Prose Dialogue Format For Essays

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write, and I wish that my job as a technical writer offered more (or any) opportunities for writing it. In prose, dialogue can be a great way to get inside your characters. However, some writers find punctuating dialogue confusing: How do I use quotation marks? What is a dialogue tag? Where do the commas go? How come I see writers who don't even use quotation marks? Wait, is that an em dash?!

This article will both cover the basic ways to punctuate dialoge in American English and explore some of the less traditional methods. We will also talk about each method affects tone in your story. We will focus on dialogue in prose writing that is being spoken by characters in the story.

Let’s Start with the Basics

Dialogue or direct discourse is usually enclosed in quotation marks, either single like these: ‘__’, or double, like these: “__”. In American English, you are most likely to see the double quotation marks used to indicate a character or person speaking who is not the narrator.

Dialogue usually uses dialogue tags such as “she said,” “he screamed,” “they murmured,” etc. Dialogue tags are a subject and a verb that indicate who is speaking and the method of the speech (spoken/yelled/whispered). In most cases (unless a dialogue tag that indicates thought is used), material inside the quotation marks is considered spoken material.

I think the best way to explain it is to start with some examples of the different ways dialogue tags can be used.

Here is how to punctuate a sentence that starts with the dialogue tag:

     Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • Comma before the opening quotation mark.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

What happens when the dialogue tag is placed at the end of the sentence?

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said.

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • Dialogue tag at the end with a period to end the sentence.

Now see what happens when the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:

     “Call me,” Mary said, “tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • Comma before the second opening quotation mark.
  • Lower case letter to indicate the second piece of the quotation is still a part of the sentence that began in the first piece of the quotation.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

Now see what happens when the dialogue tag separates two sentences of quoted speech:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said. “Have a nice evening.”

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the first opening quotation mark.
  • A comma to end the quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark that precedes the dialogue tag.
  • A period at the end of the sentence (and after the dialogue tag) to indicate that the sentence with the first piece of quoted material has ended.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the second opening quotation mark.
  • The second piece of quoted material appearing on the same line as the first to indicate that the same person/speaker said both pieces of quoted material, even though the second piece of quoted material does not have a dialogue tag.
  • A period to end the quoted sentence.
  • Closing quotation mark.

This is what happens if there is more than one sentence inside the quotations:

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening,” Mary said.

Notes:  

  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence inside the opening quotation mark.
  • A period to end the first quoted sentence.
  • Capital letter to indicate the beginning of the second sentence inside the quotation marks.
  • A comma to end the second quoted sentence before the closing quotation mark and before the dialogue tag.
  • A period at the end of the sentence (and after the dialogue tag) to indicate that the sentence that contains both sentences of quoted material has ended.

And…all of the above remains true even if you reverse the order of the dialogue tag from Mary said  to said Mary.

     Said Mary, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary.

     “Call me,” said Mary, “tomorrow.”

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary. “Have a nice evening.”

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening,” said Mary.

Let’s see what happens when we have multiple speakers:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said. “Have a nice evening.”

     “Okay,” said Frank. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • All the rules listed above are followed, plus
  • The quoted material of the second speaker starts on a new line as a new paragraph.

Next, let’s take away the dialogue tags:

     “Call me tomorrow. Have a nice evening.”

      “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • All the material inside the quotations is punctuated and capitalized like a normal sentence, but
  • The opening quotations appear before the first sentence and closing quotations after the last sentence.
  • The quoted material of the second speaker still starts on a new line as a new paragraph.

 Also, new lines of dialogue are indented like any new paragraph. Let’s see how that looks by peppering in some longer lines of prose so that you can see the effect:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now.

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary as she got into her car.

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”            

Notes:  

  • All rules are followed as noted above,
  • And each piece of quoted material starts as a new paragraph, indented and on a new line.

