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More Punctuation in Dialogue—A Reader’s Questions

March 22, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 22, 2011

Terry, a reader of the The Editor’s Blog, has asked a couple of specific questions about dialogue. Let’s take a closer look at her questions and some possible solutions. (I’ve edited her questions for space.)

I have been reading Dorris Lessing and Henry Miller. Both use multiple characters with dialogue in the same paragraph. Lessing often introduces them with a Semi-colon. I very much like what they are doing, but I don’t feel confident about my choices to do that in my own writing. And now I have this problem. I am writing some paragraphs in which a person is overhearing or taking in remarks from others. If I give them all a paragraph it feels like it gives them too much importance and makes them kind of stronger characters in the story. But I don’t want them in the story, they are a crowd of people, and I want the character to feel the general sentiment of the crowd.

He sat on the rooftop listening to them speak to the police. “He went that way,” the girl said. “He was fat,” another stated. “And ugly,” said another. “It was the most awful thing in the world.” “You should kill him.”

Anyway, this is just an example. Could you talk about both of these situations?


Great questions. Let’s look at the second first.

I agree with not wanting to give bit characters too much attention by giving each their own line of dialogue. The readers won’t see them again, and there’s no reason for them to have time, space, or attention. So . . .

Report the dialogue rather than having anyone speak it. Or maybe report most of it but let one line stand out as quoted dialogue.

He was on the rooftop, listening to the witnesses speak to the police. One claimed he went east, another called him fat, and yet another said he was ugly. One woman—older, he guessed, because of the tremor in her voice—said, “It was awful. You should kill him. Kill him dead.”

You can weave the character’s reactions through the indirect dialogue.

He rested on the rooftop, listening as the witnesses talked over one another to give their stories. One claimed he ran east down Pope Street, another said he went west and turned at the corner. One man said he was fat. Tommy patted the towels he’d stuffed under his shirt; worked every time. He frowned, however, when another man said he was uglier than his favorite mutt. And Tommy knew his eyebrows rose when he heard, “You gots to catch him and kill him, officers. Else no decent folks will sleep peacefully tonight.”

Use whatever fits the story to bring out even more from the character who is overhearing the conversation. Show his reaction to the dialogue.

Of course, you don’t need to include any of the details at all. Just report that the character heard others talking. This is a good technique if the character can’t see what’s going on. Also good if you just want readers to know what was happening without giving importance to what was actually said.

He crouched on the rooftop, hidden from the witnesses and cops gathered at the west side of the building. Damn, but they wouldn’t shut up, those busybodies giving descriptions of his looks and telling which direction he’d gone.

He crouched on the rooftop, unseen by the cops and witnesses standing outside the library’s side door. He really hated being seen when he did his business, but those blabbering idiots were actually helping him. They had the cops more confused than a hunting dog trapped between a rabbit hutch and a geese sanctuary.

If you want to keep it brief, just go for the basics.

He hid on the rooftop, listening and grinning as witnesses gave the cops conflicting descriptions of his size and clothing, and pointed them in three different directions.

In situations such as this, there’s no reason to describe the speakers or even quote their words. The reader doesn’t need to know who said what, only that certain words were said or that a conversation happened. I’d definitely go for indirect dialogue in such cases.

However, if you still want to quote them for some reason, you’ve got a few options.

You can group the dialogue as though you were presenting a set of quotes.

Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: “He went down that way and you can catch him if you run fast,” from a child; “His face was as ugly as his crime,” from a clearly not hysterical woman; and “I would’ve tackled him, except he had that gun, you know,” from a man. Probably the linebacker he’d noticed a little too late to halt his plans.

To me, this is visually busy and distracting and still gives too much emphasis to the speaker.

A simpler option . . .

Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: he went down Jinzer Avenue; his face was butt ugly, covered in scars and stuff; that loser was one fat, really fat, dude; you got to catch him now, officer.

No, I didn’t use quotation marks. This construction suggests that the character is overhearing bits and pieces and that the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter and/or isn’t known. It can also be used to signify that the hearer isn’t catching every word. This use of italics rather than quotation marks is a stylistic decision. One I would recommend you don’t use often. But it can be effective for just this kind of dialogue. Think of a character walking through a party, overhearing snippets of conversation.

We always want clarity for the reader, so make sure the reader won’t be tripped up by unusual punctuation or constructions. Focus on elements that are important for the reader to notice and present those elements clearly.

What does dialogue do to the character?

Also, as is always good, you can show how dialogue affects the character. Overheard dialogue only means something as it means something to the one who hears it. Consider showing the character’s feelings or actions from these overheard words.


Now to Terry’s first concern, a variation of the second one.

Although many books written some time ago did permit multiple speakers in a single paragraph, such is not the norm today. Readers expect all the dialogue in a paragraph to come from one speaker.

