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For all dreamers who write and writers who dream

Punctuation in Dialogue. An earlier version was first published online at The Editors
Blog (theeditorsblog.net) 2010.
This version was also published as a chapter in The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words
into Story 2015.
Copyright 2015 by Beth Hill
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means
whatsoever without express written permission from the author. The exception
would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Although every precaution has been taken to verify the accuracy of the information
contained herein, the author assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions.
No liability is assumed for damages that may result from the use of information
contained herein.

Punctuation in Dialogue

NOWING THE ATTENTION this topic gets on my blog, I assume that

writers are keen to punctuate dialogue correctly. Yet apparently


punctuation in dialogue is one of the major bugaboos for writers. Still,
writers should know the rules. This knowledge will be especially important
if youll be the copyeditor for your own books. Unfortunately, corrections arent selfgeneratingsomeones got to go through the text line by line. If you know the rules
ahead of time, however, its likely youll merely be looking for typos or for options
for odd situations rather than trying to correct egregious errors.
Ive provided examples of common rules and practices, and recommend that you
read through them before you begin editing. Give yourself an idea of what the rules
are and what you should be looking for as you edit. And keep in mind the power of
consistency. You may get a rule wrong, but its better if you get it wrong in the
same way throughout a story. If you dont know how to punctuate a particular
condition, look for the information you lack. If you cant find the pertinent rule, at
least be consistent with what you decide to use. That is, dont try a comma in one
case and a semicolon in another and a period in another, not if the cases all meet
the same conditions.
While some writers might say that punctuation isnt as important as plot or
character development, most recognize that punctuation does affect the readers
impression of a story and his ease in getting through it.
Many readers follow punctuation just as easily as they do words, and if the
punctuation says something other than what you intend for it to say, you can
confuse the reader or pull him out of the fiction.
The punctuation rules and suggestions in this chapter are
specifically for dialogue; the same rules may not apply for other
text.
In general, these are rules for the use of both American English
(AmE) and British English (BrE). Where the two differ, I point out
the differences.
The rules are fairly straightforward, and the examples should serve most of the
situations youll write.

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IN GENERAL
Dialogue has its own rules for punctuation. Commas go in particular places, as do
terminal marks such as periods and question marks.
Only what is spoken is placed within quotation marks. Other parts of the same
sentencedialogue tags and action or thoughtgo outside the quotation marks.
Dialogue begins with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it starts.
(Interrupted dialogue, when it resumes in the same sentence, however, is not
capped.)
Only direct dialogue requires quotation marks. Direct dialogue is someone
speaking. Indirect dialogue is a report that someone spoke. The word that is
included or implied in indirect dialogue.
Direct: She was a bore, he said.
Indirect: He said [that] she was a bore.
You need quotation marks around the spoken wordsalways double quotation
marks in AmE; usually singles but sometimes doubles in BrE. Quotes within
dialogue get single quotation marks in AmE and doubles in BrE (or singles if the
dialogue uses double quotation marks).
Commas are important when you include dialogue tags. When the dialogue tag
comes before the dialogue, the comma that separates the tag from the spoken
words is outside the quotation marks. When the dialogue comes first, the comma is
inside the quotation marks. Other common punctuation found in dialogue are the
em dash and the ellipsis.
And thats it for the basics.
Lets look at a couple handfuls of examples that cover both common and unusual
dialogue punctuation.

SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE, NO DIALOGUE TAG, NO ACTION BEAT


The entire sentence, including the period (or question mark or exclamation point),
goes inside the quotation marks.
He loved you.
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SINGLE LINE WITH DIALOGUE TAG (ATTRIBUTION) FOLLOWING


The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and
comes before the closing quotation mark. A period ends the sentence. The
punctuation midsentence serves to separate the spoken words from other parts of
the sentence.
Because the dialogue tagshe saidis part of the same sentence, it isnt capped.
He loved you, she said.
Note: You may find that a few BrE style guides suggest putting
the comma outside the quotation mark if there would be no
comma in the quoted words without the dialogue tag, but that
practice is not always followed and is typically not followed with
dialogue in modern fiction. So even for novels for which you
follow BrE rules, keep this comma inside the closing quotation
mark.

