive around. We can generally place it at the end of the dialogue (see above), or at the beginning:
She asked, “Why are you acting funny?”
She asked: “Why are you acting funny?”
The comma is more common, but many writers use a colon (perhaps because the capital letter at the beginning of the dialogue looks less odd when following a colon). Both are fine, but I recommend consistency for these opening attributives, one way or the other.
Additionally, when the line of dialogue has a natural pause point, we can place the attributive in the middle of the dialogue:
“Why,” she asked, “are you acting funny?”
Note that when the attributive is placed thus (surrounded by commas, no capital letter beginning the second phrase), the line must work as a complete sentence (“Why are you acting funny?”). Otherwise, we need a period and a capital letter:
“I’m not acting funny,” he said. “I’m just a little hot. Don’t you think it’s hot in here?”
Note the period after the attributive. “I’m not acting funny, I’m just a little hot” in my book is a comma splice (a mild offender, granted), so writing “I’m not acting funny,” he said, “I’m just a little hot” (with the comma after “said”) maintains the comma splice error.
Attributives must refer to an act of actual speaking. “Bob winked” is not an attributive (winking is not speaking). “Sally smiled” is not an attributive. “Bob moved his hands around pontifically” is not an attributive. But we can and should occasionally “attribute” speech without an actual attributive—that is, without a reference to an actual speech act (such as “said,” “asked,” “whispered,” etc.):
She reached out her hand and felt his forehead. “It’s not hot in here at all. Are you sick?”
Note that there is no comma after “forehead.” The first sentence is just that, a sentence. But we know who is speaking, even though we are never given this information explicitly. Also note the lack of a paragraph break here. Keeping the action (“She reached out . . .”) in line with the dialogue clarifies that it is “she” (the actor) who is the speaker.
Comma, Colon, or Period?
A quick summary so far: When using attributives—either before, within, or after the dialogue—we’ll use commas (or, optionally, if the attributive precedes the dialogue, a colon):
“Also,” she added, “you have a strange bulge in your shirt pocket.”
“Also, you have a strange bulge in your shirt pocket,” she added.
She added: “Also, you have a strange bulge in your shirt pocket.”
When we use non-attributive statements (usually character actions of some sort), we’ll use periods.
He reached up and touched the bulge. That was stupid, he thought to himself. Should’ve put it in my jean’s back pocket. “This? Oh it’s just a . . . just a . . . just a carrot stick. Saving it for later.”
It’s worth pointing out at this point that (in American English) punctuation marks fall inside the closing quotation mark. This is another one of those mistakes that shows up too often, perhaps because British English often handles it differently. So we have:
“Also,” . . . not “Also”, . . .
“. . . pocket.” not “. . . pocket”.
Formatting with Other Text
Traditionally, each “chunk” of a specific character’s uninterrupted dialogue (including non-attributive statements) should be kept in the same paragraph. I wouldn’t call this a hard-fast rule—some writers place long conversations of multiple-character dialogue in single paragraphs (often for experimental effect), and sometimes you’ll use multiple paragraphs for a single speaker (see below)—but one paragraph for each speaker’s instance of uninterrupted dialogue is good practice. Note also how this allows you to occasionally skip attributives, especially when there are only two speakers alternating lines of dialogue.
She gave him a look. “A carrot?”
“Yeah,” he said, more a question than a statement. “Sometimes I like to carry carrots around. I call them”—he thought for a moment—“ ‘carryots.’ Get it? ‘Carry’ plus ‘carrot.’ ” He laughed preposterously.
“ ‘Carryots’? Have you lost your mind? You are definitely acting funny and strange.”
He replied: “Not at all. Carrots are great snacks, for any time of day. They’re high in vitamin A. They don’t need to be refrigerated. They . . .” His words trailed off. She was still giving him a look. He knew that look.
The perceptive reader no doubt recognized the single quotes (‘carryots,’ etc.) embedded within the double quotes. Once again, this is basically the only time we should ever see single quotes in American English.
The Em-dash Trick
I often see writers stick non-attributive statements (or any clause at all) within a clause of dialogue using em-dashes. As far as I know, this is the only acceptable (i.e., grammatical) way to do this. I did this above. Here’s another example:
“I never knew”—she stopped to think back over their one year together—“never knew you were so into carrots.”
“Carryots,” he corrected, beating a limp joke way longer than he should have.