The writers Terry mentioned did write late into the twentieth century, but they also learned the rules much earlier. Their choices might merely reflect the rules they knew. You’ll find that most writers today will separate character dialogue into multiple paragraphs.

Are there exceptions? Always. And we’ve seen some here. But writers are creating a world and experiences for the reader. We don’t want to cause a reader to stutter or have to reread a paragraph. Any time the reader is confused, he’s taken a step away from the fictional world. There’s no reason to distract him with odd constructions, to make him think, “Huh?”

If characters are having a normal conversation (if that’s possible in fiction), there’s no reason to jar the reader with oddities on the formatting side. Sentence construction and punctuation serve the story; they shouldn’t detract from it.

Again, having said that, of course you can try novel ideas. Just realize they might not suit your reader. And your first reader may be an acquisitions editor at a publishing house or someone at an agent’s office. Instead of assuming you’re trying something special for your story, she may instead assume you simply don’t know the rules of writing dialogue. Breaking the rules could be a gamble.

As for introducing dialogue with a semicolon? I can’t see the purpose for that. A colon, yes. A colon can substitute for a comma to introduce dialogue or quoted material. A semicolon, however, is not the punctuation for that purpose. You can use a semicolon to separate elements within a sentence. You don’t use it to introduce those elements.

Keep in mind that the using the colon to introduce dialogue is a bit old-fashioned; your younger readers might not understand it. Just something to be aware of if you do choose to go that route. You might want to restrict the colon’s use of introducing quoted material to non-fiction writing; you’ll find it to be more common there. (But it is valid for fiction, so feel free to use it.)

Note: I don’t make it a practice to tell writers that they absolutely can’t do something; writers often find their greatest moments of creativity when they break the rules. But the rules exist because they work. They work for the writer, the reader, and for the piece of writing. They allow the writer to communicate in a way the reader can understand. So . . . Learn the rules. Use them. Play with them if you want to. Break them when doing so serves the story. But remember the reader. Put yourself in his shoes. Look through his eyes. And write accordingly.


I hope these examples and explanations answer Terry’s questions and help anyone else wondering about these issues.

If you’ve got a comment, something to add, please share it with us.



Tags:     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

56 Responses to “More Punctuation in Dialogue—A Reader’s Questions”

  1. Thank you for your help. Here’s a question I can’t find an answer to anywhere: In a work of fiction, if a character is listening to a TV or radio broadcast, how should the broadcast be punctuated and formatted? What if a direct conversation is happening simultaneously–i.e., the reader is reading the quoted dialogue interspersed with the broadcast playing in the background?
    The author will likely use italics for internal dialogue (without quotation marks). Would it make sense to set all TV and radio dialogue in italics as well? The snippets are too brief and numerous to set as block quotations. Again, thanks for whatever guidance you can offer.

  2. Karen, I don’t know that there’s a standard for such a situation. A couple of options—

    Yes, use italics as you’ve suggested. But keep the TV and radio dialogue brief.

    Or, use quotation marks to indicate someone really is talking, even if they’re not the main characters.

    For both options, you’ve got to show that this dialogue is in the background. Make sure the TV or radio words identify the speaker as someone other than the scene’s characters.

    Make sure you really have to include radio or TV voices. If you do, make the words reveal information and/or agitate the characters. That is, really put that distraction to work.

    As for the specifics, use the ellipsis to show unheard parts of that background dialogue.


    “Shh. I want to hear this.” CeCe pushed Theo away and leaned toward the television.

    ” . . . from the minimum security facility. He had just been released from the infirmary when guards reported they couldn’t find him.”

    Theo laughed. “Didn’t know the old guy had it in him. Look, honey. There’s that photo of him that your mother hates so much.”

    ” . . . and will be checking homes in the area. This is . . .”

    CeCe covered her head with a pillow.


    Sure that she’d won, CeCe was trying to catch the winning lottery numbers. But Ellie Marie wouldn’t stop talking. CeCe nudged the sound up. Ellie Marie nudged herself up.

    “And then Tim reached for the straw—at the same time I did. Can you believe it? He . . .”

    . . . that ninety-five million dollar jackpot coming up. Stay tuned . . .

    Ellie Marie grabbed hold of CeCe’s knee. ” . . . before I could answer! I was amazed. And then he kissed me. He kissed me, CeCe. Right there in the parking lot.”

    “Wait. What? How did that happen?”

    Ellie Marie locked her hands to CeCe’s face. “I just told you! We were in the parking lot and . . .”

    . . . and that’s the winning combination for tonight. Good luck and keep playing.


    You could use something like this in the background, but again, keep it brief and make it work in a couple of ways.

    I hope that helps.

