How to Punctuate Dialogue: Spoken, Written, and Telepathic
I know grammar and punctuation aren’t the most interesting or flashy aspects of writing to study, but you must master them if you want your stories to be successful. Good grammar and punctuation both clarify the points you are making and disappear. When done correctly, your readers will pass right over them without pausing. However, when done incorrectly, your reader will become confused by the slew of commas or lack of pauses to differentiate points. Punctuation is especially important in dialogue. Without a consistent dialogue format, your readers will be unable to decipher when your characters are speaking out loud and who is saying what.
What Is Standard Dialogue Format?
The simplest way to approach dialogue is to use the standard format readers have come to expect. This involves:
Starting a new paragraph each time a new character speaks
Using speech tags or character actions to let the reader know who is speaking
Enclosing dialogue in quotation marks
*Punctuating dialogue within quotation marks like a regular sentence
Leaving the font regular (don’t italicize or bold)
Here’s an example of standard dialogue format from Maggie Brydon’s “Bring a She Goat” in Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology:
“Marissa! What are you doing?” I protested. I thrashed, trying to pull away, but I could barely breathe, and I was off-balance. “What the fuck, Marissa? Help me!”
“Jody, you’re going to be purified and healed from your homosexual affliction.”
“What? Like hell I am.” I yelled and tried to kick behind me . . . (54)
Like a stage direction, each time a different character speaks, Brydon begins and indents a new paragraph. Every spoken phrase is bracketed by quotation marks, and the speech tag “I protested” is used to let the reader know which character is speaking. All of these formatting choices come together to set the dialogue apart from the exposition in a way that is pleasing to the eye, so readers know when and who is speaking.
This is the standard way of formatting dialogue because it is visually clear, used in all genres, and creates white space. The new paragraphs, indents, and quotation marks add extra space on the page, which is a relief to the eye. Pages filled from margin to margin with text are exhausting and reminiscent of textbooks (which will give biochemistry majors flashbacks to never-ending pages of tiny text and theories that make their brains hurt). Dialogue, because of its format, is a great way to break pages of text into easier to read chunks. Putting less words on the page also means readers finish that page faster, giving the illusion the story is moving along at a brisker pace.
Ending Dialogue Punctuation
Notice there is a star next to how dialogue is punctuated. That is because the way dialogue is punctuated depends on whether or not a speech tag is used. If a line of dialogue would normally end with a period and is followed by a speech tag, the sentence is not technically over, so a comma is used instead of a period. If a line of dialogue is not followed by a speech tag, the usual appropriate punctuation mark is used. Here are some examples:
“Time to raise the chamber,” said Umberto as he shuffled to the sink.
“Time to raise the chamber.” Umberto shuffled to the sink.
The first example has a speech tag, so a comma is needed. The second example is two separate sentences, so a period is used.
If the speech tag starts the sentence, a comma is used before the dialogue starts. And if the dialogue occurs in the middle of the sentence, it is bracketed by commas:
Umberto said, “Time to raise the chamber.” He shuffled to the sink.
Umberto said, “Time to raise the chamber,” and shuffled to the sink.
The reason the period is replaced by a comma is for clarification. A reader thinks the sentence is over when they see a period. If it continues after the period, they can be jarred out of the story. By using a comma, writers create a smoother reader experience, so they remain immersed in the story.
The optional exception to these rules are if the dialogue ends in a punctuation mark other than a period, like a question mark. Then the writer can choose to use the question mark or replace it with a comma.
“Why don’t you?” Umberto said and raised a hand.
“Why don’t you,” Umberto said and raised a hand.
Both examples are correct. It is up to you as the writer to decide which one best conveys the point you are expressing through character dialogue. Is the line of dialogue clearly a question or is the question mark needed to show this? Remember, punctuation is all about clarification.
When Standard Dialogue Format Won’t Work
There are two situations that fairly regularly pop up when standard dialogue format might not work: telepathic communication and electronic communication. These are instances of unspoken dialogue. If they occur near spoken dialogue, you might want to format them differently to clarify which lines are spoken and which aren’t. Usually, this works best if the quotation marks are replaced with brackets, arrows, colons, or some other mark.
When Steven King’s telepathic character broadcasted her thoughts in Carrie he used parenthesis:
And Sue, without thought, spoke in the same fashion:
(me Sue Snell) (page 273)
Because the characters are communicating through images and impressions in thought, King dropped the periods and other punctuation marks of the telepathic dialogue. However, it is still clear the characters are speaking to each other.
In Hounded Kevin Hearne uses two kinds of telepathic communication. One is through images and drops the punctuation marks like King does. When the elemental speaks to the main character through thought, it says:
//Druid calls / Fairies await / Delicious / Gratitude // (8)
Here, Hearne uses double slashes to show when the dialogue begins and ends and single slashes to differentiate the different sentiments being expressed between the main character and the elemental. However, when the main character speaks to his dog, he doesn’t use images and impressions; instead he uses language:
“Do I need to remind you not to sniff my customers’ asses?”
< You just did. And very subtly too, thank you very much. > (66)
Here, the main character speaks out loud to his dog, and the dog responds telepathically. The two characters are having a regular dialogue – using language – so Hearne used proper punctuation marks to end the sentences. This is also a great example of when punctuation other than quotation marks are necessary. If the dog’s response had been in quotation marks, readers might think the dog was speaking out loud, which is a very different kind of magic and ability than telepathy. In both forms of telepathic communication in Hounded it is clear when, how, and who is speaking.
The final example of different dialogue marks comes from Lezly Harrison’s short story “What’s in a Name?” in Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology. Her main characters are artificial intellegences. To reinforce the non-humanness of her characters, she formatted their dialogue in a way reminiscent of computer code. An example is:
AI-3: What’s going on? I know you didn’t sign that Addendum!
AI-2: Someone misdirected one of my marks.
AI-3: You think AI-1 did it.
AI-2: Who else? (69-70)
Harrison uses a combination of different spacing, semicolons, and arrows to show this is an electronic dialogue, when the dialogue begins and ends, and when the speaker changes. She also uses the speaker's name and a colon instead of the usual speech tag, which is similar to how chat rooms format conversations between users. Even though her format is very different from standard dialogue format, it accomplishes the same things. It shows who’s speaking and when, creates white space, and gives the illusion of faster pacing.
If you’re writing a story with telepathic or electronic communication, spend some time figuring out the best way to format that dialogue between your characters. Will the standard format work for you, or do you need to use something else? Use these examples as inspiration or “steal” these authors' formatting. Do whatever will make the dialogue the clearest and easiest for your readers to follow.
An Editor’s Advice on Formatting Dialogue
Whether you choose to use standard dialogue format or something else, make sure you’re consistent. Once you select a way of formatting your dialogue, stick with it. Dialogue format is all about clarification. If you change formats, you muddle your reader’s experience: you defeat the purpose of your dialogue’s format. If your characters have one way of speaking, only use one dialogue format. If your characters can speak out loud and through their minds, use two different formats to show when their dialogue is out loud and when it isn’t.
Be consistent and remember what your dialogue’s format is doing for your story. It clarifies who is speaking and when, creates white space, and gives the impression of faster pacing for that page. Use dialogue and its format to Ignite Your Ink.
What non-standard dialogue formats have you used or read? Share them in the comments. For more information on the examples I used, click on the book’s image. Subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for more posts designed to help you transform your writing so it lingers with readers.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.