Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Let’s talk dialogue. Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or something in-between, it’s likely that, at some point, your characters are going to start talking. That’s your book’s dialogue, and what’s tricky about it is that it comes with its own set of rules, tangential to regular prose.
That’s right; if you edit your dialogue as if it’s the same as all the other writing, you’re likely to make some missteps, either misapplying rules you should have set aside or ignoring rules that only matter when it comes to dialogue. That’s why, in this article, we’ll be taking a look at what you need to know about editing dialogue – including whether or not the ‘rules’ are quite as set in stone as they appear…
Let’s start with the basics. ‘Dialogue’ refers to words actually spoken by a character. Such words are usually enclosed in quotation marks, indicating that they’re not part of the regular narration:
“I’m a doctor,” she said.
This isn’t needed if the words aren’t actually spoken, so if you’re just summarizing a comment without telling the reader exactly what was said, you don’t need quotation marks:
She explained that she was a doctor.
Usually, double quotation marks are used for speech, with single marks used to indicate quotation within speech. This carries on like a Russian nesting doll, so a quote contained within a quote contained within speech reverts back to double marks, then single, then double, although this quickly gets confusing.
A quote within dialogue:
“She called me ‘Princess’ whenever I asked for even the simplest thing,” Amber complained.
A quote within a quote within dialogue:
“I was talking to Amber the other day, and she said, ‘She called me “Princess” whenever I asked for even the simplest thing.’”
Can you write dialogue without using quotation marks? Yes. Quotation marks are a tool for creating clarity, but if they don’t work for your writing, you can do without them. This is most common in first-person narration, to give a sense that you never leave the perspective of the narrator, but some third-person writers do without quotation marks out of personal taste.
First-person narration without quotation marks:
I was talking to Amber about Carol and she said, she calls me Princess whenever I ask for even a simple thing. She seemed annoyed about it, as well.
You can also use single quotation marks if that’s your preference, though some publishers will ask you to switch to double later in the publishing process.
Whatever you do, remember that quotation marks serve a function – if you don’t want to use them, you’ll have to find another way to make it clear when a given character is talking.
If you are using quotation marks, they appear at the start of every paragraph of speech, but only at the end of whatever paragraph ends that particular, uninterrupted passage of speech. This can feel counter-intuitive to many writers, who want to add a closing mark to every paragraph, but try to remember that the opening quotation mark means ‘this passage should be read as dialogue’ whereas the closing mark means ‘this passage of dialogue has ended.’ This is usually only relevant during long passages of dialogue, but we’ll keep the example short, with the first paragraph ending without a closing quotation mark:
“I hate bananas. I hate their shape, their color, even the way the word sounds. It’s appalling to me; a great, bouncy shape that denotes dishonesty and confusion. Please do not use it in this house, not if you can ever avoid it, or certainly not in my presence.
“Anyway, enough about fruit. How are you? I heard you’ve been employed at the Treasury, which I must say is just about the most thrilling news I’ve had in a long time.”
Finally (for the basics, at least), it’s general practice for any new instance of speech to begin on a new line. This will be the case whenever there’s a change in speaker.
When dialogue appears on a new line, the speech takes the ‘speech tag’ (e.g. ‘she said’) with it, even if the speech tag appears before it:
“Hello,” I said.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “Look, I’m sorry, I must be going.”
“Can we talk later?” I asked.
Patting me on the shoulder, she replied, “It’s probably best we don’t.”
Do you need to start a new line after dialogue? If what follows doesn’t directly relate to the dialogue, most authors do, but it’s not a hard rule, and this generally comes down to author preference.
Both of the below are acceptable:
“I hate kids,” he said.
He spat on the ground, wondering when the next rain would fall.
“I hate kids,” he said. He spat on the ground, wondering when the next rain would fall.
So, those are the basics, but what about punctuation? Well, punctuating speech can be complicated, but here’s the trick to getting it right: don’t think of the text inside the quotation marks as its own sentence. Instead, think of the quotation marks as punctuation that you put around part of a sentence to show which part is speech.