SINGLE LINE WITH DIALOGUE TAG FIRST


The comma still separates the dialogue tag from the spoken words, but it is outside
the quotation marks, and the period at the end of the sentence is inside the
quotation marks.
She said, He loved you.

SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE WITH DIALOGUE TAG AND ACTION FOLLOWING


The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma follows the dialogue and
comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag is next and the action
follows the tagno capital letter because this is part of the same sentencewith a
period to end the sentence.
He loved you, she said, hoping Sue didnt hear her.
He loved you, she said, but she hoped Sue didnt hear her.
He loved you, she said, and hoped Sue didnt hear her.*
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He loved you, she said and hoped Sue didnt hear her.*
The action and dialogue tag can also come first.
Hoping Sue wouldnt hear, she said, He loved you.
Or you can put just the tag first and the action after the dialogue.
She said, He loved you, and hoped Sue didnt hear her.
* At least one source I read said that good grammar prohibits use of this
construction, yet another source I checked claimed that although this format
creates a problem with parallelism, writers could still make use of it. And fiction
writers use it frequently, both with and without the comma after the tag.

MULTIPLE LINES OF DIALOGUE SEPARATED BY NON-DIALOGUE


Full sentences of thought, action, or description can come between two complete
lines of dialogue. Treat each line of dialogue and the element that comes between
them as separate sentences. Each begins with a capital letter and ends with a
terminal punctuation mark.
He loved you. It was a truth my sister never understood. I
remember your excitement the first time he said the words.
He loved you. I shook my head, knowing Annie felt bad already.
I remember when he first told you.
A dialogue tag can be attached to one of the lines of dialogue. (There would be no
need for both to contain a dialogue tag.) The tag is separated from its dialogue by a
comma. The three sentences are still three full and separate sentences.
He loved you, I said. It was a truth Annie never understood. I
remember your reaction when he first told you.

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DIALOGUE INTERRUPTED BY DIALOGUE TAG


Dialogue can be interrupted by a tag and then resume in the same sentence.
Commas go inside the first set of quotation marks and after the dialogue tag (or
action following the tag).
He loved you, she said, but you didnt care.
He loved you, she said, hoping to provoke a reaction, but you
didnt care.
Separating this into two sentences also works. The first sentence will end with a
period and the second will begin with a capital letter.
He loved you, she said, hoping to provoke a reaction. But you
didnt care.
When a dialogue tag falls between two sections of dialogue, make sure the
sentence or sentences are punctuated correctly. If theres only one sentence
without the tag, there should be only one sentence with the tag. If there are two
sentences without the tag, there should still be two sentences when a tag is used.
My dog ran away last night. We finally found him at Grandmas
house.
My dog ran away last night, Ellie said. We finally found him at
Grandmas house.
My dog ran away last night, Ellie said, we finally found him at
Grandmas house. X
***
After we gave Rover a bath, he ran away.
After we gave Rover a bath, Ellie said, he ran away.
After we gave Rover a bath, Ellie said. He ran away. X

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QUESTIONS/EXCLAMATIONS, NO DIALOGUE TAG


Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks.
He loved you?
He loved you!

QUESTIONS/EXCLAMATIONS WITH DIALOGUE TAG


Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks when the
dialogue itself is a question or exclamation. They replace the comma when the
dialogue tag follows the spoken words. Even when the question mark or
exclamation point sits in the middle of the sentence, the dialogue tag that follows
doesnt begin with a capital letter since its part of the same sentence.
He loved you? she asked, the loathing clear in her voice and
posture.
He loved you! she said, pointing a finger at Sally.
He asked, What are you talking about?
Pointing a finger at Sally, she said, He loved you!

QUESTIONS AND EXCLAMATIONS IN THE SENTENCE BUT NOT THE DIALOGUE


When a sentence is a question or exclamation but the dialogue within the sentence
is not, the question mark and exclamation point go outside the quotation marks.
Can you believe he had the nerve to say, I paid for your
schooling, so you owe me alimony?
** See quote within dialogue paired with a question mark for a related
construction.