  3. Temple Wang says:

    What about a situation opposite from this? I have an important scene conveying some vital information by two secondary characters. The point of view character is observing the scene playing out in a courtyard below. He is close enough to hear the conversation and see the action and facial expressions. The technique I am using is to play the scene out normally between the two secondary characters generally as if they are the only characters. The point of view stays with the hidden character. From time to time, I want to shift to the point of view character’s reactions to what he is hearing, as the news is a revelation and key to the following penultimate scene. To highlight these interventions of the POV character’s thoughts, I am considering putting them in italics.

    Also, the POV character is the step-brother of one of the secondary characters. The other secondary character is their father. Following is an example that I am not sure how to address.

    [following is mid-dialogue between the two secondary characters — a father (James) and son (Mark). Bill is the POV character, off-scene]:

    Rigid with rage, his face flushed purple, James shouted, “What are you going to do now!”

    Mark looked at his father. “Calm down, Pop. Your blood pressure.”

    (In italics) Bill had never seen his father so angry. Judging from Mark’s reaction, he’d not been so fortunate.

    1. 95% of a long chapter of mostly dialogue between the two secondary characters is interrupted periodically by observations from an off-scene observer who is the 3rd person POV character. Is the idea of putting these brief interjections of the POV character’s thoughts in italics reasonable?

    2. When Mark “looked at his father,” should that be “looked at their father?” I would rather not do this, as it occurs often and I am trying to keep the scene locked in on the two secondary characters as tightly as possible, except for the planned interruptions.

    Thank you

  4. Temple, Bill is the viewpoint character, even if the scene centers around two other characters. So what takes places is relayed through him, just as any other events or dialogue would be if the viewpoint character wasn’t hidden. In this way, you get the opportunity to show his reactions.

    So there’s no need for italics for the line about Bill’s thoughts. The strength of having him as the viewpoint character is that you get to show his reactions to what he overhears. Make sure you take advantage of that and show his emotions and/or reactions to what he hears and sees. He’s still the viewpoint character, so his responses need no unusual punctuation. But his reactions should be vital to the scene.

    As for “looked at his father,” yes, that should be “looked at their father.” You wouldn’t want to act as if you’d switched viewpoint characters when you hadn’t.

    If you don’t want to accentuate Bill’s presence in every reference, write around it. This would be easier if one character wasn’t his dad, of course, if he was instead a character Bill could call by name. But there are options.

    Mark shook his head. “Calm down, Pop.”
    Mark grinned. “Calm down, Pop.”
    Mark lifted his head.
    Mark crossed the room.
    Mark lifted his beer.
    Mark offered his trademark reply.
    Mark looked at the old man (or some other phrase the men use to refer to their father).
    Mark’s eyes narrowed.
    I hope this helps.

  5. Barb Dennis says:

    My question/comment has to do with dialogue tags. Take this example: “I do not like where this conversation is headed.” Chris coughed, shuffling her papers. Is this correct or incorrect? or “I do not like where this conversation is headed,” Chris coughed, shuffling her papers.

    Is taking action after speaking a new sentence not be punctuated with a comma, as it is with a dialogue tag?

    Is this true: Commas can precede an action, but only when it interjects a sentence of dialogue as stated above in the example(s). Or, if you introduce the tag before the dialogue: “This here,” Miss Jones points to the easel, “is the correct punctuation.”

    I’ve seen similar examples in written dialogue and would like to get a definitive answer.

    Thank you.

  6. Barb, in your first example, use a period and not a comma between dialogue and action. Otherwise readers will take the action as a dialogue tag. But since people can’t cough words, that wouldn’t work. So this one is correct: “I do not like where this conversation is headed.” Chris coughed, shuffling her papers.

    For the second example, use dashes to separate dialogue (dialogue without a tag) that’s interrupted by action. So this would be correct: “This here”—Miss Jones points to the easel—“is the correct punctuation.”

    In this situation, the commas aren’t a strong enough separation. What you’re actually doing is setting off the action, much as you would a parenthetical element set off with dashes. There are no commas in this construction, and no spaces between words and quotation marks or quotation marks and dashes or dashes and words.

    For either of your examples, you could combine action with a dialogue tag. That would get a different setup. “This here,” Miss Jones says, pointing to the easel, “is the correct punctuation.”

    I hope this helps.

    Check out the article Punctuation in Dialogue for more specifics on these kinds of issues.

  7. Kevin says:

    I have the same type of problem as Barb in not knowing if I should use a period or comma when using action before and after dialogue.

    Here’s my example.

    “Okay I’m out of here.” Jane turned and walked away.


    Jake found his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “I think my wife’s in there.”

    In the first piece of dialogue I put a period at the end, then used action. Would this be correct?

    In the second example I put the action before the speech and used a period to separate it. Would this also be correct?


    • Kevin, the punctuation is correct for both examples. The dialogue and the action are two separate elements and can’t be joined by a comma. If a dialogue tag was included, that would be a different construction and you’d need at least one comma. But as it is, you simply have two sentences—one line of dialogue and one of action. Look at them as simply two complete sentences on their own.

