Dialogue: formalities and conventions, punctuation and formatting (tip 32) Reply

This is the first in a new series of tips, in which we’ll be focusing on dialogue. In this video, we’re starting with the formalities. Since the 18th century, conventions have developed for presenting speech in prose, and here’s everything you need to know.


Video transcript follows below:

Dialogue can be either quoted or reported.

Quoted speech records exactly what the speaker said: ‘I want to make love to you, on the chesterfield,’ said Miss Peewick.

Reported speech is a summary or paraphrase of what the speaker said. It doesn’t use quotation marks: She told him she wanted to do it on the Chesterfield.

In British and Australian publishing quoted speech is usually indicated with single quotation marks:

‘On the chesterfield, Miss Peewick? Now?’

In North American publishing it’s usually indicated with double quotation marks:

“Miss Peewick, my desire, too, is urgent. But I must first approach your father to ask–”

James Joyce called quotation marks ‘perverted commas’ and some writers have followed his practice of indicating speech with a dash:

– Oh, take me! Ravish me, she said.

Other writers don’t even use a dash, indicating spoken words only by capitalising the first letter of each utterance:

Bookman watched as Miss Peewick removed her bodice. I say, he said, What melons!

However you format it, dialogue must normally be set off with commas:

Miss Peewick looked at him and said [comma] ‘It seems you are feeling fruity, sir?’

‘My Dear Lady [comma]’ he said[comma] ‘why, I am as fruity as the man from Del Monte on his wedding night.’

Note that if a comma comes after dialogue then it is conventionally included before the quotation mark(s).

Dialogue deserves punctuation just like any other line. If the sentence is complete then use a full stop or question mark. If it’s incomplete, then it must either tail off (in which case, I suggest using an ellipsis) or be interrupted (in which case, I suggest using a dash):
‘When you say fruity, Sir, do you mean [dot dot dot]’
‘Yes! I’m positively seized with [dash]’

It’s normal to give a new line to each speaker:
‘And I too, Sir! May I, Sir, please hold your banana?’
‘My Lady, you may hold my banana; you may play with my plums!’
Kafka didn’t bother starting a new line for a new speaker, and neither does Jonathan Safran Foer, but you probably should.

Finally, it’s an odd convention that if a character’s speech extends over more than one paragraph, you shouldn’t close quotation marks at the end of a paragraph, but should reopen them at the start of a new one.
‘Why, your plums, Sir, are not at all how I imagined a gentleman’s plums to be. They seem, if I may be so bold, like plums that have been left too long in the sunshine.
‘And what am I to make of this banana?’ she continued. ‘It resembles more a button mushroom than any banana I have previously seen.’

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

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