So, if you’re using a speech tag, you end the dialogue with a comma, since they’re part of the same sentence:
“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said.
If the speech tag is attached to an action, nothing changes:
“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said, lifting a huge barrel.
However, if the action isn’t naturally part of the same sentence as the dialogue, then some variation of a period (e.g. a question or exclamation mark) is needed:
“I’m a bodybuilder.” He lifted the barrel.
The same is true when speech tags or action interrupt dialogue:
“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said. “That’s all you need to know.”
“I’m a bodybuilder.” He lifted the barrel. “That’s all you need to know.”
It’s also possible for speech tags to ‘interrupt’ dialogue without ending the sentence, in which case the period comes at the end of the full sentence:
“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said, “and that’s all you need to know.”
This is also the case if the speech tag includes an action:
“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said, lifting the barrel, “and that’s all you need to know.”
When an interruption comes between sentences, it can end with a period, but if it interrupts a sentence, it ends with a comma and the sentence concludes with the second instance of dialogue:
“He struggled against the wolves,” I said. “It didn’t help him, of course.”
“He struggled against the wolves,” I said, “but it didn’t help him at all.”
In the first example, ‘It didn’t help him…’ is its own sentence, so ‘I said’ ends with a period. In the second example, ‘but it didn’t help…’ is the second part of a single sentence, so ‘I said’ ends with a comma. Again, this seems like a tricky rule, but it operates on simple logic – ‘I said’ can’t end with a period if that would prematurely end the sentence it’s describing.
The one place where the ‘treat it all as one long sentence’ rule doesn’t apply is that dialogue always begins with a capital, since you’re reporting a sentence that originally began without a speech tag:
She said, “The cages won’t hold them.”
The most common mistake authors make when editing dialogue is to treat actions around dialogue as speech tags, even when they’re not. An author might therefore write:
“He hates me,” I pulled my coat on tight. “But I can’t let that matter.”
Here, ‘I pulled my coat on tight’ isn’t an extension of the dialogue, so a period should be used after ‘me’ rather than a comma. When in doubt, write the sentence without quotation marks and ask whether there’s any grammatical connection. ‘He hates me, I pulled my coat on tight’ doesn’t make sense, since the two statements aren’t connected, so a period is needed.
Does every piece of dialogue need a speech tag? No, not at all – in fact, part of the logic for giving each new speaker their own line is that it cuts down on the need for speech tags. ‘He said’ and ‘she said’ are just tools for clarity, so use them as needed.
What about when a sentence is complete but unfinished? For example, when a character is interrupted or trails off? Well, when a character falters, trails off, or doesn’t finish their sentence, ellipses are used:
“I just… I don’t know where I stand.”
When a character is interrupted, an M-dash is used:
“I just think—”
“I don’t care what you think,” he said.
A lot of authors choose their favorite piece of punctuation and use it in both cases, but these marks mean subtly different things that can change the tone of what’s being said.
Unspoken rules of dialogue
Okay, so we’ve covered the basics and the not-so-basics – what’s left? Well, there are tricks for editing dialogue that aren’t quite as objective as the rules of grammar and punctuation.
Usually, the intent of dialogue is not just to report the content of what’s said, but to make the reader feel like they’re hearing it directly. Because of this, dialogue is given a lot of leeway to mimic actual speech, even if this means the grammatical or structural rules of prose writing take a backseat.
For instance, you may have heard the common writing advice to never start a sentence with a connective like ‘And’ or ‘But.’ This is good advice in prose, since these words are meant to connect sentences, but it can mostly be ignored in dialogue, since in spoken communication, people do this all the time:
“He said I was out of control, he kept screaming it. But that’s the thing… I was in control the whole time.”
Likewise, prose no-nos like sentence fragments, split infinitives, and misplaced prepositions are much less important in dialogue. You might use ‘bad habits’ to do some subtle character work, but even beyond that, the standards are different for dialogue.