      (Do put a comma after okay, however.)

      • Kevin says:

        Hi Beth

        Thanks for coming back to me so quickly.

        And apologies for the lost comma after ‘okay’.

        Darned comma’s have mastered hide and seek

  8. Temple Wang says:

    I am curious how the punctuation in instances where the dialogue is intended rather than stated. A couple of simple examples to illustrate:

    1. He wanted to say, “Get out,” but couldn’t muster the courage. Instead, he motioned toward the sofa. “Please have a seat.”
    2. In his mind, he heard his own voice say, “Get out,” but what came from his lips was, “Please have a seat.”
    3. “Get out.” But the voice he heard was in his head. He motioned to the sofa. “Please have a seat.”

    Are the quotes required in the non-stated dialogue? What about putting the non-stated dialogue in quotes instead?


    • Temple, you’ve hit on a place where you can get creative.

      Typically we reserve quotation marks for spoken words, but you’ve given us a twist.

      For your first example I’d use italics—nothing is said, so the quotation marks aren’t needed. And then the words in italics would stand in contrast to the actual spoken words at the end of the paragraph. Yet there is no true prohibition against using quotation marks in such an instance.

      For the second example, I think I’d also go with italics, though quotation marks would be quite acceptable and might be my choice depending on what else is happening in the scene.

      For the third, I’d go with italics. They’d be a visual indication that the words had not been spoken. However, quotation marks could indicate that he hears the words, even if they are in his head. The choice of quotation marks could imply that he actually hears the words, and that might create the exact feel you want for the scene.

      Other considerations would include how often such wording is used, how often the characters think to themselves—will there be a lot of self-talk that requires italics? You wouldn’t want too much use of italics.

      A great question that shows that writing rules are fluid and can do much to create effects and tones and the little differences that can make a story unique.

      • Temple Wang says:

        Great feedback. Thanks again.

      • Temple Wang says:

        Okay, I have another situation that is related, but still different. In my story, I have a mother and son with a strained relationship. Both of them are uncommunicative as a rule, but even more so when they are forced to be alone together. I have some chapters in which the son is the POV character, others in which the mother has the POV. In their respective POV chapters, we are frequently in their minds, which I am accustomed to writing. However, I do have a single, short “conversation” in which I would like to have them “exchange” a few thoughts without violating the POV. I have set this scene up in the son’s POV, so I am in his head and free to “think his dialogue.” To keep this short, I’ll give you a hypothetical exchange that is all thoughts of the son and thoughts of the mother (as perceived by the son, who has become a proficient reader of his mother’s eyes and body language, and has been through enough of these kinds of conversations to know what she’s thinking).

        Joe glowered at his mother. What would you know about it? he thought.
        Her eyes watched him lift the cigarette to his lips. The eyes said, I’ve lived through it. Why wouldn’t I know?
        It’s not the same for a man.
        It’s worse for a woman.

        And so on……

        Would you just keep the thoughts (and the attributed thoughts) all in italics?

        Thanks again.

        • Temple, it looks like you have a great approach. Some characters do know one another well (or at least think they do) and can attribute thoughts to them.

          But I think you’re asking specifically about italics for the thoughts? If you’ve been italicizing thoughts, then yes, that would be the same. So—

          Joe glowered at his mother. What would you know about it? he thought.

          Her eyes watched him lift the cigarette to his lips. the eyes said, I’ve lived through it. Why wouldn’t I know?

          I’m not sure who’s thinking or saying the next two lines. It may be harder to convince readers that characters can continue a long conversation in their heads without interrupting with spoken words.

          If those last two lines are his and then hers, you may have to give him another line to help the reader understand what’s going on, that back and forth that’s taking place only in their heads but as read through his thoughts.


          And then if he said it’s not the same for a man, she would say it’s worse for a woman, her standard response to everything.


          If you’d already set up this pattern, such a back and forth in the mind might work without this extra detail. Yet ultimately it’s only going to be one character’s thoughts. While we think we know what someone’s thinking, we can never be really sure. This is one way to get a character’s thoughts when he isn’t the POV character, but it has limitations.


          Keep in mind that you don’t want page after page or paragraph after paragraph of italics. They are simply harder for a reader to read.

  9. Tracy Riva says:

    I have a question. What would be the correct way to punctuate the following:

    “I just put Lily down for her nap and came out to find April on the porch. She hasn’t said one word.” He paused. “Has Jacob said anything to you yet?”

  10. Barb Dennis says:

    I have a further question regarding using a comma after a terminal ellipsis or a voice trailing off in dialogue. I’ve seen this used a few times in fiction and thought that the writer was mistaken. What is the accepted way to show the voice trailing off ellipses at the end of the dialogue?

