Punctuating, Presenting, and Naturalizing Dialogue

Punctuating Presenting and Naturalizing Dialogue

In novels, the key purpose of dialogue may appear to be communication between the characters, but its purpose goes much deeper than that. Conversation between characters is an essential tool for character development: learning about each one’s behaviours and motivations, introducing and resolving conflict, and indirectly presenting the setting are all assisted through good dialogue.

Strong dialogue is succinct and to the point at all times, and serves the purpose of moving the characters and the story forward. It should flow naturally, both in the interest of realistic exchange and to allow the reader’s eyes to sweep across the page effortlessly. 

Punctuating dialogue correctly is one of the ways a writer can allow the reader to follow along smoothly and not have to stop and reread something because of a missing comma or a misplaced question mark. There are a few rules for punctuating dialogue that, when managed correctly, will support your writing. 

Below are some examples of the technical rules of writing dialogue and how they can serve your story:

  1. Whenever a new character starts speaking, start a new paragraph:
    “Jerry, I need to talk to you right now,” Alison said.
    “I’ll be with you in a minute,” Jerry replied.

  2. Keep thoughts, actions, and reactions in the same paragraph as the speaker:
    “I need to think about this.” Jerry picked up a picture from the mantel and fingered the delicate filigree of the silver frame. What am I going to do now? he thought.
    “Fine. Call me when you figure this nonsense out,” Alison said as she turned to go.
    “Wait!” he called, just a moment too late. He heard her footsteps on the stairs outside.

  3. If a character speaks for such a length of time that a paragraph break occurs, do not close the punctuation until they’re done speaking:
    “I don’t think you understand,” Evelyn said. “Okay, let me explain this in more detail.
    “It all started with this course I took. I thought I could do it on top of working full time. Turns out I was wrong about that.” Evelyn paced the room and went over to look out the window before continuing.
    “I’m assuming, then, that things didn’t go quite to plan?” Dede asked playfully.

  4. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks when it’s part of the dialogue:
    “What do you mean you’re not going?”
    “I’m looking for something called a ‘Diamond Tea.’ ”
    [note the space between the single & double quotation mark]
  5. Use a comma to set off the character’s dialogue tag:
    Alia said, “What a beautiful song!”
    “I’ll be with you in a minute,” Jordan replied.

  6. Use ellipses to illustrate a character’s speech trailing off, and a dash to show speech has been cut off:
    “I don’t know…” Alia mused, “Perhaps if you put it over there?”
    “What are you even—” Adam stopped in his tracks at the sight in front of him.

  7. Dialogue and action tags (she said, he cried, etc.) aren’t necessarily capitalized after punctuation:
    “I see what you mean,” he said.
    “What do you mean?” she asked.
    “Don’t lie to me!” She shook her head in frustration.
    “I understand.” He straightened up and continued, “I’ll do my best.”

  8. Use quotation marks on each side of a divided quotation and set off the tag with a comma:
    “I’m not sure,” Craig said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
    “There came a point,” she explained, “where we just had to stop and start over.”

  9. Avoid ‘social media’ punctuation, such as !!! and !?!, and bold. Use italics and exclamation marks to add emphasis:
    “No way!” she cried.
    “You have got to be kidding! He would never agree to that.”

  10. Never start dialogue (or any sentence) with a numeral:
    “1990 was a rough year,” he said = “Nineteen ninety was a rough year.”

Dialogue should read easily, so a good rule to follow is write the way you speak (unless you’re writing Regency or Victorian, of course). Here’s some general advice on how to keep your dialogue optimally effective and engaging:

  • Keep the momentum going
    To be worthy of a book, dialogue—just like action—should always be relevant to the larger story: two people making small talk about the weather and having a nice time is enjoyable to those involved, but makes for pretty boring conversation to a reader. Make sure that if your characters are speaking, they are revealing something to your audience. This means leaving out the salutations and niceties, the small talk and the tangents (unless you’re using them for comic effect).
  • Use contractions
    I’m, you’re, she’s, didn’t, can’t – listen to yourself speak and hear how we naturally contract common phrases. Reading dialogue out loud after you’ve written it will help you identify any unrealistic phrases that have arisen in your writing:
    “I am sure he did not mean that you should deliver this in person.”
    “I’m sure he didn’t mean you should deliver this in person.”

  • Use slang if it fits the character and the setting
    Strive for natural speech appropriate to the setting:
    - 1950s: Baby (cute girl), bread (money), don’t have a cow (don’t get excited)
    - 1960s: Groovy, hippies, cool
    - 1980s: Yuppie, awesome, rad
    Remember: Slang tends to be time specific and can ‘age’ your writing, which is why it’s important to keep the context of the story in mind. Use it carefully for real effect.
  • Throw some idiosyncrasies in for good measure
    Ever notice how often we say “um”, “er”, or “uhhh…”? How about how people tend to have their own favourite words or phrases (one of your friends uses “awesome” more than all the others)? While fiction should not reflect reality precisely, it should artfully emulate it:
    “So, um, I’ve been wanting to… to talk to you about something,” he began.
    “Okay,” Anna raised an eyebrow in surprise. “What’s up?"
    “Well, it’s just— y’know, we’ve been friends for a long time and…” Sam blushed. He was lost for words.

  • Characters shouldn’t sound the same
    Every person has their own way of speaking, whether it be their word choice, accent, or tone, among other things. Give each character a voice of their own:
    “Hey there, bud. What’s your day lookin’ like?”
    “Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering— do you know the direction I should be following to locate the Royal Albert Hall?”
    “Whattup y’all, this is Scotty G hosting the evening spot on WKD Radio where the music is hot even when the weather’s real cold!”

  • Throw out a few grammar “rules”
    You may not end a sentence with a preposition (of, on, above, for) in formal writing but in informal dialogue you can, e.g.:
    “What’d you do that for?” he demanded.
    “He’s just using the brilliant mind he’s known for.”
    [More natural than “for which he is known.”]
    “Do you think we can make it across?” she asked doubtfully.

Writing good dialogue is both an art and a science. If you understand the science (rules), your art will have a strong foundation. Write on!

Written by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editing & Illustrations Coordinator