1. What is dialogue?
2. Punctuation rules for dialogue
3. Internal dialogue (thoughts)
4. What next?
Dialogue is notoriously complicated to punctuate and many writers struggle to get it right. It also doesn’t help that there is a difference in the way dialogue is punctuated between New Zealand English and American English. But readers will notice if you get it wrong (even if they can’t say why they think it’s wrong!).
Although some grammar rules are made to be broken or have grey areas, with dialogue it’s important to get the commas, quotation marks, full stops and capital letters right for the reader to make sense of the dialogue.
Here are some basic punctuation rules for dialogue for New Zealand English. There are other, less common styles of punctuating dialogue, which some writers (such as James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy) are famous for, but as these are not used very often at all, it will likely confuse your readers. It’s better to stick to the more common punctuation. At least for now.
1. What is dialogue?
Dialogue is a conversation between characters in a novel. The rules are used to make it clear to the reader who is speaking and how they are saying it. Get dialogue wrong, and the story line can be confusing, or the characters may sound wooden or unbelievable.
Dialogue can be direct or indirect. Indirect dialogue is easy, as it has no specific punctuation. Direct dialogue is more complicated, but also more interesting.
Indirect dialogue is the same as reported speech – one person reports what someone else said. Indirect dialogue often uses the word that to indicate what was said. There are no quotation marks, as it is not actually said.
She said that he jumped first.
Direct dialogue shows that someone is speaking. It shows this by using quotation marks.
‘He ate the pizza and didn’t leave any for me.’
Direct dialogue can use dialogue tags and action beats.
Dialogue tags show who said it and how they said it. Here are some examples of direct dialogue with a dialogue tag.
‘He jumped first,’ she said.
‘He jumped first,’ she said quietly.
A note about dialogue tags: said is the most commonly used dialogue tag, and also the most unobtrusive. There is nothing wrong with using said. Tags like grumbled, muttered, and quipped can distract a reader, though they can be used if necessary. Also be careful to make sure it is possible to do what is actually described. Writers sometimes try to use dialogue tags such as he smiled, or she grimaced, which, if you think about it, is impossible to do. These should be changed into action beats or changed altogether.
An action beat is used to describe what the character is doing, but it is not part of the dialogue.
‘My cat is sick.’ Sarah grabbed her phone and showed him a picture of Whiskers.
Note the full stop before the closing quotation mark. This indicates that the action is separate from the dialogue.
A dialogue tag and an action beat can be combined, but be careful not to use this format too often, as it can become tedious to the reader.
‘He jumped first,’ she said quietly, looking up at her mum.
A note about action beats: an action beat can be useful for breaking up long passages of dialogue, to create a picture of setting and actions in the reader’s mind or to give information about the character and their emotions, especially when their actions contradict their words. Action beats also help pace the conversation by creating pauses.
2. Punctuation rules for dialogue
There are many rules, but the golden rule is: dialogue always starts with a capital letter regardless of where it comes in the sentence.
Another thing to consider is that New Zealand English style prefers single quotation marks for dialogue. Exceptions are for double quotation marks in newspapers and children’s books, and often on web pages.
Punctuation for simple dialogue
In a simple dialogue sentence, the full stop comes before the closing quotation mark.
‘We are going with him.’
When a dialogue tag is used after the dialogue, a comma comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag starts with a lowercase letter, unless it is a proper noun.
‘We are going with him,’ she said.
‘We are going with him,’ she said quickly.
‘We are going with him,’ Sarah said quickly, holding the door open.
If the dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, a comma comes after the tag. A colon can also be used but is less common. Remember that the dialogue always starts with a capital letter even though it is technically in the middle of the sentence.
She said, ‘We are going with him.’
She said: ‘We are going with him!’
Holding the door open, she said, ‘We are going with him.’
Other punctuation in dialogue
The punctuation goes with the sentence, so the question mark or exclamation mark comes before the quotation marks.
‘Are you going with him?’
‘I am going with him!’
When using a dialogue tag after a question mark or exclamation mark, there is no comma, as the other punctuation already functions as the comma. The dialogue tag still starts with a lowercase letter unless it’s a proper noun.
‘Are you going with him?’ she asked.
‘Are you going with him?’ Jane asked, holding the door open.
A quote within dialogue
Sometimes a character might report someone else’s speech. We show this with internal quotation marks (or nested quotation marks) which are the opposite to the regular quotation marks used. New Zealand English uses single quotation marks, so uses double quotation marks within the single ones. You can have a space between the final two sets of quotation marks to aid legibility, but it is not necessary.
‘She said to me, “I hope you are going with him.” ’
BUT: reported speech within dialogue:
‘She said to me that she is going with him.’
Interruption by a dialogue tag
Dialogue can be interrupted by a dialogue tag or action beat. Note the comma at the end of the dialogue tag.
‘We are going with him,’ she said, ‘and we won’t be coming back.’
‘We are going with him,’ she said, holding the door open, ‘and we won’t be coming back.’
This sentence could also be split into two sentences.