    “Chris, this has been a nightmare for me, I can’t . . .,”

    [New narrative starts]

    I’ve also seen a comma used in the middle of a sentence, then starting new dialogue —

    Chris was becoming more agitated,

    “Annie, I’ve told you a number of times not to call me on this line.”

  11. Barb, no comma for your first example if that’s how the sentence ends. If a dialogue tag follows, CMOS shows the comma. So two examples without the comma—

    “Chris, this has been a nightmare for me. I can’t . . .”

    “I understand, honey.”
    “Chris, this has been a nightmare for me. I can’t . . .” She lowered her head.

    “I understand, honey.”

    But with the comma—

    “Chris, this has been a nightmare for me. I can’t . . .,” Mary said.

    “I understand, honey.”

    I’d suggest writing the example with the dialogue tag another way, leaving the trailing dialogue as the last word/image.

    “Chris,” Mary said, “this has been a nightmare for me. I can’t . . .”

    “Chris, this has been a nightmare for me,” Mary said. “I can’t . . .”


    For your second example, there is no reason to ever end a sentence with a comma; a sentence ends with a terminal punctuation mark or it trails off with an ellipsis or is cut off with an em dash.

    Combining narration and dialogue into a single sentence, which is what is indicated by the comma, requires a dialogue tag*. And the parts of the sentence would be on the same line, not in separate paragraphs. Narrative and dialogue not in the same sentence can be in the same or separate paragraphs, and the choice would depend on a variety of factors.

    Options for your example—

    Chris was becoming more agitated. “Annie, I’ve told you a number of times not to call me on this line.”
    Chris was becoming more agitated.

    “Annie, I’ve told you a number of times not to call me on this line.”
    Chris was agitated enough to say, “Annie, I’ve told you a number of times not to call me on this line.”

    I think I addressed your questions, but if not, let me know.

    *A line of dialogue can be interrupted by narration using a different sentence construction, no dialogue tags or commas involved.

    “Annie, I told you a dozen times”—he banged on his desk—“not to call me on this line.”

  12. Ann Simas says:

    What is the rule of thumb for punctuating and capitalization in dialog when part of a word or greeting is omitted. For instance:

    “‘Morning, kid.” or “‘morning, kid.”

    “‘Afternoon, Mrs. Smith.” or “‘afternoon, Mrs. Smith.”

    “‘Fraid so, mister.” or “‘fraid so, mister.”

    When the word is at the beginning of a sentence, do you capitalize it after the apostrophe, or do you use lower case because of the implied but missing capital letter?

    Thanks for the assist!

    • A great question, Ann.

      Capitalize the first letter of the first word, even after an apostrophe. Unless the sentence is one that’s been interrupted and is being resumed—which would be readily identified by an ellipsis or em dash—sentences begin with capital letters. The first letter—whether the a in afraid or the f in fraid—is still the first letter.

      Look at it this way—the apostrophe is showing that a letter has been removed, but that rule doesn’t change the rules about how we construct sentences. The word the character is speaking is fraid, so that’s the word that should be capitalized.

      You were exactly right calling this a rule of thumb rather than a written rule. While a rule covering such a situation may exist in some punctuation book, I couldn’t find anything about it in any source. Based on the practice of other writers, go with the capital letter.

      • Ann Simas says:

        Thanks for your prompt reply–and the clarification. I’ve always used a capital, but someone questioned me on it recently and my only answer was “just because.” When I researched it, I couldn’t find a source anywhere to confirm or deny. I like your justification and I will keep on using the capital!

  13. Kevin says:

    Hi Beth

    When writing dialogue is it appropriate to use a semi-colon to separate parts of dialogue or should it always be a comma. My example is below.

    ‘How you’ve remained the same, Janathen, ever since we were boys. You, the confident one; master of everything you touched. And myself, a child who wanted to be like his brother, who looked up to him, even through the pain and the tears.’

    • Kevin, semicolons are appropriate for dialogue, so feel free to use them when necessary. Your example, however, doesn’t require a semicolon—a comma is sufficient. The two major uses of semicolons are to separate/join independent clauses and to help with clarity for lists and series whose elements are already separated by commas.

      Using some of your own words, something such as the following example could be written with a semicolon (or written as two sentences). I’m not suggesting you change your sentence to this, just using it as an example of the semicolon in action.

      ‘You were the master, the confident one; I was merely the acolyte.’

      On a different issue, you may want to reconsider the use of myself. Me is grammatically correct and perfectly acceptable. However, people do use myself in this manner and if your character would, then do so. But the same character just used you rather than yourself, so using me rather myself would match.

      • Kevin says:

        Hi Beth

        Thank you very much for your response and advice.

        The dialogue is part of a chapter, and I got a little confused over the use of a semi-colon. Comma’s are my weakest punctuation point, so your advice is much appreciated.

        • My pleasure, Kevin. Both commas and semicolons are tough. In fiction, most of the time you’ll go with a comma.