However, you don’t have to  start Mary’s speech on a new line if you write her dialogue tag into a sentence in the first paragraph. Observe:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • As Mary speaks first, her quoted material does not have to start in a new paragraph, especially because her speech is relevant to the topic of the paragraph. Her dialogue tag is written into the description of the scene, so it’s entirely appropriate to write her dialogue into the first paragraph.
  • Frank’s dialogue, however, must start on a new line, indented as a new paragraph. You can also continue the new paragraph with more description. For example:

     “Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” replied Frank as he bent to start the rusty mower.

Let’s Complicate Things

There are endless combinations that are now possible using the rules above. These combinations can change the tone and feel of the story. Once again, I turn to Noah Lukeman’s excellent book A Dash of Style for clues on how to manipulate quotations and other punctuation to elicit different moods when writing dialogue.

You can use dialogue to speed up the pace of your story:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

     “Wait!” Frank jogged over.

     “I have to get going, Frank. We can chat tomorrow.”

     “Well, I just wanted to ask you if we should get veggie burgers, too. I think we should have some options for the non-carnivores.” 

     “Of course. Sounds good. I have to run, but we can go over it all tomorrow on the phone.”            

     “Oh, and should we get gluten-free buns, too?”               

     “Uh, sure…Let’s talk tomorrow. Ok?”               

     “Ok. Later then.”               

     “Later.”             

Notes:  

  • With few dialogue tags, the back and forth clip of Frank and Mary’s conversation speeds up the text from the long descriptive section to a quick exchange between the two characters that does as much to show their personalities as long lines of descriptive prose would have.
  • Dialogue tags get the section started, but as the dialogue gets going, the tags are no longer needed as the words of the characters allow the reader to infer the characters tone and mood easily without the wordiness of Mary said/Frank said.
  • The fact that a new paragraph is used for each line of dialogue draws the reader down the page at a rapid pace thus propelling the reader forward through the story. One would not want to read an entire story like this, but it can be a tool for speeding up long sections of prose.

You can use manipulate the dialogue tags to indicate subtle passages of time:

     “Call me tomorrow,” said Mary.

Versus

     “Call me,” Mary said. “Tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • In the first example Mary clearly expresses when she would like to be called.
  • In the second example, putting the dialogue tag in the middle and punctuating each quoted piece as separate sentences indicates a slight pause between Mary’s directing Frank to call her and when she would actually like to be called. Mary says to call her, but then adds “Tomorrow” either as an afterthought or in order to emphasize that she does not want Frank to call her today.

You can use dialogue to add a sense of revelation or finality:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said.

versus

      Mary said, “Call me tomorrow.”

versus

     Mary said: “Call me tomorrow.”

Notes:  

  • In the first example Mary clearly expresses when she would like to be called in a way that is clear but not climactic.
  • In the second example, putting the dialogue tag at the beginning places extra emphasis on the quoted material as sort of a final point.
  • In the third example, the colon adds an even stronger sense of finality or emphasis on the quoted material. The differences are subtle but palpable.

Now, Let’s Throw the Rules Out

Writers, as you likely know, love to ignore the rules of punctuation and grammar when it suits them. I have read many, MANY books in which dialogue is presented without quotation marks (double or single), properly placed commas, paragraph breaks, or even dialogue tags. And that’s really just fine. Other languages—French, Spanish, Italian, and even British English have different ways of punctuating dialogue that I think many writers using American English emulate to create different effects in the tone. Let’s look at a few other ways of doing it.

How ‘bout an em dash for style?

Italian, French, and Spanish all utilize em dashes in dialogue, though not all in the same way necessarily.

With the dialogue tag, you can start and end with the em dash, or just start with it.

     —Call me tomorrow,—Mary said.

     —Call me tomorrow, Mary said.

     Mary said,—Call me tomorrow.

     Mary said—Call me tomorrow.—

Without dialogue tags, you can start and end with the em dash or just start with it.

     —Call me tomorrow.—

     —Call me tomorrow.

For longer sections of dialogue, em dashes can look nice at the beginning of each piece of speech. Again, using a new indented paragraph at each change of speaker keeps this looking neat and clean. For example:

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party, but she didn’t have time just now. As she got into her car, Mary said,—Call me tomorrow.

     —Wait!—Frank jogged over.

     —I have to get going, Frank. We can chat tomorrow.