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DIALOGUE INTERRUPTED BY ACTION OR THOUGHT BUT NO DIALOGUE TAG


Characters can pause in their words to do something and then resume the dialogue.
If there is no dialogue tag, special punctuation is required to set off the action or
thought.
Enclose the first part of the dialogue in quotation marks (opening and closing) but
omit the comma. Follow the end quotation mark with an em dash and then the
action or thought and then another em dash. Resume the dialogue with another
opening quotation mark, complete the dialogue (the first word is not capped when
interrupted dialogue resumes), and end with a period and a closing quotation mark.
There are no spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the
dashes and the action/thought.
The spoken words are within quotation marks and the action or thought is set off by
the dashes.
He loved youshe pounded the wall with a heavy fistbut you
never cared.
He loved youat least she thought he hadbut you never
cared.
Compare this construction to a similar one without dialogue:
Hed forgotten all about memy heart ached at the thoughtbut
Id never forgotten him.
Be sure to interrupt at a logical/grammatical break point.
He lovedat least she thought he hadyou, but you never
cared. X

ACTION OR THOUGHT INTERRUPTED BY DIALOGUE


Admittedly, this format is rare. And in a full career of writing, you might never use
it. Still, you might find you need it.
Enclose the dialogue in quotation marks and separate the spoken words from the
rest of the sentence with em dashes.

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She crouched in front of the bottom cabinetIts in here


somewhere, I thinkand began pulling out junk.

QUOTE WITHIN DIALOGUE


A character may be speaking and also quoting what someone else has said.
Punctuation is necessary to indicate the difference between what the character is
quoting and his own words.
The entirety of what a character says is enclosed by double quotation marks. The
part the character is quoting from another person is enclosed by single quotation
marks. (BrE may use this format or may reverse the quotation marks, singles for
dialogue and doubles for the quote within the dialogue.)
When single and double quotation marks are side by side, put a space between
them. (This thin space is typically a smaller space than a character space.)
He said, and I quote, The mailman loves you.
He said, The mailman loves you. I heard it with my own ears.
If the character is quoting someone else but not speaking any of his or her own
words, use only the outer quotation marks. But for claritys sake, make sure
readers and other characters know that the character is quoting someone else.
What exactly did Monroe tell you? I need to know what he said,
not your commentary.
Patty studied Lilas expression. Then she crossed her arms, took
on Monroes slouch, and said, Lila wants more than I want. Shes
okay to hang around with, but I can feel the noose tightening.
Compare to
Patty studied Lilas expression. Then she crossed her arms and
took on Monroes slouch. He said, Lila wants more than I want.
Shes okay to hang around with, but I can feel the noose
tightening.
Indirect dialogue for a character quoting someone else would also work. Dont use
quotation marks for an indirect quote.

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He said the mailman loves you. I heard it with my own ears.


Direct and indirect dialogue emphasize different elements, so choose the one that
works best for what you want to convey.

**QUOTE WITHIN DIALOGUE PAIRED WITH A QUESTION MARK


Quotes within dialoguewith the quote, the dialogue, or both as a questionhave
their own rules. (Youll have two sets of quotation marks, and you must open and
close both of them.)
Only the quotation is a question
Put the question mark for the quotation inside all quotation marks. Use a thin space
between the single and double quotation marks.
He asked my name. And then he asked, Do you think your
mother would go out with me?
Only the dialogue is a question
Put the question mark between the two sets of closing quotation marks.
Do you think he was lying when he said, I lost my key and my
wallet?
Both the quotation and the dialogue are questions
Put the question mark (just one) inside all quotation marks. Use a thin space
between the single and double quotation marks.
Do you think he was serious when he said, Would you be upset
if I asked your mother for a date?
Some sources allow for two question marks in BrE in this last example. Yet one
question mark is sufficient.