          • Kevin says:

            Hi Beth

            Could I impose and ask about the ‘dash’.

            I like using this to add a bit of flair to the sentence. But, I’m sometimes conflicted. Should I use bracketing comma’s or use the dash?

            Here’s my (working) example.

            There was no moon. Just glimmering stars pulsing in time with the rhythm of thousands of Cicadas shrieking as a car — with its engine and lights switched off — coasted silently to a stop.

            Thanks Beth

  14. Kevin, the use of a pair of em dashes there works well. Setting the text off with dashes draws attention to those words, and is a visual hint that the words between the dashes are a digression or additional information.

    Deciding on commas, parentheses, and dashes for such interruptions can be tough—and there are rules—but getting into the rules and suggestions would require an article of its own. (Perhaps I’ll write one sometime soon.)

    In your example you want the details about the car to stand out, which is why you set them off. Dashes serve this purpose well.

    Brackets—in AmE, parentheses—are often used in fiction for asides. Think of a first-person narrator or a third-person character in a story with deep POV remarking on something another character said and then adding a comment out of the side of his mouth. Parentheses work great in such circumstances. The character isn’t really saying the words, but we understand that he’s thinking them.

    That’s just one use of parentheses, but it’s a common one in fiction.

    All three choices allow you to include digressions and explanations inside a sentence, but the effect is different for each.

    Commas are seen as being the least intrusive, dashes as the most. Personally, however, I find parentheses intrusive, as though the character/narrator/author is stopping the story to wink at me and ask if I’m catching on. I only feel this way with parentheses in fiction; I assume the author is speaking directly to me in nonfiction works.

    Here are some possibilities using your example to show you the feel and rhythm you can create. Each has strengths and weaknesses; I didn’t feel there was a good way to use parentheses here. I still like the one with the dashes best.

    Just glimmering stars pulsing in time with the rhythm of thousands of cicadas as a car coasted silently to a stop a dozen yards away.

    Just glimmering stars pulsing in time with the rhythm of thousands of shrieking cicadas as a car with its engine and lights off coasted silently to a stop.

    Just glimmering stars pulsing in time with the rhythm of thousands of shrieking cicadas as a car—engine and lights switched off—coasted silently to a stop.

    The info contained in the dashes can set up an ominous feel because we know why people turn off engines and car lights. That little detail, presented in such a manner, is enough to stir up tension. And dashes allow you to point to information in this way without it seeming as if you’re shouting that information.

    Since I’m guessing that you’re probably looking for more on the differences between the choices, I’ll have to get started on an article. But does this help for now?

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Beth

      Excellent explanation again. Thank you.

      I do like the Em dash as it does draw a lot of attention to what’s going on.

      Also I took your advice on reference books and bought three you’ve listed, and one — Grammatically Correct — arrived this morning. On a quick flip through I can see why you recommend it.

      • Grammatically Correct is a great book. Easy to understand and easy to find info you need. It doesn’t have every answer, but it has a lot. And you can actually sit down and read it like a book.

  15. In my view, dialogue cannot be sighed or nodded, but to separate it from the dialogue sounds stilted. What is your opinion on the following examples?

    “Thanks,” he nodded. – or – “Thanks.” He nodded.

    “I don’t know what to do,” she sighed. – or – “I don’t know what do to.” She sighed.

    I need to keep the author’s voice.


  16. Darlene, I agree that physical actions and dialogue are two separate events. Characters definitely can’t nod dialogue. As for sighing it, many writers have characters sighing or sobbing or screaming dialogue. Some genres allow for such dialogue tags while others take a hard stand against them.

    I’ve got a couple of articles you may want to check out—Use and Misuse of Dialogue Tags and Another Take on Dialogue Tags.

    As for your specific questions—

    “Thanks.” He nodded.

    “Thanks,” he said, nodding.

    He nodded his thanks.

    These all work.

    “Thanks,” he nodded. XX

    This one doesn’t work. The spoken words and the action of nodding cannot be joined/separated by only a comma.

    “I don’t know what do to.” She sighed.

    This definitely works. No question that this is acceptable in any genre.

    “I don’t know what to do,” she said with a sigh.

    “I don’t know what to do,” she said, sighing.

    Sighing, she said, “I don’t know what to do.”

    These also work.

    “I don’t know what to do,” she sighed.

    This one is more difficult. People do not sigh words, they speak them. Yet many writers do use sigh as a dialogue tag, and it is acceptable for some genres, particularly romance. YA as well.

    I try to discourage writers from using sigh and similar words as dialogue tags, but sometimes a single unusual tag can be the perfect addition to a scene.

    And I don’t recommend sticking to the rules just because they are rules and rules should never be broken. But the rules are there for a reason, to help us craft strong sentences that allow us to communicate easily and quickly with readers. If following the rules makes for a more powerful story, a more understandable story, that’s what I’m going to encourage.