     —Well, I just wanted to ask you if we should get veggie burgers, too. I think we should have some options for the non-carnivores.

     —Of course. Sounds good. I have to run, but we can go over it all tomorrow on the phone.

     —Oh, and should we get gluten-free buns, too?

     —Uh, sure…Let’s talk tomorrow. Ok?

     —Ok. Later then.

     —Later.

You can choose to indent each time the speaker changes, or not. In the example above, I only used a closing em dash if the quoted material was followed by a dialogue tag, otherwise, I only used em dashes at the beginning of the spoken sections. I think this method has a nice clean look to it, and when reading the dialogue, the em dash creates a smooth transition between the prose parts and the dialogue parts while still creating separation.

You can also try using italics to denote both speech and thoughts:

You can try using italics for all spoken dialogue. In my opinion, I typically use italics for material that is thought (but not spoken) by the character and regular quotations marks or em dashes for spoken dialogue. However, it’s barely a rule, and so long as you are consistent and your reader can easily discern whether something is being thought or spoken, then you can use italics and/or quotation marks for both or either all in the same piece. Just be sure to use dialogue tags if there is a possibility your reader might not be able to tell what is thought and what it spoken by the character. Note that the material that Mary thinks is set off with a comma each time to create visual separation. Here’s a few examples:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said, Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said and then thought, “Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.”

     Call me tomorrow, Mary said and then thought, Because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

And, you can write thoughts without either the italics or the quotation marks:

     “Call me tomorrow,” Mary said and then thought, because I’m too tired to listen to you now.

And, finally, if you wish to be a total rebel, you can use Free Indirect Discourse:

Our esteemed Jon Gingerich wrote a great piece on the merits of using Free Indirect Discourse in your prose, so I won’t attempt to enumerate all the ways that you can use it—just go read his excellent article. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, indirect discourse paraphrases direct discourse and does not need quotation marks, italics, em dashes or any other such punctuation.

     Mary told Frank to call her tomorrow.

     Okay, he replied. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Note that the quoted material is written more as someone relaying the conversation later to a third party. The effect is that the quoted material may or may not be the person’s exact words. The effect of indirect discourse is that of adding an extra layer of distance between what the person actually said and how it was heard and then later repeated.

Free Indirect Discourse smooshes together spoken dialogue, unvoiced thoughts, and descriptive prose all together so that the effect is something like the reader being both inside the mind of the character but still being able to be objective and see through the lens of the omniscient third person narrator. The speech of another character can appear in the same line as the speech of the primary character and vice versa. According to Jon, “Free Indirect Discourse takes advantage of the biggest asset a first-person P.O.V. has (access) and combines it with the single best benefit of a third-person narrative (reliability).”

Let’s take a look.

     Mary was on her way to the grocery store when she saw Frank out in the front yard mowing his overgrown grass. Oh no, she thought, I don’t have time right now for his ramblings. He waved for her to come over because they needed to talk about the upcoming block party. As she got into her car, Mary said, call me tomorrow.

     But before she could close the door, Frank called, Wait! and jogged over. I have to get going, Frank, she said. We can chat tomorrow. She again attempted to close the car door, but he asked if they should get veggie burgers. For the non-carnivores, he said.

Even though there is a third-person narrator, and Mary is not the speaker, the effect of the free indirect discourse is that we hear her thoughts, her voice, and the voice of Frank through the lens of Mary’s perception.

How do I choose?

With so many options for ways to write dialogue, it can be confusing for a writer to pick one. My advice would be to use the method that best fits the tone of your work. For almost all prose writing, the classic quotation mark methods are appropriate and safe. If you want the dialogue to be clear but not clutter up your page with quotation marks, you might opt for em dashes. And if you want the dialogue to just be a part of the character's experience, try your hand at the free indirect discourse method. If you are consistent and deliberate with your choices, your reader will defer naturally to your authority and just go with it.

