FAQs on Punctuating Dialogue in Fiction

finger-pressing-computer-keyboard from publicdomainpictures dot net
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Unless you’re a grammar freak like myself, and you can’t get enough of this stuff, you probably won’t read this blog post. And that’s fine. (sniff) Really. I have my books and my poetry… Wait. What was I saying? Oh, yes. It’s okay if you don’t read this blog. But if you write fiction, you might want to bookmark it, so you can find it when you need it. And if you don’t find the answers you need here, feel free to ask your questions in the comment section, and I will answer.

As a follow-up to How to Write Better Dialogue here are some commonly asked questions and answers about punctuating dialogue in fiction. These answers comply with the latest (16th edition) Chicago Manual of Style, which is the widely accepted standard for writing fiction in American English. Where you see the letters CMOS, followed by numerals (e.g., CMOS 13.37), that refers to the chapter and section of the Chicago Manual of Style wherein you can find that particular rule.

Does end punctuation go inside or outside of the quotation marks?

End marks are enclosed within the punctuation marks.

  • “Scruffy’s a good boy.” She scratched the dog’s ears.

In this example, the end of speech is also the end of a sentence, so it takes the period before the quotation marks. But if the sentence continues after the speech, the period is replaced with a comma, still inside the quotation marks. And the next word is not capitalized, because it’s still part of the same sentence.

  • “Scruffy’s a good boy,” she said, scratching the dog’s ears.
If the speech ends in a question mark or exclamation point, use the end mark, then continue the sentence as if it were a comma. That is, do not capitalize the next word, unless it would normally be capitalized anyway.
  • “Who’s a good boy?” she asked, scratching the dog’s ears.
  • “You’re a good boy!” Kathryn said, scratching the dog’s ears.
Scruffy sweater 2014
My Scruffy, tolerating a sweater I crocheted for him. He’s a good boy!

How do I switch speakers?

Switch speakers by starting a new paragraph. CMOS 13.37

“What is this stuff?” Julia bent over the scrambled pages strewn out over the dining room table. She noticed a logo in the upper-left corner of each page.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No, seriously. What is it?”

When speech is broken, how can I tell when to put a dash (–) and when to put suspension points (…) ?

To convey that your character’s speech is trailing off or confused, such as might happen if the character is dazed, bewildered, distracted, falling asleep, or dying, use suspension points–three periods in a row, with no spaces. CMOS 13.39

  • “I…I can’t…I don’t know what….this is all…so…”

To convey that your character’s speech is cut short, such as might happen if the character is interrupted, or suddenly remembers something and changes subjects, or stops talking, use an em dash with no spaces before or after the dash. CMOS 6.84

  • “Just what the–? What are you doing here?”

If you’re using MS Word, the only way to make an em dash is to type two hyphens after the last word, then without spacing, type the next word and then type a space. Word will not create the dash without typing another word and the space. So even if it’s the end of a paragraph and you need a dash, but don’t want to put another word and space, you have to type them anyway to create that dash. You can delete the unwanted word and space after the dash is created.

In word processing programs that do not automatically create a dash, just type two hyphens. No spaces.

How should I indicate unspoken dialogue or inner thoughts?

This one is not a hard and fast rule. You have some choices when writing a character’s inner thoughts. The first, of course, is to write the thought as part of the narrative, rather than as dialogue. This is called “indirect internal dialogue.” CMOS 13.41
  • Theresa wondered why Robert wasn’t home yet. She didn’t think it should take five hours to get a haircut.

The second way is to write it as if it were spoken dialogue, with quotation marks. CMOS 13.41

  • “Why isn’t Robert home yet?” Theresa wondered. “It shouldn’t take five hours to get a haircut.”
The third is to write it as dialogue, but leave out the quotation marks. CMOS 13.41
  • Why isn’t Robert home yet? Theresa wondered. It shouldn’t take five hours to get a haircut.
The fourth way is to italicize the unspoken thoughts and leave out the quotation marks. I couldn’t find this rule in CMOS, but it’s very common in American English novel writing, and according to the GrammarBook.com blog (which gets its material from The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus), internal dialogue may be indicated with italics.
  • Why isn’t Robert home yet? Theresa wondered. It shouldn’t take five hours to get a haircut.

Always follow your publisher’s style choice. If you don’t have a publisher yet, the style choice is yours, but for consistency, make sure that whichever style you choose, you keep that style throughout your novel.

Do I need to put single word speech in quotation marks?

No and yes.

No. If the single word is not part of a running dialogue, do not enclose it in quotation marks. CMOS 13.38

  • When I asked why, she didn’t answer.
  • Dad always says no when I want to stay out late.

Yes. If the single word is part of a running dialogue, do enclose it in quotation marks.

Allen took Christine’s hand and dropped to one knee.  With his lip quivering and his eyes filled with tears, he whispered, “Will you marry me?”

“Yes!” she shouted.

How should I handle numbers in dialogue?

Except for years and trade names, as a general rule, spell out numbers in dialogue. This rule, too, has some wiggle room. If the dialogue becomes unclear, do what you have to do to make it easy to read and easy to understand. CMOS 13.42

  • “I’ll need three hundred twenty-seven tiles to cover this floor.”
  • “On the way home, will you stop at 7-11?”
  • “I met your father in 1933.”
  • “He showed up at four o’clock, with 347 six-inch square tiles meant to cover this floor.”

Did you make it all the way to the end?  Yay! Did you get your questions answered? If not, go ahead and ask in the comment section, and I’ll answer you.








One Comment on “FAQs on Punctuating Dialogue in Fiction

  1. Pingback: How to Write Better Dialogue | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

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