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DIALOGUE ABRUPTLY CUT OFF


When dialogue is cut offthe character can no longer speak, something suddenly
diverts his attention, another character interrupts him, or he interrupts himself
use an em dash before the closing quotation mark. Dialogue can be interrupted
midword or at the end of a word. Consider the sounds of words and syllables before
deciding where to break the interrupted word: you wouldnt break the word there
after the T (t), because the first sound comes from the combined th (th).
He loved y
He loved you
How did it hap
How did it hap?
But I didnt tell Maisie she began.
These are all acceptable ways to punctuate interrupted dialogue. Personally, I dont
like the question mark because the question is unfinished. We dont include a period
for interrupted dialogue, so why include a question mark? The fact that the line of
dialogue would have been a question is quite clear.
I also dont particularly care for the explanation tacked on to the final example. Its
a legitimate option, yet readers can tell that the characters speech was
interrupted; theres no need to point out that fact. Still, this construction is used
often and you might have a need for it.
Dialogue abruptly cut off by another speaker
When a second speaker interrupts the first, one option is to use the em dash where
the first speakers words are interrupted and again where they resume.
He loved you
As if I could believe that.
for such a long, long time.

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But this isnt the only option. The first speaker might resume speaking at the same
point, but she might not.
He loved you
As if I could believe that.
Why do you always do that, jump in before I finish?
Dialogue abruptly cut off by the character himself
When a character cuts himself off, you have several options for what follows.
He can cut himself off and then begin doing something else, including thinking.
I told you I needed to s He slammed both fists to the table.
I told you I needed to s He suddenly remembered his sons
were listening.
He can cut himself off and then resume speaking without showing what interrupted
him. This construction is fairly uncommon.
I told you I needed to sNever mind.

DIALOGUE THAT TRAILS OFF


When dialogue trails offthe character has lost his train of thought, is overcome
with emotion, doesnt know what to say, or the writer wants to indicate hesitation
use the ellipsis. (Note that there is no space between the final ellipsis point and the
closing quotation mark in the first and fourth examples and no space after the
second opening quotation mark in the fourth example. Note too the capitalization of
some words immediately after the ellipsis. A capital letter indicates the beginning of
a new sentence.)
He loved you . . . A long, long time ago, she thought.
He loved you . . . He loves you still.
He was lost in the . . . lost in the mine.

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Id really wanted to be the one to do it, you know. To reach out


and . . . She wiped away a tear. . . . tell her what an angel her
mother was.
Dialogue that trails off and is followed by the dialogue of another character
before it resumes
Try something like this when you want a dreamy feel to the first characters
dialogue, as though shes unaware of the other character even speaking.
She wanted to tell you, but she . . .
I know. She didnt want to break my heart.
. . . she thought it would kill you.
Dialogue completed or continued by other characters
It was too bad, cause I really liked Mookie. The punk was . . .
. . . a lost soul . . .
. . . a squealer . . .
. . . a rat . . .
. . . a punky, squealing, rat, the boss said, summing up the
groups take on their unlamented former cohort.
Note1: In AmE, an ellipsis begins with a space, ends with a space, and has spaces
between each of the three points ( . . . ). However, an ellipsis that butts up against
a quotation mark loses the space closest to the quotation mark.
In BrE, there are typically no spaces between the ellipsis points, though there are
still spaces on both ends ( ... )
Note2: Use nonbreaking spaces in an ellipsis so the ellipsis doesnt break at the
ends of lines. In MS Word, use CTRL+SHIFT+SPACEBAR to create nonbreaking spaces.
(You can use Autocorrect to create an ellipsis with the proper spacing.)

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SHOWING ONE-SIDED DIALOGUE


To show that a character is speaking and listening to another when you dont want
to show the spoken words of both characters, use an ellipsis to indicate when the
second character is speaking.
This construction can make a sentence look like it contains a four-point ellipsis, but
the first point is actually the period at the end of the first characters words.
Because the first point is a period, it goes next to the last letter of the final word of
the sentence (no space).
Markie ran to answer the phone, but she sighed when she saw
her mothers name in the display.
Hi, Mom. . . . Just finishing breakfast. . . . No, he left a long time
ago. He had to take his car to the shop. . . . I wish youd told me
before so I couldve asked him. . . . No, I wont. if I ask now, hell
know you told me, so thats not gonna happen. . . . But,
Mom. . . . Okay, okay. Ill make it happen. Gotta go.