Share below if you have other ways to write dialogue. I know there have to be other methods.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the less complicated rules involving quotation marks. First, they are used to enclose words and phrases to which special attention needs to be drawn. If a word is used out of context or in some other unusual way, such as to include a slang word in formal writing, or when it is being used sarcastically, it should appear in quotes:

“Of” is an ambiguous preposition, for it can mean “from” or “by.”
Yeah, it was a “happy” occasion, all right, if you like being humiliated in public!
He really is quite a “square” fellow.

In the first sentence we’ve used prepositions as nouns, which is allowable only if we put them in quotation marks. Sentence two involves sarcasm; that is, a meaning that is exactly opposite of what is said. You put “happy” in quotation marks because you want to be sure the reader catches the irony (in much the same way a speaker will make “air quotes” with his hands to make sure the audience understands the intended sarcasm). The final sentence uses quotes to insert a slang expression into a more formal context; omitting the quotes would make it seem that the writer was using informal language inappropriately.

A second use of quotation marks involves titles. Use them in the following instances:

  • short artistic works (poems, songs, television and radio programs)
  • titles of individual courses of study (but not areas)
  • short stories
  • articles in magazines
  • any literary piece that is not bound as a book

Here are some typical examples:

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is his best.
I enrolled in P.E. 17, “Social Dancing.”
Robinson’s sonnet “Richard Cory” is one of the best ever to come out of America.
His third chapter is strangely titled “The Sink in the Sky.”
Poe’s best story, I think, is “The Man of the Crowd.”

Quotes and Dialogue Now we come to a biggy, the handling of quotation and dialogue. Quotation marks are used to indicate direct quotations and dialogue. It would follow, then, that they are not used to punctuate indirect quotations (including the recounting of dialogue). If a direct quote or dialogue is introduced by a descriptive phrase (called an “attribution”), the attribution is separated from the quote or dialogue with a comma:

Lord Acton said, “. . . absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (direct quotation)
Lord Acton said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. (indirect quotation)

Elizabeth said, “I refuse to take another step.” (dialogue)
Elizabeth said she refused to take another step. (recounting of dialogue)

You can see that, whether you are dealing with factual quotes or fictional dialogue, the usage is quite similar. Whenever you are putting the speaker’s actual words on the page (whether real or made up), use quotation marks; when you are merely telling your reader what someone said (whether that someone is a real person or a fictional character), don’t use quotation marks.

Now here are three very important rules about punctuation with quotation marks that you should memorize (or at least write down and keep handy):

1. Periods and commas always occur inside quotation marks:

This set of intersecting lines is what we call a “grid.”
When you say someone is “square,” do you mean he is antisocial or merely old-fashioned?

2. Semicolons and colons always occur outside quotation marks:

Toynbee began his Study of History with “the annihilation of distance”; he ended it with “the annihilation of man.”
The teacher predicted that three things will shatter what he calls “the American dream”: the bigness, the buck and the bomb.

3. Question and exclamation marks may occur inside or outside quotation marks, depending on the meaning of the sentence:

He said, “Am I the guilty one?”
Did he say, “I am the guilty one”?
Did he say, “Am I the guilty one?”

In the first sentence, the quotation itself asks the question, so the question mark belongs inside the quotation marks. But in the next sentence, the question is being asked by the whole sentence and not the quotation, so the question mark belongs outside the quotation marks. Finally, sentence three has both the sentence and the quotation asking questions. In this case, the mark belongs inside, where everybody understands that it stands for both questions. You should never write:

Did he say, “Am I the guilty one?”?

Logical though it may be, the double question mark is unnecessary. Now look at a couple of examples using the exclamation mark, where the same logic applies:

He actually dared to say, “The world is flat”!
He said, “I’m the king of the world!”

In the first of these, the writer is astounded, not the one being quoted, so the exclamation mark belongs outside the quotation marks. In the second, of course, the exclamation is made by the one being quoted, so the exclamation point belongs inside the quotation marks. Still on the subject of punctuation with quotation marks, don’t use commas when other punctuation is called for:

Wrong: “Am I the guilty one?,” the weeping woman said.
Right: “Am I the guilty one?” the weeping woman said.