‘We are going with him,’ she said, holding the door open. ‘And we won’t be coming back.’
Interruption by an action or thought
Sometimes a character’s speech is interrupted by an action or thought. There are no commas, and dashes are used to offset the action.
There are two options for dashes used like this. The traditional method was to use closed up em dashes.
‘We are going with him’—she opened the door— ‘and we won’t be coming back.’
‘I love him’—at least, I think I do—‘and I’m going with him.’
But the preference in British and New Zealand English is now to use spaced en dashes in the same way as when en dashes are used as parenthetical dashes.
‘We are going with him’ – she opened the door – ‘and we won’t be coming back.’
‘I love him’ – at least, I think I do – ‘and I’m going with him.’
Interruption mid-sentence or mid-word
A character may be abruptly cut off by another character talking or by an action that prevents the character speaking. In this case, regardless of whether you use a spaced en dash or an em dash for the parenthetical dashes, an em dash is used before the closing quotation mark. There is no full stop or other punctuation.
‘I am going w--’
Sometimes the first character will resume after their interruption.
‘I am going—’
Dialogue that trails off
Use an ellipsis to indicate the dialogue is trailing off as if the character is in thought or if the character has forgotten what they wanted to say. As New Zealand English has a space before and after an ellipsis when used in the middle of a sentence, there’s a space before the ellipsis. There is no space before the closing quotation mark and there is no extra full stop, but there can be an exclamation mark or question mark.
‘His name is …’ She looked down the page.
'Where are ...?' She looked around her.
How to punctuate dialogue when a character mentions another character’s name
A character may address another character. This is called a vocative expression. The name is always set off from the rest of the sentence with commas.
‘Jenny, can you come here?’
‘Can you come here, Jenny?’ she asked.
‘Can you come here, Jenny, to help me fix this?’
Each time the speaker changes, begin a new paragraph.
It is not necessary to have a dialogue tag for each speaker. However, you don’t want your reader to have to guess who is speaking, so be careful with this. Action beats work well for this, too.
‘What did Linda say?’ Greg asked.
Sally looked up from her work. ‘She said she was going to finish her homework and
then come over.’
‘Shall we go out for dinner or get takeaways?’
‘Let’s order in. I’ve still got a bit to do.’
Greg smiled. ‘Perfect. I’ll order our usual.’
There is an exception to this rule when there is a quick back and forth with short sentences. In this case you could run it on into one paragraph. But you don’t want this to go on for too long and you don’t want to use it too often. And it must be clear who is speaking. If in doubt, stick to the rule of a new paragraph for each speaker.
Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by one character
Sometimes dialogue can go over several paragraphs without pause or change of speaker.
Punctuate the sentence at the end of the first paragraph with the normal full stop, question mark or exclamation mark, but do not use a quotation mark here.
The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark.
The final sentence in the dialogue ends with a quotation mark.
‘I said I was going with him, and then he left without me. I don’t know what to do. Can I stay with you? It would only be for a few days. I’ll see if I can stay with Sarah for a few weeks after that. She still owes me.
‘And what about him? What does he think he’s going to do? Do you think he will come back after everything?’
3. Internal dialogue (thoughts)
There are different opinions on how to show what a character is thinking. As with all style choices, it is important to stick to one style within a manuscript to prevent confusion.
One way is to use italics. However, this shouldn’t be overused, as italics are harder to read than Roman font and it can get annoying for the reader. If there are a lot of thoughts or even pages of thoughts, consider one of the other methods. A tip is to only use italics for thoughts when the thought is significant in some way or you want to emphasise the thought to the reader.
Sally put her pen down. ‘I’m done. Shall we order the pizzas now?’ I hope Greg offers to pays this time. It’s been a long time since he did. ‘What would you like?’
I’m broke, thought Greg, I hope Sally doesn’t mind paying again. ‘Can I have a pepperoni?’
Or without the tag:
I’m broke. I hope Sally doesn’t mind paying again. ‘Can I have a pepperoni?’
Another way is to punctuate as for dialogue but use the dialogue tag to indicate that it is a thought. However, this was not as clear as using italics. If you use this way, make sure you use a dialogue tag (e.g. ‘he thought’) and make sure it is as close to the start of the sentence as possible, so the reader is given a clue from the start and doesn’t have to go back and reread it when they find out that it’s a thought.
‘I wonder if Greg will offer to pay,’ Sally thought. ‘It must be his turn.’
A third way is not to punctuate it at all and use a tag to indicate the thought. This is probably the best so far.
Sally put her pen down. I wonder if Greg will offer to pay, she thought. It must be his turn. ‘I’m done. Shall we order the pizzas now?’
Finally, the most unobtrusive way is to blend the thought into the narrative, keeping within the same tense.
Sally put her pen down. She was getting hungry but remembered that she had used her last cash to pay for the petrol on the way there. Was it Greg’s turn to pay? She was sure it was. ‘I’m done. Shall we order the pizzas now?’
4. What next?
If you have written a book and don't know what the next step is or this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you what you need to do next and work with you to make your book the best it can be.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
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