Four rules for writing conversations #amwriting

In my last post, we talked about internal dialogues, or thoughts our characters may have. But what about that which is spoken aloud?

How to punctuate dialogue can be confusing for those who are just starting out. I will warn you—from the reader’s perspective, punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.

We obey traffic signals when driving, so we don’t cause wrecks. In the same way, our written work must abide by specific fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable—a wreck.

What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative. Therefore, punctuation is for the reader’s benefit. While we can take some liberties with grammar and dialect when writing conversations, following the established rules of punctuation is essential.

Many people are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not that complicated. Here are four rules to remember:

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m here,” she said.

Begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are called closed quotes. All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else as part of a conversation, you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

  • John said, “When I asked her, Grace replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • John said, “When I asked, Grace replied ‘I can’t go.’”

Note that in the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation.

  • When asked, John said Grace couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Grace.

Rule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” she said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the comma is separating two clauses, so it is placed after the tag and is not inside the quotation marks: She said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue that is split with the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story but happens sometimes in essays and when quoting speeches.

In the following example, I tried to include all four of the rules:

    “We’ve forgotten one important thing,” Jan said, “barbarian or southerner, we’re all descended from the Remnant. We are all Aeos’s people, barbarian, southerner, or midlands farmer.

    “During my vision quest,  she told me two important things I didn’t understand until now. ‘Build my clergy’ and ‘lead my people back to the path of righteousness.’ I thought she only meant that I should guide the tribes, but now I know her true plan.”

The things readers won’t forgive are what I think of as the seven deadly sins of dialogue, often committed when writing the first draft:

  1. The info dump: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  2. Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  3. Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
  4. Long, drawn out thoughts and ruminations that are a wall of italics.
  5. Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
  6. Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
  7. Erratic and amateurish punctuation.

Something else I’ve mentioned before: Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

These are the fundamental rules of the road that readers expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers leave comments on Amazon like, “one star, could not finish.” Those are reviews of the worst kind.

If you have more questions about punctuation, good answers can be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. This is a handy book I regularly refer back to whenever I have questions about grammar.


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7 responses to “Four rules for writing conversations #amwriting

  1. I grew up in a multilingual country, and yes, I totally agree that putting in translated words without knowing the nuances of the language is very off-putting to the actual speakers of the language. Thanks for this useful piece!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There is one thing that puzzles me in writing dialogue. If the spoken bit is separated by a dialogue tag, but is a complete sentence, do you put a full stop after ‘she said’, then begin with a capital for the next spoken sentence?
    Also, why not begin with a vebal tic? Manu people do, and it might be a characteristic of the speaker.
    Incidentally, I critiqued a work where the author put the comma after the quotes. I politely told him it was wrong, and he replied it was the way he did it and wasn’t going to change. He seemed not to realize that there are rules and you can’t just make them up.


  3. Hello Vivienne!
    Fist question: If the spoken bit is separated by a dialogue tag, but is a complete sentence, do you put a full stop after ‘she said’, then begin with a capital for the next spoken sentence? The answer is yes, if the spoken bits are complete, stand-alone sentences. “My son plays football,” she said. “It’s an expensive sport.”

    Second question: Two reasons should stop us from leading off with verbal tics. One reason is that they are unnecessary thinking sounds that don’t advance the story They take up space and fluff up the word count. Another reason is that they are extremely annoying to the listener in real life when a speaker habitually holds a conversation hostage by leading off with long, drawn out uuuummmms and aaahhhhhs and saying nothing. One thinking sound, once in while, is acceptable but for characters to make it a habit–I would avoid that.

    And oh my gosh, that author is in for a long road of “why can’t I sell my work?” Eventually, he will be forced to come around.