Writing Stronger Dialogue Part 2: formatting
In part one of this series, we looked at using speech and action tags to give your dialogue rhythm. In part two, we’re going to focus on the mechanics of formatting.
First, we're going to look at some general rules of thumb. At the end, we'll talk about breaking them.
Single or double?
Using single or double quotation marks for speech is entirely your preference. Most publishers will have their own house style that favours one or the other, (single are generally preferred in the UK, double for the US) but that doesn’t need to impact your style yet. The important thing is to be consistent. Pick one and use it throughout.
A comma should come before any direct mode of address.
‘Don’t leave your clothes on the floor, Abby.’
One of the most common ‘errors’ I see while editing dialogue is how to punctuate it. First there are two rules that remain the same no matter what:
You definitely need some form of punctuation (comma, period, question mark)
The punctuation goes inside the closing quotation mark
These three examples should cover the most common uses.
In this example, the characters say a full sentence, then there’s a speech tag, and then there’s another full sentence.
‘Should we eat out tonight?’ Rick asked.
‘I already got lasagne out of the freezer,’ Jenny said. ‘We’ll eat out tomorrow.’
See how each full sentence (Rick’s question, Jenny’s first statement and then her second) all have their respective punctuation marks at the end of the sentence inside the quotation marks.
Note also the period after ‘said’ before Jenny’s final statement and that we start the final statement with a capital letter.
What if the statements are full sentences that get broken up by the speech tag?
‘Great,’ Rick said, ‘because there’s this Spanish restaurant I want to try.’
Rick’s statement is interrupted by the speech tag so we use a comma before the first closing speech mark and a comma after ‘said’. We also start the second portion of the statement with a lowercase letter (unless it should be uppercase, like a name).
What if the character information or speech tag comes before the dialogue? In this instance, you need a comma before the speech marks.
Jenny nodded and said, ‘I’m up for that. Let’s book a table.’
Every time you have a new speaker, you start a new paragraph. Even author’s that subvert usual dialogue rules (see below) tend to stay true to this one. Why? Because it’s clearer for the reader.
New speaker, new line.
Sometimes characters have a lot to say. So what do you do when their dialogue is racking up sentence after sentence and starts to look blocky?
Break up the speech at an appropriate space
Don’t close the quotation marks at the end of your broken paragraph
Place new opening quotation marks at the start of each paragraph
Finish the speech with a closed quotation mark
‘I’m writing a longer piece of dialogue here because I have a lot to discuss,’ I said. ‘If I go on for long enough, the text will become a big block of words and no reader wants to look at that. It’s also harder to follow. So see here how I jump to a new paragraph.
‘Notice how I didn’t close the speech marks above but I reopened them at the start of this line? That’s how you indicate that it’s the same person talking. I would keep on in this style until I'm finished, and then I'd close up the speech marks at the end.’
Quotes within quotes
If your character needs to quote something somebody else has said, it’s called quotation mark inception. I’m kidding, but that would be cool. It’s more commonly called nesting quotation marks. But how do you use them without confusing the reader?
Put the quoted text in the opposite style of quotation marks to your main dialogue. So, if you style your dialogue with single quotation marks then you should use doubles for quoted speech. And vice versa.
‘She said, “I can’t do this anymore.” and then just walked out on me.’
“I told the barber, ‘Just a little off the top.’ Now I’m practically bald.”
Our characters don’t always get to finish what they’re saying before something cuts them off. That’s where we use the em-dash.
Tip: to create an em-dash on PC use Ctrl+Alt+Minus[-] and on Mac it's Shift+Option+Minus[-]
‘The cool thing about punctuation is th—’
‘Please stop talking now.’
But what if they don’t get to finish talking because they trail off or lose their train of thought? For that, we use the ellipsis.
‘I just wish that you cared more. I wish that…’ she began, but she waved a hand as if the matter wasn’t important. ‘Forget it.’
Authorial style: breaking the rules
Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s address the elephant in the room: the author. While the above shows some general rules of thumb to follow with formatting dialogue, there are authors who like to go rogue.
Let’s look at an excerpt from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered couch near the piano:
– You know I have my own little spot, she said to Mme Verdurin.
The latter, seeing Swann on a chair, made him get up:
– You’re not very comfortable there: now go and sit next to Odette. You’ll make room for M. Swann there, won’t you, Odette?
– What a pretty Beauvais, said Swann before he sat down, trying to be pleasant.
Here, Proust doesn’t go in for speech marks. Instead, he uses a colon to introduce dialogue and then an en-dash to signal the speech. It’s unusual, but clear enough to follow.
Now let’s look at an author who takes it a little further. Cormac McCarthy has a very unique writing style in general and his dialogue is no different. Here’s an excerpt from Outer Dark:
You paint? the man said.
Sure, he said. I paint all the time.
The man looked him over. I got a barn roof needs paintin, he said. You do roofs?
I done lots of roofs, he said.
You contract or just do day wages?
Holme wiped his lips with two fingers. Well, he said, if it ain’t but just the one roof I’d as soon do wages.
On first reading, this style takes some getting used to. Speech marks are a big indicator to readers that someone is talking so when you take those away you have to work a bit harder to follow. Once you know what to expect, though, you barely notice the difference.
Now, if these writers can take such liberties with dialogue then why can’t you? Well, you can. You can format your dialogue however you want, but there are two very important things to remember:
You have to know the rules before you can break them
Style should never supersede readability
Dialogue, much like all the other parts of your writing, is about conveying information. Be artsy and different if you want, but don’t make the reader work harder than they need to.