top of page
  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Cartwright

Punctuation, Placement, and Pacing: Dialogue 101.

Crafting compelling dialogue isn't just about what characters say; it's a combined effort of punctuation, strategic placement, and pacing. Join me as we unravel the not-so-secrets of dialogue, where each punctuation mark plays a vital role, each line finds its perfect placement, and pacing becomes the heartbeat of your story.

 

Punctuating Dialogue

First, let's go over the basics. Punctuating dialogue is an art form that wields immense power in shaping the tone, clarity, and rhythm of your narrative. Familiarising yourself with the rules of punctuation around dialogue will not only allow you to craft clearer, more effective dialogue, but will also help your editor in the later stages, as they will be able to focus on what you truly need assistance with rather than getting sidetracked by simple mistakes.

1. Quotation Marks: The Guardians of Speech

Quotation marks are the steadfast sentinels that encapsulate spoken words. In American English, double quotation marks (" ") are used, setting off the beginning and end of the dialogue. In British English, single quotation marks (' ') are often used, however many British authors—including myself—opt for doubles due to their common usage in the US-centric book market.


US Example: "I can't believe you're leaving," she said. British Example: 'I can't believe you're leaving,' she said.


For nested dialogue or when a character quotes someone within their speech, utilise single quotation marks (' ') to maintain clarity—or the reverse if you're using British English.


US Example: "I told her, 'This is your moment,'" he recalled.

British Example: 'I told her, "This is your moment,"' he recalled.


2. Punctuation Inside the Quotation Marks

Punctuation marks, such as commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points belonging to the dialogue should find their home within the quotation marks. This placement ensures a seamless integration of dialogue and punctuation, enhancing readability.

Example 2: "Welcome home!" he called.


Note that if a line of dialogue is followed or preceded by a dialogue tag, a comma should be used. If the dialogue is surrounded by anything else (for example, action, introspection, or description), it should be offset with a period.


Example 1: "I love this place," she whispered.

Example 2: "I love this place." She gazed around the room.


4. Punctuating Interruptions and Hesitations.

When dialogue is interrupted, an em dash (—) can be employed to denote the abrupt break.


Example: "I was just trying to—"

"I don't want to hear it!" she interjected.


When a character trails off mid-sentence or becomes gradually inaudible for any reason, you may use an ellipsis (...) to show that. These denote a much softer break in the dialogue. They can also be used to denote pauses in speech.


Example 1: "I just thought..." Her smiled dropped. "Forget it."

Example 2: "You mean he's... alive?"


5. Handling Dialogue Across Paragraphs

This catches many authors out and can look like a mistake, which is why I always leave a note on an author's manuscript explaining the rule if necessary.

When a character has a lengthy monologue, they may continue speaking in a new paragraph. Opening quotation marks are used at the beginning of each new paragraph, while closing quotation marks are only placed at the end of the final paragraph.


While there is much more to know about punctuating dialogue, these guidelines should serve as your compass through the nuanced landscape of spoken words. As you wield quotation marks, commas, and other punctuation tools with precision, your dialogue will resonate with clarity and fluidity, enriching the overall narrative.

 

Finding the Right Placement

Dialogue can occur at any point in your story—whether that's when the characters are sat around a fire or in the middle of a frantic battle. That isn't the kind of placement we'll be focusing on here. Instead, we'll be looking at its placement in the text itself. Dialogue isn't confined to the words spoken; it thrives in the context of its surroundings.


Let's work on enhancing this conversation between a knight and a princess as an example:

"Sir Richard, your armour looks like it's seen its fair share of battles." "Indeed, my lady. Each scratch tells a tale of valor and survival." "And the emblem on your shield, what does it signify?" "It bears the mark of loyalty, a pledge to protect the realm and its inhabitants." "A noble cause, but do you ever yearn for a different life, free from constant strife?" "At times, I dream of quiet meadows and serene moments, but duty calls louder." "Your dedication is admirable, Sir Richard. But tell me, what is the true weight of a knight's heart?" "It carries the burden of responsibility, my lady, bound by the oath to defend the kingdom and those in need." "A heavy load, I imagine. Yet, does your heart not crave moments of respite, away from the clangour of swords?" "Indeed, it does, fair princess. In the quiet moments, I find solace and a glimpse of the life that might have been."

There are several things that we can consider when cushioning our dialogue with details that are both useful and clarifying. As it stands, the example above tells us very little. It lacks characterisation, engagement, grounding, and clarity. By placing details around each line, we can enhance the conversation to something engaging and meaningful.


Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is a phrase or clause that attributes spoken words to a specific character. It indicates who is speaking and is typically placed before, after, or within a quoted section of dialogue. The most common dialogue tag is the verb "said," but writers often use a variety of verbs to add nuance to the manner in which the words are spoken. Dialogue tags are essential for clarity, helping readers understand which character is speaking. However, it's important to use them judiciously and to consider alternative methods—such as action beats or character thoughts—to convey information about the speaker and the tone of the dialogue. Much of the time, you will find dialogue tags unnecessary. However, if you're writing a scene with more than two people, you'll find you'll need to use dialogue tags or action beats more often in order to keep the reader on track with who is speaking.