    I don’t think that adding a period in place of a comma would adversely affect a writer’s voice any more than correcting a misspelled word would affect it. Readers will see the word sighed, see the word nodded. Usually that will be sufficient to convey the writer’s meaning and tone and mood in instances such as these.

    But if the writer wants the characters sighing dialogue, have them sigh it—with some restrictions. (You wouldn’t want them sighing every other line. And you wouldn’t want them always screaming and smiling and whistling their words.) Point out to the writer the reasons why most creative dialogue tags don’t work, how the actions combined with talking are often impossibilities and how using a great variety in dialogue tags marks a writer as a novice.

    Remind the writer that it’s the dialogue itself, and not the tags, that should draw the reader’s focus

    Way more than you wanted, I’m sure. I hope it’s helpful.

  17. Thank you so much for your detailed message. It was definitely not more than I wanted!

    You confirmed my thoughts and what I have said to authors in my editing comments. I felt a need for a second opinion to ensure I wasn’t being too “technical”.

    I work with many novice authors and dialogue tags are one of the most common issues that require clarification and correction. And, yes, a lot of sighing occurs in manuscripts.

  18. Rebecca says:

    I would like to know how to punctuate speech when narration pertaining to another character (not the character speaking) interrupts the dialogue. Do I use a new line for the narration and another new line for the continued dialogue? And, if so, do I need a dialogue tag to establish that the same character is still speaking or is it obvious? I would be grateful for your help!


    Matthew leaned against the bedframe and draped an arm around Sophie. “I’m surprised you never learned.” She shot him a quizzical glance. “Given your upbringing. Your parents sound quite… traditional,” he euphemised.

    • Rebecca, my apologies for not responding earlier.

      I’ve seen many paragraphs just like this one in published books; it’s obviously an accepted practice. Yet it’s potentially confusing for the reader. In your example, I’m assuming Sophie is the viewpoint character. She’s reporting what Matthew is doing and his dialogue is attached to his action—those two elements are often joined in a single paragraph, although they could be separated into two paragraphs.

      But then there’s an action of Sophie’s that follows. While we can easily combine the actions of two characters in a single paragraph, once dialogue is added, that paragraph typically becomes the “property” of the speaker and the actions of another character wouldn’t belong. So the line about Sophie’s glance should properly be in a paragraph of its own, with an additional paragraph for Matthew’s next line of dialogue. Separating the different character responses into different paragraphs would always be considered correct and would ensure that readers don’t get confused. And yet . . .

      This practice is ignored in instances just like the one you’ve included as an example. So while you would want to go with separating the responses most of the time, you could argue for exceptions. Just do so with the reader in mind—can she follow easily or is there a chance for confusion.

      A great question.

  19. Pops says:

    Hello, Beth Hill

    I’ve just stumbled across your site, and very impressive it is too – bookmarked for future reference. Okay, enough sweet-talk; I am in search of an answer. In fiction, is it appropriate to use a colon within the dialogue? For example:

    “Fat barrel,” John offered in a bid to revive her smile. “But no, my earlier conviction about his involvement has waned now that I’ve had time to reconsider Bill’s opinion more dispassionately. He was right about one thing: Smith would have been hammering on my door the second he had those photographs in his fat fists.”


    • Love the sweet talk, Pops. Thanks.

      Yes, if the sentence calls for a colon, you can use it. Even in dialogue. Some dialogue is even introduced by a colon.

      That’s the short answer.

      The long answer is that unusual punctuation can slow the read in a novel. For this reason, some teachers of fiction and other experts suggest that writers not include semicolons, colons, or even ellipses very often. Yet each punctuation mark serves particular needs and sentence constructions better than other punctuation marks. If you need what a particular punctuation mark does, then use that punctuation.

      A colon used as it is in your example would be nothing new to readers. It follows an independent clause and promises that what follows is that one thing that Bill was right about. This is an acceptable use of the colon.

      You could, however, use a dash just as easily. It would be acceptable and serves the same purpose.

      I hope that helps.

  20. Ty Strange says:

    Nice article. I had just finished writing a scene about five guys out doing their Sunday morning run together, and wondered how best to handle their conversation when I found this thread. After a few different attempts the smoothest format for this scene seems to be without any dialogue tags, or just with a few key ones here and there. Each line of dialogue is written so that the reader knows who said it based on the voice of the character. By omitting the tags it reads much faster and is much funnier, which is the intent of the conversation; the tags slow things down and breaks the cadence I am going for. And, after a while I also realized that who said what is not nearly as important as the over all theme of the discussion going on.

    Anyway, great article!


    • Ty, you brought out an important point—the needs or purpose of any section of text may trump general rules. Your needs—speed and humor and probably the dizzying feel of a mishmash of responses—are more important than the knowledge of who said what.

