How to Structure Dialogue

A guide looking at how to structure your dialogue properly, including correct punctuation and grammar around your speech.

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Structuring dialogue properly is quite important for your work. Putting the punctuation in the correct place could be the difference between your novel being picked up by an agent or publisher and it being thrown in the bin. This essay will look at how to do that. We won’t be looking at how to write good dialogue, that’s a topic for another day.

Speech Marks

Speech marks surround the speech that the person is saying.

“You ruffian!”

‘Don’t call me a ruffian, you cad!’

You can use either the double-quote—“—or the single-quote—‘—for your speech, as long as you are consistent. Traditionally, UK uses single for speech and double for quotation, and the US the other way around, however these days you can pretty much do what you’d like. I have seen both used, in separate projects, for speech. Just make sure that whichever you pick, you don’t change halfway through. Use the one you don’t pick for thoughts or quotes.

Dialogue Tags

Your character has finished speaking you want to let the audience know who was talking.

“You ruffian!” he said.

“You ruffian,” he said.

“You ruffian?” he said.

“You ruffian…” he said.

The four examples above are all correct. These next four, however, are not:

“You ruffian.” he said.

“You ruffian”. He said.

“You ruffian” he said.

“You ruffian”? he said.

Your punctuation goes inside the speech marks and you follow that up with your dialogue tag. You’ll end with a comma inside the speech marks if you aren’t using one of the other types of punctuation, such as an exclamation mark or question mark. You shouldn’t be putting a full stop at the end of your speech within the speech marks if you are immediately going to a dialogue tag that states who was talking.

[Open your speech]—[Your speech]—[Punctuation to close your speech: comma, question mark, exclamation mark, ellipses. Not a full stop.]—[Close your speech]—[Dialogue tag: he said, Jim said, said Fred.]

If you are using a name within your dialogue tag (e.g. John said), this should follow the normal proper noun rules: capital first letter; however, if you are using a pronoun (he, she, you, they, etc.) then this will start with a lowercase letter, even if you end your speech with punctuation that normally ends a sentence, such as an exclamation mark or question mark.

“You ruffian!” he said.

“You ruffian,” he said.

“You ruffian!” Jim said.

“You ruffian,” Jim said.

No Dialogue Tags

What if you want to use an action instead of a dialogue tag?

“You ruffian.” He slapped his opponent with a glove.

This is where you can end your speech, inside the speech marks, with a full stop. The action that follows would be the start of a new sentence and follow the standard rules for that. ‘He’ would start with a capital letter as normal.

Line Breaks

New line, new speaker. This phrase was drummed into me at school and it’s really not the best way to teach the line structure within dialogue. It is true that you use a new line for a new speaker, but you need to end the line and start a new one when focus shifts from your speaker. Not just when someone else talks, which is what I thought that was what that meant.

“You ruffian!” he said. The sun rose over the fields. Alex and Fred laughed at Jim.

New line, new speaker tells me that that sentence is right; there isn’t a new speaker. But the focus has shifted away from the speaker onto a new subject, so needs to be a new line.

“You ruffian!” he said.

The sun rose over the fields. Alex and Fred laughed at Jim.

If the focus stays on the original speaker, you can stay on their line.

“You ruffian!” he said. He picked up his glove and cried. He was sad. He didn’t like people laughing at him.

There are quite a few things to consider when you’re writing dialogue, but if you practice and keep at it, it’ll become second nature.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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    Thanks David. Dialogue is quite difficult to get right when you first start writing and it’s such an important part of most fiction. It’s good to have a simple guide to the rules. I have read several novels where punctuation is done away with for speech, or dashes used instead, but for that to work, the dialogue needs to be well laid out on the page or the story line is such that it is obvious who is speaking and when. I’m sure traditional punctuation will be with us for a while yet..

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