The aim here is to recreate the experience of listening to someone talk, and marked differences between dialogue and your other prose can help with this. Keep in mind, however, that the aim isn’t to transcribe real speech. Real speech benefits from many, many cues that written dialogue doesn’t have, so if you write in the way people actually speak, you’re likely to end up with a confusing mess. Dialogue should be free-form enough to feel real while retaining enough structure to be clear and engaging.
Because of this, dialogue has a different relationship to punctuation than regular prose. There are no hard rules here, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the more complicated your use of punctuation, the less able your reader will be to forget that they’re not actually hearing a character talk. For example, a sentence which would usually use a semicolon might be better off rephrased when presented as dialogue, not because the rules of punctuation change, but because too much higher-level punctuation starts to feel ‘written’ rather than ‘spoken.’
Similarly, if a character makes an aside, this might be better off represented as a semi-clause surrounded by commas or dashes than as an aside surrounded by brackets. To some readers, brackets demonstrate a degree of authorial intervention that reminds them that the dialogue is ‘fake.’ A less intrusive approach, though technically less clear, maintains the illusion that they’re hearing the character directly rather than through an intermediary:
“I can’t believe (or I guess I can) that you’re the one telling me this.”
“I can’t believe – or I guess I can – that you’re the one telling me this.”
“I can’t believe, or I guess I can, that you’re the one telling me this.”
Again, this isn’t a hard rule, and your choice will come down at least partly to your own taste. The point is to remember that the more ‘managed’ dialogue feels, the more your reader will sense that they’re hearing it from you, the author, rather than the character who’s speaking.
The same is true in how you choose to write certain terms, and especially numbers. For example, there are times when it’s perfectly acceptable to write ‘90%’ in your normal prose, but this can feel odd when used in dialogue. Again, this is because the reader isn’t reading the character’s actual words, those being ‘ninety percent.’ It’s a minor detail, but it’s the kind of thing that influences a reader’s emotional experience of what they’re reading. It reminds them that they’re not hearing the character talking; they’re reading someone else’s transcript of words that, now they come to think of it, were never actually spoken. The same is true of certain abbreviations, for example when ‘vs.’ is used over ‘versus.’
This issue is most apparent when it comes to measurements and times. If a character says, ‘I went to bed at 10:45AM,’ it’s suddenly unclear what words they actually spoke. Did they say ‘quarter to eleven,’ ‘ten forty-five’, or even ‘ten forty-five aye-em?’ This disconnect harms the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but it also sets traps for authors. If you’re not writing in full words, it’s easy to have a character casually say something uncannily specific, for example, ‘We arrived at 09:33AM.’ Really, they didn’t round the time up or down? They said ‘zero’ or ‘oh’ before ‘nine?’ They indicate time of day with ‘AM’ or ‘PM?’ This may sound like an unreasonable mistake, but it comes from treating dialogue as regular prose. If, instead, the same author made the decision to fully write out times in dialogue, they’d instinctively write something like, ‘We got there at about half-past nine.’
Sadly, there’s no hard or fast rule for what feels ‘wrong’ in dialogue. ‘Dr.’ tends to looks strange in dialogue (as opposed to ‘Doctor’), but ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ don’t cause the same problem – indeed, ‘Mister’ would be the more unusual choice. Ultimately, it’s about what feels right, and that’s always going to be contextual to the world around you and the story you’re writing.
The ideal of not including anything in dialogue that feels inauthentic also applies to the depiction of accents and even cursing. We’ve covered those topics in depth in previous articles, but the same rules apply – the more you make it feel like the reader is receiving dialogue through an intermediary, the less engaged they’re likely to be. This can be tricky when writing accents; it often feels like the most ‘realistic’ thing to do is phonetically recreate how the speaker’s voice sounds, but if the reader encounters a bunch of words that take extra effort to decipher, you’re only increasing the disconnect between them and the speaker.
So, those are the things authors should know when editing dialogue. What details surprised you, what are you still unsure about, and how will you apply the above to your writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent and 8 Clichés That Are Killing Your Dramatic Dialogue for more great advice on this topic.