So far we’ve dealt with attribution that precedes the quote or dialogue. But it may also come at the end (as we’ve just seen) or in the middle, interrupting the quotation. Why? Well, from a stylistic viewpoint, it saves dialogue passages from becoming boring and stiff-sounding. If you put the attribution in the same location every time, your dialogue will acquire an unnatural “sameness.”

Varying the location of the attribution can also change the stress of the sentence. In a long quote or line of dialogue, using an interrupting attribution can remind the reader who is speaking, or serve to reinforce the main ideas of a quote by separating them and making each more distinct.

But what concerns us, of course, is the punctuation involved with attributions, wherever they may appear in the sentence. Examine the following in its three versions:

His manager said, “The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field.”
“The trouble with John is his lack of education in the field,” his manager said.
“The trouble with John,” his manager said, “is his lack of education in the field.”

Certainly, the two main ideas in this sentence are “the trouble with John” and “his lack of education in the field.” The third sentence is perhaps the most forceful because by breaking up the manager’s statement, equal weight is given to both parts. Notice the following things about these three sentences:

  • When the attribution comes first, it is followed by a comma. (“His manager said, “The…”)
  • When the attribution follows the quotation it begins without capitalization. (“. . . field,” his manager said.)
  • When the attribution follows the quotation, it is preceded by a comma. This comma replaces the period at the end of the quote or dialogue and–as we’ve already learned–always goes inside the ending quotation marks. (“. . . field,” his manager said.)
  • Quotations always begin with capital letters, no matter where they come in the sentence. (all three sentences)
  • When the attribution interrupts the quotation, the quotation continues without capitalization. (“. . . with John,” his manager said, “is his. . .”)

Now, let’s look at an example that appears to feature an interrupting explanatory statement between two consecutive sentences spoken by the same person:

“Turn on the ignition key,” the instructor said. “Now start the engine.”

But in this case the attribution doesn’t really interrupt the dialogue. Rather, it comes at the end of the first sentence of dialogue, and is punctuated accordingly. The second line of dialogue actually has no attribution at all. This presentation is quite common in long dialogue passages where it would be annoying to continually repeat the speaker’s name with each sentence of dialogue.

To prevent the reader from being confused about who is speaking, each change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph. For example:

Finally, her mother went upstairs, and I leaned over and kissed Janet. “Have you ever been kissed before?” I said suspiciously.

“Never,” she quickly replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, then, tell me this. How come you kiss so well?”

“I watched them do it in the movies.”

Here we have a conversation between two speakers with very little attribution. Yet it is quite easy for the reader to keep track of who is speaking because of the way the dialogue is separated into paragraphs for each speaker.

There is another option for direct citations of someone else’s writing or speech, generally used when the quoted material is four lines long or longer. This is the block quotation, which you’ve probably seen in text books. The exact form of a block quotation will be determined by the style of the printed piece–it may be single-spaced when the surrounding material is double-spaced; it may use a different, generally smaller, typeface than the surrounding material; it will most likely be inset from both the left and right margins–but generally it will look something like this:

What you should remember about block quotations is that they do not take quotation marks. Their shape is all the punctuation they need. And when you are finished with your long quotation, return to the spacing, margins and/or typeface of the main body of the piece.

If you need to quote several paragraphs, and do not want to use the block quote, you would put an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph but not at the end of any of the paragraphs except the one that concludes the quotation:

“But I did well in school and seemed to be peculiarly able to learn what the teacher said–I never mastered a subject, though–and there was the idiotic testimony of those peculiar witnesses, I.Q. tests: those scores invented me.

“Those scores were a decisive piece of destiny in that they affected the way people treated you and regarded you; they determined your authority; and if you spoke oddly, they argued in favor of your sanity. But it was as easy to say and there was much evidence that I was stupid, in every way or in some ways, or as my mother said in exasperation–in all the ways that count.”

The final rule involves quotations within quotations. For such internal quotations, use the apostrophe, sometimes called a single quote when used in this way:

“That’s fine by me,” Father cautioned, “but remember what Grandma used to say: ‘Early to bed, early to rise. . . .'”


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  • How to stay on track and keep your book from “sagging” in the middle

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