The Chicago Manual of Style explains this clearly: “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” (13.39, italics added).
Yes, she gave him one of those looks of hers. “First you invite me to the same movie theater where we had our first date. Then we end up not even seeing a movie. Now here we are at the bar where we had our first drinks after said first movie.” She suddenly had a distant look on her face. “Boy was that a terrible movie. What was the name? What was the name? Oh yeah! Second String. Not a great first date movie, if you ask me.
“Which reminds me,” she continued. “I meant to ask you: when you made up that so-called ‘string game’ of yours the other day, where you wrapped string around my fingers”—she paused to mime someone wrapping string around her fingers—“what on earth was that about?”
Note the “missing” quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph and the opening marks at the beginning of the second. These are punctuation clues that the two paragraphs involve one speaker.
Kinds of Attributives
I’ve used a few common attributives so far, viz., “asked,” “said,” “added,” “continued,” and “replied.” The only slightly unusual one was “corrected.” While there are tons of available attributives, I should warn you that unless you’re trying to be ironic (in a postmodern sense) or funny (in any sense), using words like “gasped,” “guffawed,” “exclaimed,” “cried,” “ejaculated,” etc. will quickly date your writing. Contemporary writers, especially those I consider of high craft, seem to stick to the common ones. So don’t write:
“You didn’t like the string game?” he ejaculated.
Adverbs and Attributives
Adverbs used with attributives also have a tendency to date your writing. A few are fine, but to my ear, they should often be avoided (as I mentioned above). (They also tend to “tell” rather than “show,” which, as anyone who’s allowed me to edit their work or who’s read this article knows, is a bit of a bugbear of mine.) So, again, don’t write:
“You didn’t like the string game?” he ejaculated offendedly. “I thought you liked that game.”
Of course, quotation marks are used for things other than dialogue: quoting other texts; ironizing a word; marking the title of an essay, article, short story, or other short work of art; etc. I, however, do not recommend quotation marks for (1) thoughts or (2) writing or text (such as a text message) found in the story world.
She was silent. He was silent. He fingered the bulge in his shirt pocket. He felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. They waited for the bartender. They’d been waiting for the bartender for a while. It’d been a long time, this waiting for the bartender. Where the fuck was the bartender? he thought to himself. His phone buzzed. A text from his best friend: Well???
So no quotes around “Where the fuck was the bartender?” or the text message “Well???” This is more of a preference, but I do find that the best writers typically handle thoughts and texts accordingly. In text without a ton of direct thoughts, writers often use italics:
. . . It’d been a long time, this waiting for the bartender. Where the fuck was the bartender? he thought to himself. . . .
Indirect Discourse (Reported Speech)
Indirect discourse, sometimes called reported speech, is essentially a paraphrase of dialogue, and it takes no quotation marks. Many fine writers now and then mix in indirect discourse. It helps break up any potential dialogic monotony. It’s also preferred when the dialogue, to put it bluntly, ain’t sounding great (reported speech doesn’t need to recreate speech, so it’s better than dialogue that doesn’t “sound” particularly realistic or eloquent). Consider it another tool in the toolkit.
He put the phone away and, not for the first time, held up a hand for the bartender. When the latter finally came around—a lady with long black hair and tattoos—he ordered two glasses of champagne. The bartender asked what kind of champagne. And he replied that he’d like the best they have.
Hesitations and Interruptions
Dialogue—especially realistic dialogue—is filled with hesitations and interruptions. I’ve talked about this in greater detail here, but the simple rule is this: use an ellipsis for hesitation and an em-dash for interruption.
“Champagne?” she asked. “Why are you ordering champagne? We can’t afford . . .”
She hesitated, as if she lost her thought.
“Life is short,” he said to fill the space. “It’s our first anniversary. Why not a little champagne? Plus, I’m really interested in champagne: its history, its . . . uh . . . distribution, its . . . uh . . . brewing methods, its—”
“Stop talking,” she said.
She failed to hide a little smile. She looked at him with those beautiful gray-blue eyes of hers. Her hair shone in the light. The champagne arrived. He pulled the carrot, or carryot, out of his shirt pocket. The carryot somehow magically transformed itself into the maroon, velvet ring box it had been all along. He opened it slowly. Pulled out the ring. Got down on one knee.
“Jennifer,” he said. A pause. “Will you marry me?”
And she replied: “Yes.”
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.
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