NAMES IN DIALOGUE
Always use a comma before and/or after the name (when a terminal punctuation
mark doesnt follow the name) when addressing someone directly in dialogue (even
if the name isnt a proper name). This doesnt mean you need a comma before or
after every name. Just the name of the character being addressed.
He loved you, Emma.
Emma, he loved you.
He loved you, honey.
He loved you, Emma, more than he loved Sally.
He loved you more than he loved, Sally. X

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MULTIPLE LINES OF DIALOGUE


Multiple lines of uninterrupted dialogue go within the same set of quotation marks.
Dont use separate quotation marks for each sentence.
You know she isnt one to spill her guts. But after three beers,
she told me all about her breakup with John. After a fourth beer,
she told me about her first marriage. After the fifth beer, she told
me about the body in the cellar.
You know she isnt one to spill her guts. But after three beers,
she told me all about her breakup with John. After a fifth beer,
she told me about the body in the cellar. X
For a paragraph with several sentences of dialogue, put the dialogue tag, if you use
one, at the end of the first sentence or at the end of a logical break within the first
sentence. The tags are for readers, to help them keep track of the speaker. A tag
lost in the middle or hiding at the end of the paragraph doesnt help the reader at
the top of the paragraph.
This isnt an absolute rule, of course. Sometimes the feel or rhythm requires a
different construction. But you can use this rule to keep your readers on track. If a
group of guys is talking, the reader might guess whos speaking, but theres
nothing wrong with helping out the reader.
Compare these two examples.
I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game. He
wasnt sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank God I dont have
to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for
me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I want. Yep, freedom,
Maxwell said. Nothing beats freedom.
I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game,
Maxwell said. He wasnt sure, said he had to ask his wife. Thank
God I dont have to ask permission of a wife. None of that ball
and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go where I want, when I
want. Yep, freedom. Nothing beats freedom.
If the speaker addresses two people at different times in the same paragraph of
dialogue, you can add a second dialogue tag or action beat if necessary to show

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that the speaker is talking to someone else. If you can make the change of focus
clear in the dialogue itself, try that first.
I wanted to know if James had planned to go to the game,
Maxwell said to me, finger pointing. He wasnt sure, said he had
to ask his wife. Thank God I dont have to ask permission of a
wife. None of that ball and chain stuff for me, no sir. I can go
where I want, when I want. Aint that right, Lucius? He turned to
our accountant. You and me, we dont have to put up with that
crap. Yep, freedom. Nothing beats freedom.

MULTIPLE PARAGRAPHS OF DIALOGUE


Dialogue may stretch across paragraphs without pause. To punctuate, put a
terminal punctuationperiod, question mark, or exclamation pointat the end of
the first paragraph. There is no closing quotation mark at the end of this paragraph.
Begin the next paragraph with an opening quotation mark.
Follow this pattern for as long as the dialogue and paragraphs continue. At the last
paragraph, use a closing quotation mark at the end of the dialogue.
He was my best friend. I told you that, didnt I? And then he
stabbed me in the back. Stole my wife and my future. I hated
him for that. Still do. Hate him bad.
But hes been punished, yes he has. He went to jail for
embezzling thousands. Not even millions, just thousands. Serves
him right, the petty crook. Hes just a petty man.

CHANGING SPEAKERS
Begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes.
She looked up at the man hovering over her. Id wanted to tell
you for years. I just didnt know what to say.
Weve been married for thirty-four years, Alice. You couldnt find
a way, in thirty-four years of living together and seeing each
other sixteen hours a day, to tell me you were already married?
Im sorry.

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Exception: There are reasons having to do with style when you


could include a back-and-forth dialogue between characters to a
single paragraph, but each speakers sentences would typically be
brief and you wouldnt want the paragraph to go on for too long.
Keep in mind your readers expectationsthey expect to find only
one characters words in a paragraph.

