Written literature contains two types of dialogue, spoken and internal.
For the sake of defining terms, spoken dialogue refers to audible speech—words spoken by a character out loud. Internal dialogue refers to thoughts that are not spoken out loud. The majority of this article discusses spoken dialogue and addresses internal dialogue at the end. These rules apply to most non-academic fiction and nonfiction works; academic requirements for citations are NOT addressed as citation styles vary greatly in this regard.
I’ve done my best to list and explain rules about presentation of and punctuation in spoken dialogue. My article only discusses American English rules. UK English rules about quotations differ.
I’ll start with the two most important rules:
- Surround spoken dialogue (quotes) with double quotation marks.
- When the person who is speaking repeats something that someone else said, place single quotation marks around the repeated words. These are often referred to as quotes within a quote.
Harry explained, “After I gave her the flowers, she said, ‘Thanks so much!’ and kissed me.”
“But what if she says, ‘No’?” he asked.
- Always end dialogue with one of the following: comma, period, question mark, exclamation mark, dashes, or ellipsis; directly followed by double quotation marks. The ending quotation marks go after whichever ending punctuation mark is used.
- Speech tags introducing dialogue should be followed by a comma.
- When dialogue is broken up by narrative or speech tags, double quotation marks are still inserted before and after each instance of dialogue, leaving the non-dialogue outside the quotation marks.
- The first word of dialogue in a sentence should always start with an uppercase letter. Non-dialogue words in the middle of a sentence should only be capitalized if they are proper nouns (e.g., Charles, Saturday, Don Quixote).
Following are a few examples showing how each type of punctuation should be used in spoken dialogue in combination with quotation marks.
“I will set the table,” said John. (comma)
Michelle stated, “Dinner will be ready soon.” (period)
John asked, “What’s for dinner?” with a smile. (question mark)
“Wouldn’t you like to know!” said Michelle, smirking. (exclamation mark)
“Holy hell, wo–” John began, before she interrupted him. (dashes)
“Don’t even think about it…” Michelle shot him a warning look. (ellipsis)
A speech tag labels dialogue. Speech tags identify the speaker and occasionally describe their manner of speech. In the following examples, speech tags are in bold text.
Joe answered, “Yes, of course.”
“Why?” asked Chloe.
“Because I said so,” replied Mom.
“Don’t wake up the baby,” whispered Mary.
“Come back here!” he yelled angrily at Mike.
Mike said, “I’ll be back later.”
- For extended dialogue by a single person that is divided into multiple paragraphs, do not include quotation marks at the end of every paragraph—only insert them at the end of the dialogue in the final paragraph.
- When switching between more than one person’s spoken dialogue, start a new paragraph for each person’s dialogue, no matter how little they might say.
One exception to the new paragraph/new person rule may include when several people talk at once either in unison or over one another in rapid fire. If a group is speaking the same words in unison, their words would be treated as dialogue from a single person, and speech tags could be used to explain the situation.
- If several people in the story are talking over one another or saying different things all at once, this can be represented in various ways:
- Write dialogue for each person in a separate paragraph, identifying each one, and using double quotation marks as usual.
- Surround each person’s dialogue separately with quotation marks, one after another, in the same paragraph. Do not identify each speaker but refer to them collectively in a speech tag.
- Describe the situation and dialogue without quoting anyone’s exact words, and without using quotation marks. Refer to the group collectively or identify everyone involved.
Dialogue should allow readers to hear the speaker’s words. If the speaker pronounces a word unusually, this should be indicated in some way by changing the spelling, etc.
- Words should be used instead of abbreviations or symbols in dialogue.
“Okay, Mister peeerrrrfect,” she responded sarcastically.
“Peez make me a gill-cheese sammitch, mama,” Lucy pleaded.
- In most cases, numbers in dialogue should be expressed in words instead of numerals.
Exceptions may include four-digit years, long series of numbers, a full telephone number, or product and brand names that include numbers. For a helpful, detailed article about writing numbers in both dialogue and narrative, visit https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/01/13/numbers-in-fiction/. I refer to it whenever I have a question about number rules in writing.
Following are just a few examples of how numbers can be expressed in dialogue.
“I think he was born in sixty-eight.”
“She only paid thirty-five bucks for it.”
“Yesterday, it was over ninety degrees outside.”
“She just called number twenty-two.”
“The shortest player is six foot one and a half.”
“You owe me four hundred and ten dollars.”
“The show starts at seven o’clock at night.”
“I just bought an Xbox 360 for seventy-five dollars.” (Xbox 360 is a product name)
- Direct internal dialogue is generally indicated with italics, never with quotation marks. Some authors choose to use a different font or style for direct internal dialogue instead of italics. Direct internal dialogue is always expressed in first person because it is stating the exact words that a person is thinking.
- Indirect internal dialogue is not italicized because it is not stating the exact words that a person is thinking.
She stared in horror at the scene ahead. What the heck was I thinking? she wondered. —direct
He thought of all of the possible scenarios awaiting him. —indirect
I hung up the phone angrily. How dare he? Who does he think he is? —direct
After all of the favors I’d done for her in the past, I thought that she owed me. —indirect
Please let me know in the comments if this article was helpful to you or if you think of any important rules I may have left out. Let’s start a dialogue, shall we?