Formatting Dialogue

A light-hearted look at correct punctuation when writing dialogue.

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Writers sometimes struggle to understand and remember how to use punctuation and formatting correctly when including dialogue in their work. Here is an explanation to help, told using dialogue by Kate and George.

“Morning,” said Kate as she walked into the library.

“Hi,” George replied, not looking up from his book.

“What are you studying?” Kate asked.

“The rules of formatting dialogue.”

“Oh? What have you learnt?”

“Well,” George said, “firstly, that every character starts speaking on a new line. But the thing that surprised me was the use of commas, where I thought there should be a full stop.”

“I know!” Kate sat down. “If you want to put a ‘he said’ or ‘she replied’ after it—”

“An attribution,” George interjected.

“Exactly.” Kate glared at her friend. “You put a comma,” she continued. “But if you want to put an action instead, then you put a full stop.”

“And the punctuation always goes inside the speech marks?”

“Also called quotation marks,” Kate added. “Yes. Question mark, exclamation mark, full stop or comma. Always inside the quotation marks.”

“What do you think about single or double speech marks?”

“Either works, though traditionally writing published in the UK uses single, and in the USA uses double, but that doesn’t seem to apply that much these days. Consistency’s the important thing.”

“Then how do you show a quote inside a speech?”

“With the opposite marks, of course! With double you use single, and with single you use double. For example, if I’m talking using double speech marks, and I tell you that yesterday I had coffee with Jane, and we were talking about the report she’s working on. ‘I’m finding it really hard to get up-to-date information,’ she told me.”

“Could you suggest anything to help her?” George asked.

Kate sighed and looked at George.

“Sorry,” he said. “I get it, that was just an example. So, if we used single speech marks,” he grinned at Kate, “for the main speech, we’d use double marks for the quote inside it?”

“By Jove, I do believe you’ve got it!”

“I’m still a bit confused about when to use a full stop, and when to use a comma, when you break a speech up with action in the middle,” George said.

Kate explained, “When you want to put an attribution, either before or after the speech, you use a comma.”

George nodded. “I’ve got that.”

“Unless, of course, you’re using an exclamation mark or a question mark.”

“Could you not just use ‘exclaimed’ or ‘asked’ rather than said?”

“You could,” Kate agreed, “or one of many other words, but be careful. It can become distracting, whereas ‘said’ doesn’t intrude into the flow of the story so much. Some writers only use ‘said’ whilst others go for a bit of variety. Just don’t use too much!”

“Surely we don’t always have to say who’s speaking?”

“Not if it’s clear without it.”

“But when there’s action in the middle?”

“If the action comes between two sentences in the character’s speech, you use a full stop, then start the new speech with a capital letter.” At that moment, Kate grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling while she spoke. “But if the character’s action interrupts their sentence,” she showed George what she had written, “like this, then you use commas, and a lower-case letter. See?”

“Thanks Kate,” George said. “That’s much clearer now.”

“Glad I could help,” said Kate, and turned to walk away.

“There is just one more thing,” said George, “before you go.”


“What about if a character has a lot to say? I mean, like maybe they’re giving a speech. You know, a general rousing his troops, or a politician on the election circuit. Something like that, and you want to include all of it, because it’s important. Or even someone who’s just really chatty.

“You know, and you want to show the personality, so you have to include a long speech. Maybe someone who’s really angry, and they’ve gone into this long diatribe about…whatever it is. You know, the sort of thing that’s too long for a block of text and changes subject.

“Anyway, what I was thinking was that then it would spread across several paragraphs, without another person speaking, and without any action. So how do you show that?”

Kate smiled. “Exactly as you’ve just done it. You open their speech, as normal, with quotation marks. Each time you start a new paragraph, you open it with quotation marks. But you don’t use the closing marks until the end of the speech. By not closing the speech at the end of the paragraph, you show it’s still the same person talking, that they haven’t finished yet.

“By opening each paragraph with quotation marks, you show that they are still speaking, it wasn’t just that the closing marks were left out by mistake.”

George nodded. “That’s great, thanks. That makes sense now.”

Karen is a writer and teacher living in Kent. She has written for the stage, several non-fiction books and a variety of short stories.

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