MIXING DIALOGUE WITH NARRATION IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH


Dialogue and narration can be placed into the same paragraph. If the narration
refers to a single character or is in the point of view of only one character, simply
add the dialogue. Dialogue can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of
the paragraph and the narration.
If the narration refers to several characters or you cant tell which character is the
focus of the paragraph, begin the dialogue with a new paragraph and a dialogue
tag. That is, dont make the reader guess whos speaking.
If the paragraph opens with a wide view of a group of people but then the focus
narrows to a single character, you could introduce that characters dialogue into the
end of that same paragraph. Or you could begin a new paragraph with the
dialogue. The key is to keep the reader in the flow of the story. Confusion over
dialogue will pull the reader out of the fictional world.
Rachael was a beautiful woman; shed been told so since the day
she turned sixteen. And at forty-two, she decided she was just
entering her prime. She stared at herself in the mirror, patted her
hair, and grinned at the man watching her reflection with her. I
still got it, dont I, baby?
He reached for her bare shoulders. And I love every inch of the
it youve got.
***
Rachael was a beautiful woman; shed been told so since the day
she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see
herself as the ingnue. Carl wanted to tell her she was now more
femme fatale than ingnue. And that was all right by him.
I still got it, dont I, baby? she asked his reflection.

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More than ever, honey.


***
Rachael was a beautiful woman; shed been told so since the day
she turned sixteen. At forty-two, she was determined to see
herself as the ingnue. Youre stunning, sweetheart, Carl said,
pausing by the dressing table. He wanted to tell her she was now
more femme fatale than ingnue, that she turned him on more
than she had as a younger version of herself. But Rachael was
not only beautiful, she was touchy. And being reminded of her
age wouldnt keep her happy.
Carl was all about keeping Rachael happy.
Simply stunning, he said again
Note: Dialogue tags can come before the dialogue, especially if
you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To hide them, put them
in the middle or at the end of sentences. You will typicallybut
not alwayswant the dialogue and not the attribution to stand
out.

INTERNAL MONOLOGUE
Characters both think and talk to themselves. To differentiate between spoken
words and thoughts, we put only spoken words in quotation marks. For thoughts,
there are a couple of options.
At one time almost all thought and inner monologuewith characters in thirdperson narratives directing words to themselveswas written in italics. Yet with the
use of deep POV, we have less need to use italics. Readers know that the character
is thinking or speaking to herself, so theres no reason to use italics or special
punctuation to highlight that fact. As is true for first-person narration, any thoughts
are attributed to the viewpoint character.
So
Denise pushed her way through the bolts of hideous cloth. Geez,
whoever chose those fabrics had a serious problem matching
colors.

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I pushed my way through the bolts of hideous cloth. Geez,


whoever chose those fabrics had a serious problem matching
colors.
This thought, in both first and third person, obviously belongs to the viewpoint
character/narrator. The thought requires no additional punctuation.
Use this construction in a story with a close narrative distance or to help create that
close distance.
Add a thought tag to create a greater narrative distance. (Theres no reason to
include a thought tag in first-person narration. Do use a thought tag for omniscient
to signal that readers are now getting a thought from a character rather than from
the omniscient narrator.)
Denise weaved her way through the bolts of ugly cloth. Whoever
chose those fabrics, she thought, had a serious problem matching
colors.
In a story with even greater narrative distance, you could use italics for thoughts.
Note, however, that the use of italics can become obtrusive. You may want to limit
italics to thought-talk directed at the character, when shes actually talking to
herself, not only thinking to herself.
You can switch to present tense and to first person for thoughts and internal
monologue in stories that use the past tense and third-person narration. This can
create a true feel of a character speaking to himself. Lets look at a few options.
#1 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. She must
have lost her mind.
This first example uses a close narrative distance. Its a common construction and
used often with deep POV.
#2 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. She must
have lost her mind, she thought.
Example #2, by using the thought tag, creates a greater narrative distance than
#1. Its also a common construction. The problem with this construction is that if
the viewpoint character really was thinking to herself, she wouldnt refer to herself
as she but as I.