      Not including dialogue tags to point out who spoke when could also be an acknowledgement that the viewpoint character doesn’t know who said what, that he wasn’t keeping up with that detail and was instead simply trying to follow the fast-flowing comments. You could always add a line from the viewpoint character—or even another character—asking who said a certain thing, showing that the characters had caught what was said but not who said it. You don’t have to include such a comment, but it is an option.

      I’m glad you found a solution that worked for your situation. That’s one part of the creative in creative writing, adapting rules for the unusual circumstances.

  21. Bobby says:

    Beth –

    One more tough one, if you don’t mind.

    In a memoir where a musician is recalling his initial exposure to a particular slang he’s fond of using, he mentions three random quotes. We currently have each of the quotes separated by a comma, but wanted to see where you might land on the issue. (Again, we’re using CMOS.) Here are the two sentences after his initial set-up of the slang, “Holmes:”

    I believe this word might have originated in the Latino community back in the sixties, but my exposure to it came in the early eighties as the only white member of a hard-rocking funk band back in Houston’s fifth ward. “What’s the word, Holmes?”, “Hey, Holmes, what time are you splittin’?”, “You played your (tail) off tonight, Holmes!”, and so forth.

    We considered letting the three quotes stand alone as individual sentences, but then there’s the “and so forth” just hanging there. Can the above fly as is, or… ?

    Thanks in advance –

    • Bobby, this one is a tricky one. While I would definitely consider rewriting this sentence, that doesn’t actually address the issue, which is likely to come up again.

      Although I don’t have this edition, CMOS (15th ed.) apparently had this example (6.123)—Her favorite songs are “Hello Dolly!” “Chicago,” and “Come with Me.”

      The point was that if an exclamation point or question mark fell where a comma would normally go, you’d use the exclamation point or question mark and drop the comma. (This makes sense since this is the same thing we do with dialogue that uses a question mark or exclamation point with a dialogue tag.) An example—“I’m not going to tell you again!” Timmy shouted.

      So we don’t use both commas and terminal punctuation marks under this circumstance. (There are exceptions for when you might find both.)

      CMOS (16) has this to say (6.119)— “When a question mark or exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation where a comma would normally appear, the comma is omitted…”

      That means that your sentence should be “What’s the word, Holmes?” “Hey, Holmes, what time are you splittin’?” “You played your (tail) off tonight, Holmes!” and so forth.

      However, there may be better options. Consider dropping the quotation marks.

      I heard the word used a variety of ways, stuff like what’s the word, Holmes; hey, Holmes, what time are you splittin’; you played your (tail) off tonight, Holmes; and so forth.

      A really good question. Thanks for bringing it up. It pushed me to look deeper at a couple of issues.

  22. Temple Wang says:

    The never-ending post :-)
    Another question on this topic:

    Even his mother expressed genuine admiration and amazement as she ran her finger over the intricate cuts. But when she looked up at him after scrutinizing it, he read the words clearly from her eyes, as if she spoke aloud: How could a man with a heart so black create a thing of such beauty? He snatched it from her and stuffed it full of freshly twisted cheroots.

    Should the following sentence from the above be put into quotes? “How could a man with a heart so black create a thing of such beauty?”

  23. Temple, I suggest italics, with the colon moving back a bit in the sentence. Something such as—

    But when she looked up at him after scrutinizing it, he read the words clearly from her eyes: How could a man with a heart so black create a thing of such beauty?

  24. Carol C. says:


    I have an odd quotation issue. The passage is from a daughter’s POV. Here goes:

    “Your mother didn’t sleep well last night,” is the only explanation he gives when questioned.

    Should I use quotes in this instance? It just…feels weird. It’s got my grammar-sense all tingly.


  25. Mark says:

    I have a quick question, and this seems like the right forum in which to ask. I have a scene with three characters all talking in rapid fire style. I want to show the fact that they are talking one after the other, skipping back and forth, talking over each other and sometimes showing a delay in the response to a question. My thought was to do it the way I’ve seen in script writing, with each character name followed by a colon and then their quick dialog. No said, asked, or any other tags. Just a rapid fire dialog for a few moments, and then back to the regular rhythm. I would probably do this sparingly, maybe two to three times in the entire book. The scenes involved are the three sitting close around a small bistro table, talking over drinks. I would control the pace of the dialog by leading up to this paragraph with less and less descriptive tags, and then just said and asked type of tags, and then the rapid fire set. If anyone has an example of effectively showing this type of conversation I would love to read it.

    Does this seem reasonable/acceptable/dangerous? Will occasionally using this type of format hurt my chance of being published? Or is it just nonsense?

    Cheers to all,

  26. Phil Huston says:

    I’m no editor but I had to research and ask this one once or twice. One solution I was given is to drop name references in the dialog, just so the reader doesn’t get lost. According to the experts get rid of everybody but two. But like you, for me that isn’t how the story flows. You’ll edit these bits until you’re blue, trust me.