When Characters Speak: Formatting Dialogue

Why, Pamela, you write a very pretty Hand, and spell tolerably too

In novels and stories and other creative works, words spoken by a character are normally set off from the narrative with quotation marks, and the speaker is identified in the run of text by tags like “she said.” This is not only Chicago style—it’s an old convention that continues to dominate literature today. To help readers keep track of who’s speaking without the constant repetition of tags, it’s also traditional to start a new paragraph when the speaker changes. Here’s an example from Ji-li Jiang’s memoir, Red Scarf Girl (New York: Harper Trophy, 1997):

“You know the junior high school admissions policy has changed,” Teacher Gu said. “Instead of an entrance exam, teachers are assigning students to their schools.” She paused. “Ji-li, all the sixth-grade teachers agreed to assign you to Shi-yi Junior High.”

“Shi-yi . . . ?” My dream! In spite of everything it was coming true!

“That’s right,” she said. (74)

Another common style dispenses with quotation marks, as Linda Spalding does in her novel A Reckoning (New York: Anchor Books, 2017):

The boy said: You never been at a revival?

Ross said: Not to this day.

I knew you was a Northern.

I’d like to meet your father.

Easy as pie. Just cross that field is our place. (6)

Chapter 13 in The Chicago Manual of Style covers the traditional options for quoted dialogue and offers guidelines related to punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing, but CMOS by no means exhausts the possibilities for creative writers.

Mixing It Up

There are other practices and combinations of techniques that creative writers shouldn’t hesitate to embrace and their editors shouldn’t hesitate to support.

In her young adult novel Speak (New York: Square Fish, 1999), Laurie Halse Anderson writes speaker names followed by a colon, as in a script for a stage play, and starts a new paragraph for each speaker. But (unlike playwrights) she places quotation marks around each speech.

Siobhan: “What’s this?”

Heather: [swallowing] “It’s a can of beets.”

Siobhan: “No duh. But we found an entire bag of beets in the collection closet. They must have come from you.”

Heather: “A neighbor gave them to me. They’re beets. People eat them. What’s the problem?” (88–89)

Elsewhere in the same novel, Anderson occasionally changes style, running speeches by more than one speaker into the same paragraph:

I tune out for a while and come back when he [the teacher] holds up a huge globe that is missing half of the Northern Hemisphere. “Can anyone tell me what this is?” he asks. “A globe?” ventures a voice in the back. Mr. Freeman rolls his eyes. “Was it an expensive sculpture that some kid dropped and he had to pay for it out of his own money or they didn’t let him graduate?” asks another. (11)

While an editor might be uncomfortable with the difference in styles, it’s worth querying the writer before making changes. Here, because the narrator is a traumatized and withdrawn teenager, a sensitive reader might conclude that conversations are run in when the speakers are mainly unidentified minor characters and the narrator is minimally engaged in what’s happening around her. Then again, maybe the writer simply wandered off-style here and there. It’s especially worth querying if an editor is distracted by inconsistent styles and can’t discern the writer’s intentions.

In Miracle’s Boys (New York: Puffin Books, 2001), another YA novel, Jacqueline Woodson uses traditional quotation marks and paragraphing for character speech but changes the style for conversations a character is remembering from the past, using italics instead of quotation marks. The technique immediately imparts a dreamy style to the reminiscences.

You ever thought about that, Laf? Mama asked me. That being free means you help somebody else get free?

I shook my head.

She put her book down.

Why not?

’Cause I ain’t free.

Mama looked at me and frowned.

Well, I’m not, I said. If I was free, then I’d be able to go outside like Ty’ree and Charlie.

Then Mama laughed. But I didn’t see what was so funny about the truth. (109)

Going Minimal

A feature present in all the examples above is the use of an initial cap for the first word in a speech, but even this is abandoned by some writers. In Inside the Whale (River Forest, IL: Wicker Park Press, 2012), a novel in verse, Joseph G. Peterson ignores even such strong conventions as periods at the ends of sentences and initial caps—or any caps—but retains the use of a new paragraph for each speaker and a traditional comma to set off speeches from speaker tags. Even the most sticklering editor would be hard put to claim confusion over who’s saying what:

she said reluctantly, i can’t go ricardo, i have this job

you’re kidding, he said

she said, no, i’m not kidding at all (123)

Nothing New under the Sun

Richardson, Pamela, 6th ed., vol. 1, p. 4 versoLest you judge the omission of quotation marks or running in of speeches to be avant-garde or a sign that literary standards are in decline, take a look at this passage from Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, first published in 1740.

O how asham’d I was!—He took it, without saying more, and read it quite thro’, and then gave it me again;—and I said, Pray your Honour forgive me!—Yet I know not for what: For he was always dutiful to his Parents; and why should he be angry, that I was so to mine! And indeed he was not angry; for he took me by the Hand, and said, You are a good Girl, Pamela, to be kind to your aged Father and Mother. I am not angry with you for writing such innocent Matters as these; tho’ you ought to be wary what Tales you send out of a Family.—Be faithful and diligent; and do as you should do, and I like you the better for this. And then he said, Why, Pamela, you write a very pretty Hand, and spell tolerably too. (6th ed., vol. 1, p. 4)

Although Richardson launches new speakers with a conventional tag like “I said” or “he said,” many speeches are run together in long paragraphs (as they might be in a letter), and the reader is pretty much left to divine when a character stops talking. Even with initial caps and long dashes tossed into the mix, Richardson’s text is less readable than any of the modern examples above, including Peterson’s minimally formatted dialogue.

Takeaway

  • A writer who wants a straightforward rendering of dialogue can choose one or more of the traditional ways to signal who’s saying what.
  • Creative writers who wish to experiment with new forms or achieve a certain literary effect may do as they please—and should prepare for an editor’s questions. Self-publishers who forgo professional editing would do well to test their technique on a few readers.
  • Editors faced with either approach should read and query thoughtfully and resist an urge to automatically enforce rules from a stylebook.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

Images: Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London, 1742), p. 4 and detail from recto opposite (top image). Courtesy of the British Library.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

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2 thoughts on “When Characters Speak: Formatting Dialogue

  1. Thanks, Arlene! I just googled “sticklering -stickler” and didn’t get many hits, but it showed that I didn’t make it up. We should use it more. Maybe we can “frindle” it into recognition.

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