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#3 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must have
lost my mind, she thought.
Its not as common to pair past tense and italics for thoughts (since one reason to
include thoughts is to show what the character is currently thinking), but a
character can refer to something from her past using this construction.
#4 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must be
losing my mind, she thought.
Example #4 creates greater narrative distance than example #1. This is a common
construction.
#5 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must have
lost my mind.
Because this example uses past tense for the thought, its not a common
construction, but its also not unheard of.
#6 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must be
losing my mind.
Using italics without a thought tag is common, and maybe increasingly so. This
construction is not as distancing as is #4 with its thought tag.
#7 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must be
losing my mind, she thought.
Using the thought tag without italics for the first-person present-tense thought used
to be an uncommon construction, but its being used more often. Still, that switch
to first person could be jarring for readers, at least the first couple of times it
happens.
#8 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved. I must be
losing my mind.
This first-person present-tense thoughtno italics or thought tagis still fairly
uncommon, but I have seen it used. Still, this is a construction that could definitely
confuse readers. Most writers would probably never use this construction.

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Beth Hill

#9 Nan studied the statue that couldnt have moved on its own.
Shed lost her mind. Knew it would happen one day.
This last example is a variation of #1.
The switch to present tense and first person for thoughts or self-directed dialogue
in third-person present-tense stories is most often paired with italics and/or with a
thought tag (#s 4, 6, and 7) so readers arent confused by the switch from third to
first or the switch from past to present.
Yet there is that seeming trendor maybe its just experimentationthat allows for
no tag and no italics while switching to first person present tense in a characters
thoughts (#8). But readers could become confused when narration switches from
past to present or a third-person story suddenly seems to flip to first person.
For a tight narrative distance, try option #1 (or the variation in #9). Allow thoughts
(in third-person narration) to flow with the rest of the text, without pausing to tell
or show the reader that the character is thinking or talking to herself.
If youre using or want to create a wider narrative distance, use italics or thought
tags or both.
If youre game to try them, give #7 or #8 a shot. Just make sure that you set up
the unusual style right from the beginning of the story so readers get used to it.
You may want to limit this option to stories with only a single viewpoint character
(or perhaps two).

TALKING MIND TO MIND


If youve got characters who can mind-talk with each other, thats another twist.
Try italics and thought tags for dialogue between minds. If you use italics for this
purpose, dont also use italics for a characters regular thoughts unless readers will
be able to differentiate between the two. Instead, use thoughts folded into the text,
as in examples 1 and 9, for the standard thoughts. Or if the distance created by a
thought tag doesnt matter, try pairing regular thoughts using examples 2 or 7 with
your italicized mind-talk.
The point here is that you want readers to instantly know whether theyre hearing a
characters thoughts directed to himself or to others who can also hear him. And
that means that you have to create different setups for each scenario.
We wont explore the conundrum of figuring out how characters can refrain from
broadcasting all their thoughts to other characters who can hear them. That is,

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Beth Hill

what mechanism do they use to shut off their thoughts so others dont hear
everything theyre thinking, only the thoughts directed toward the other character?
And what mechanism do they use to broadcast thoughts at the same time to all
others who can mind-talksomething similar to an old-fashioned telephone party
line? And if multiple characters can mind-talk, how does a character send thoughts
to only one of them without others overhearing?
And just how far can a mind-talker send his thoughts? Does the other character
have to be in the same room? The same building? The same time period?
And can the character receiving the thoughts block them, or must he interrupt what
hes doing, thinking, or saying to listen to the thoughts?
And how does the one sending the thoughts know that the other character received
them? How does that first character even know where to send the thoughts? How
does mind-talk travel to one particular mind-talker but not another? Are we
assuming something like IP addresses for each mind?
Definitely some thoughts to explore if your characters can speak mind to mind.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Be consistent with punctuation. Include choices and allowances in your style sheet
so that you and others working with your text follow the same rules throughout the
story. Establish rules for punctuation in dialogue from the very first spoken word.
Dont overwhelm readers with the overuse of italicsreading long sections of
italicized text is more difficult than reading roman text.

I hope that Punctuation in Dialogue proves useful for you. Many more writing and
editing tips can be found in the handbook The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into
Story.

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