Dialogue in Fiction Writing 2

By November 3, 2019Grammar

The basics

For all direct speech, quotation marks are used. The central question is to decide on whether the novel will use double or single quotation marks. Once this decision has been reached, the format to use single or double quotation marks for speech within speech can be made. Use single quotation marks for a person being quoted within a sentence which contains double quotation marks and vice versa for quoted material which uses single quotation marks as the main style. A preference for double quotation marks in the main dialogue and single quotation marks within has one advantage at least. If a sentence concludes with an apostrophe it is easier to see the possessive punctuation.

Let’s use the rules

1 Keep punctuation within the quotation marks

‘Good morning,’ said John. ‘How’s it going?’ [correct]

‘Good morning’, said John. ‘How’s it going’? [incorrect]

2 Use a new paragraph for a different speaker, and even if the other speaker isn’t shown, it is best to place them in a new paragraph

‘I’m off to the cinema this evening,’ Sally informed Helen.

‘That sounds nice. Can I come along?’

‘Only if you’re buying the popcorn,’ replied Sally, rather cheekily.

3 Long dialogue

Keeping the dialogue short is best, if you want it to be punchy, most of the time. Where the dialogue becomes quite lengthy, you need a dialogue tag in early. Here is an example:

‘Now we are ready to start the lesson, I suggest you all listen up, if you want to pass this exam,’ Mrs McFadden said to her class. ‘Right, the relevant section is on page 134, so everyone, find it quickly, please.’

If it needs to be any longer, you omit the speech marks at the end of the first paragraph like this:

‘My father was an intellectual prig, who thought he could win every time at poker, and usually he did. He had a knack for bluffing his opponents, but he really came into his own when he kept the game going so long everyone needed plenty of drinks to keep them refreshed.
‘What they didn’t realise, though, was that he was adept with drugs. A chemist by profession, he was able to mix the drugs himself and slip them into his opponents’ drinks without them having a clue what was going on. The drugs would work their magic, making the players lethargic and unable to concentrate properly.’

4 The em dash and ellipsis

The em dash is useful when speech is truncated for some reason, perhaps due to an interruption by another person. The ellipsis is also a powerful weapon for the writer, in that it can be used for pauses in conversation (and in the narrative) and also for conversation trailing off at the end of a sentence. The ellipsis usually shows three equally spaced dots, with a space between the last word and the first dot and a space after the last dot and a form of punctuation. A final full stop or other form of punctuation may be used or not depending on the writer’s choice.

‘Please, please … listen, I don’t want to fight, I came to …’
But I thought we were meeting on Saturday … ?
On entering the interview room, if looks could kill … .
‘Jenny, I’ve a house in London, a nice place. I’ll put it in your name. It was out of Ruth’s estate, and besides, I owe you half of everything—’

5 The use of flashy dialogue tags

Let me be clear. There is no rule here, more of a suggestion. The number of alternatives to said is mind-blowing. One website which I have included on the list below (renegadeword.com) puts forward an argument for only using the word said in the dialogue tag as the main one and argues that using alternatives distracts the reader from the story. This is the only source where I have seen this, though. Most websites suggest variation is a useful approach.

6 When things aren’t so simple

Quoting inside the main quote:

First consider whether what is quoted is a full sentence or a phrase.

A full sentence:
Sometimes, you come up against a straightforward sentence in dialogue which includes the person quoting something that someone has said. Here are two ways of showing this, the British English way and the US method.


Jim said, ‘That guy Malcolm is a right card. He said to me, “You don’t want to buy that designer five-grand handbag from that shop ’cause I know a guy who can get you one that looks exactly the same for twenty quid”.’ [UK]


Jim said, ‘That guy Malcolm is a right card. He said to me, “You don’t want to buy that designer five-grand handbag from that shop ’cause I know a guy who can get you one that looks exactly the same for twenty quid.”’ [US]


The US convention would have the full stop placed inside the quotation marks (as for quoted speech) whilst the UK English method in theory is to place them outside the quotation marks.

In my experience, however, I have not seen much evidence of the British English method being used. And it is likely that the US method would be used here simply because what is quoted is a full sentence.

When it comes to a word or phrase, though, the two methods do differ.

A word or phrase:

Where the quoted material is a word or phrase the full stop would be placed outside the quotation marks using the British English method and inside the quotation marks using the US method. For example:

Richard dismissed David’s allegations as merely ‘wicked lies’. British English method.

Richard dismissed David’s allegations as merely ‘wicked lies.’ US method.

Quoting titles of certain publications and when writing about a word or phrase
Here’s another issue, where the writer is referring to the title of the song. Record (CD) titles are written inside quotation marks. For example:

She turned on the radio and sang along to the new song ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran.

Both the British English and US styles, though, agree on the same rules for colons, semicolons, exclamation marks, and question marks.

Dialogue is an interesting area of fiction writing, and I will probably return to this topic in the future.

Useful websites

The following websites give very helpful information for further reference and the second of these includes practice exercises to test your ability.

https://www.phrasemix.com/answers/does-punctuation-go-inside-or-outside-of-quotation-marks

http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/page_24.htm

http://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/marks/quotation.htm

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