Our example above contains no dialogue tags, so let's add some. Some lines imply who is speaking because they name the other character; this means we don't need to think about dialogue tags in those areas.

"Sir Richard, your armour looks like it's seen its fair share of battles," the princess said. "Indeed, my lady. Each scratch tells a tale of valor and survival." "And the emblem on your shield," she asked, "what does it signify?" "It bears the mark of loyalty, a pledge to protect the realm and its inhabitants." "A noble cause, but do you ever yearn for a different life, free from constant strife?" "At times I dream of quiet meadows and serene moments," he admitted. "But duty calls louder." "Your dedication is admirable, Sir Richard. But tell me, what is the true weight of a knight's heart?" "It carries the burden of responsibility, my lady, bound by the oath to defend the kingdom and those in need." "A heavy load, I imagine. Does your heart not crave moments of respite, away from the clangour of swords?" "Indeed, it does, fair princess," he said. "In the quiet moments, I find solace and a glimpse of the life that might have been."

Grounding

Grounding refers to providing sufficient context, detail, or information to anchor the reader in the setting, time, or reality of the story. It involves creating a sense of place and time so that readers can vividly imagine and understand the world in which the narrative unfolds.

Effective grounding is essential because it helps readers orient themselves within the story, making the fictional world more tangible and believable. You can achieve grounding by incorporating descriptive elements, such as vivid imagery, sensory details, body language, and setting descriptions—including interaction with the setting.


So, now we need to place our knight and princess in a location. Our first task will be to ensure the reader knows where we are, either before the conversation begins or within a few moments of it beginning.

Next, we need to anchor the characters in the scene. This means allowing them to interact with objects in the setting and for the setting to affect them, such as the wind pushing her hair or the moonlight reflecting on his armour.

And third, body language. Body language is key to giving your dialogue meaning that may not otherwise be there or for highlighting any intentions that you wish to convey to the reader.

All of those things considered, let's take a look at that conversation once more:

Sir Richard stood at the base of the castle steps, a guardian in the night. The princess approached, the night air cool on her face. His armour scraped as he turned to face her, worn and battle-scarred. The moonlight revealed little, but his eyes, visible beneath his helmet, carried the weight of duty. "Sir Richard, your armour looks like it's seen its fair share of battles," the princess said. "Indeed, my lady. Each scratch tells a tale of valor and survival." "And the emblem on your shield," she asked, "what does it signify?" Sir Richard looked down at it suddenly, as if forgetting he had been carrying it. "It bears the mark of loyalty, a pledge to protect the realm and its inhabitants." "A noble cause... but do you ever yearn for a different life, free from constant strife?" His gaze found hers again, curious beneath his visor. For a moment, both were quiet—until he sighed. "At times I dream of quiet meadows and serene moments," he admitted. "But duty calls louder." She smiled with pity. "Your dedication is admirable, Sir Richard. But tell me, what is the true weight of a knight's heart?" "It carries the burden of responsibility, my lady, bound by the oath to defend the kingdom and those in need." "A heavy load, I imagine." The princess moved closer now, allowing the moon's light reflected on his armour to shine onto her face. "Does your heart not crave moments of respite, away from the clangour of swords?" "Indeed, it does, fair princess," he said. "In the quiet moments, I find solace and a glimpse of the life that might have been."

Character Thoughts

The conversation is finally becoming a scene. If you are writing in third-person limited omniscient, you may wish to stop here. But if not, what we're now missing is a deep connection to the thoughts of the main character—in this case, the princess.

Delving into your characters thoughts during a conversation can be a good way to explore their reactions, motivations, and inner conflicts—especially if they are being somewhat evasive or concealing their true feelings towards the other party. Doing so will aid their characterisation and the reader's connection to the character and the relationships the character is forming.

However, it's important not to overdo this. As a general rule, if your reader can work out what the character is thinking based on their speech, actions, or body language, there is no need for introspection from your character. Doing so may actually slow your pacing and lower engagement.


Now, let's take a look at our finalised conversation between the princess and the knight:

Sir Richard stood at the base of the castle steps, a guardian in the night. The princess approached, the night air cool on her face. His armour scraped as he turned to face her, worn and battle-scarred. The moonlight revealed little, but his eyes, visible beneath his helmet, carried the weight of duty. He would be the one to help her, she was sure. "Sir Richard, your armour looks like it's seen its fair share of battles," the princess said. "Indeed, my lady. Each scratch tells a tale of valor and survival." "And the emblem on your shield," she asked, "what does it signify?" Sir Richard looked down at it suddenly, as if forgetting he had been carrying it. "It bears the mark of loyalty, a pledge to protect the realm and its inhabitants." "A noble cause... but do you ever yearn for a different life, free from constant strife?" His gaze found hers again, curious beneath his visor. For a moment, both were quiet—until he sighed. "At times I dream of quiet meadows and serene moments," he admitted. "But duty calls louder." She smiled with pity. This was often the case with her father's knights, she'd found, and it saddened her to no avail that peace appeared to be so futile a mission. Her passion ignited with the reminder, and she pressed on. "Your dedication is admirable, Sir Richard. But tell me, what is the true weight of a knight's heart?" "It carries the burden of responsibility, my lady, bound by the oath to defend the kingdom and those in need." "A heavy load, I imagine." The princess moved closer now, allowing the moon's light reflected on his armour to shine onto her face. "Does your heart not crave moments of respite, away from the clangour of swords?" "Indeed, it does, fair princess," he said. "In the quiet moments, I find solace and a glimpse of the life that might have been."
 

Getting Pacing Right

Setting the right pacing in dialogue can be tricky and is one of the most common mistakes I see authors making when writing interactions between characters. When writers do go wrong, they fall into one of two categories (or perhaps both at different moments).

  • Their Dialogue is too Fast: When dialogue is paced too quickly, conversations whizz by so fast that readers don't have a chance to absorb their implications. This kind of dialogue is often achieved by a lack of characterisation within the dialogue itself, as well as limited grounding of the characters into the scene.

  • Their Dialogue is too Slow: When dialogue is paced too slowly, readers become bored, lose interest, and even risk forgetting what the previous line was or who said it. This kind of dialogue is characterised by too much introspection or description between lines of dialogue, or the conversation itself doesn't add to the story.

So, how might you achieve perfect pacing in your dialogue? There's no one size fits all approach. It is up to you (and later, your editor) to understand the characters, the setting, and the scenario in order to set the right pacing. To get you started, consider these questions:


1. What are the characters feeling at any given moment? This question encourages you to consider the actual delivery of the speech—the words used, the sentence structure, and even the punctuation. Angry conversations tend to be fast-paced with quick, heated sentences, whereas heartfelt conversations may be much slower and more patient. Do the characters trail off or interrupt each other? These things can also add some dynamism to your pacing.

2. What are the characters thinking? While a character's emotions will affect their delivery and body language (which you can describe around the dialogue), their thoughts, when available to the reader, can offer a little extra insight—particularly realisations that hold consequences for the plot. However, don't be tempted to thought-track the obvious: trust your readers to pick up on what you're hinting.

3. Where are the characters while they are speaking? Grounding will help any fast scene to feel more digestible because the reader will have something to anchor themselves to when things speed up. Maybe your characters are completing a task where actions could affect how lines are delivered. Imagine an angry conversation taking place during a sword fight:

"You told me you would protect her!" She parried his swing and sent a jab towards his stomach, which he dodged. "I tried, but—" he ducked and her blade sailed overhead "—you weren't there! You didn't see the size of that thing." "I didn't need to. I would've died before I let her get taken!" With his left arm, he jabbed. She darted sideways, tripping on his waiting leg. As she stumbled, he knocked her again with his shield and she hit the sand. As she flipped onto her back, the tip of his sword met her chin. "I know," he said, panting down at her. "I know you would have. And I'm sorry."

Notice how the dialogue was interrupted by action using em-dashes (—) to contribute to the hectic pacing of the mid-fight conversation. Exploring the physical will ensure your characters aren't hanging out in a white void while they talk. Don't think that just because your characters are sat down, having a cup of tea means there is no opportunity for grounding. Go and people watch in a cafe or library and you'll see just how much humans move while they're sat still!

4. What is the conversation hoping to achieve? This question is geared towards ensuring that the overall aim of the conversation contributes to the progression of the plot—this could be through information gained, relationships made or damaged, or any other objective the MC may have. If the conversation does not contribute in any way, does it need happen at all? Would the plot suffer or change if it wasn't there?

5. How many times have you interrupted the dialogue with introspection, action, or description? This question doesn't include simple dialogue tags like "said," which are mostly considered invisible.

If you find you've included introspection, action, or description before or after every line of dialogue, your pacing is probably slow. As a general rule, try to balance things out by allowing between two to four lines of dialogue to pass by uninterrupted where appropriate. Text surrounding any lines of dialogue should contribute to the conversation by either...

  • Clarifying who is speaking;

  • Giving the character/s (and reader) a moment to pause and take in what was just said;

  • Specifying the tone or emotion of a line;

  • Highlighting a line;

  • Or implying the subtext of a line;


So, in the spirit of Dialogue 101, experiment with punctuation, placement, and pacing to orchestrate conversations that captivate readers. Let your characters' voices resonate with authenticity and your narrative pulse with the rhythm of well-crafted dialogue.

 

As an editor, I'm committed to providing you with free, insightful content, and I have no plans to clutter your reading experience with advertisements. If you've enjoyed my work and would like to support the continued creation of these articles, I invite you to consider buying me a coffee.

43 views

Related Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page