Hey friends! I’ve gotten several questions lately about how to punctuate and set up dialogue, and how to avoid repetitions of “he said, she said.” I’m not surprised, because English is weird, even for English speakers. I’m going to share those questions along with the answers here. Let’s dive in!
When do I write “said Bryn” and when do I write “Bryn said”?
In older novels, the first construction is common, but it has fallen out of favor in contemporary fiction. If you stick to the second way of doing it, your manuscript will probably seem more professional to beta readers and editors, and you’ll save your copy editor a lot of time.
This is not as good.
“Bring me my sword,” said Bryn.
This is the better way!
“Bring me my sword,” Bryn said.
Do I capitalize the “h” in “he said” after a line of dialogue?
Nope. If you have a “he said” or “she said” after a line of dialogue that ends in a period, you turn that final period into a comma and keep the “he” or “she” (or whatever else you’ve got going on there) uncapitalized.
These are wrong.
“Bring me my sword.” He said.
“Bring me my sword.” The captain said.
These are correct!
“Bring me my sword,” he said.
“Bring me my sword,” the captain said.
If you’re using a capitalized name here, it does stay capitalized:
“Bring me my sword,” Captain Jonas said.
If you have an exclamation point or a question mark at the end, you still don’t capitalize the “he” or “she” or whatever unless it’s a name you capitalize anyway.
These are wrong.
“Bring me my sword!” He bellowed.
“Bring me my sword!” The captain bellowed.
“Could you please bring me my sword?” He asked.
These are correct!
“Bring me my sword!” he bellowed.
“Bring me my sword!” the captain bellowed.
“Could you please bring me my sword?” he asked.
This brings me to the next question.
Would you do a list of synonyms for “said”?
There are lists like this out there, but even if there weren’t, I wouldn’t do one. Synonyms like commanded, stated, and explained are fine here and there, but “said” is the right choice most of the time. If you constantly use synonyms for it, you’ll slow down the flow of your story and look like an amateur.
Often, the synonyms tell the reader something they already know. For instance, this is slightly annoying:
“Bring me my sword,” the captain ordered.
Um, we could tell from the sentence that it was an order.
Synonyms for “said” are especially useful when the tone of voice doesn’t match what is being said. For instance:
“Burn in hell,” the pirate suggested.
Burn in hell is an aggressive thing to say, and the synonym for said here is one way to convey that it’s being said in a calm rather than an aggressive tone of voice.
If you rarely use synonyms for “said,” how do you avoid a long line of “he said, she said” down the page?
Easy. First of all, in a long conversation between two people, not every line of dialogue needs to be attributed.
Beyond that, you can use a facial expression to set up a line of dialogue, like this:
The captain glowered. “Bring me my sword.”
You can also use body language or a gesture in the same way.
The pirate folded his arms. “Burn in hell.”
You can also set up dialogue with action, like this:
The captain banged his cup of rum down on the table. “Bring me my sword.”
That’s one of the reasons why I made this list of 50 things your characters can do while they talk.
Okay, moving on!
Do you indent every line of dialogue?
A line of dialogue from a new speaker begins a new paragraph (even if it’s a one-sentence paragraph). New paragraphs are indented, like this:
The captain gulped down the last of his rum and set the cup down on the wooden table with a clank. “Bring me my sword.”
“You’re too drunk to fight,” the pirate said.
If you are setting up a line of dialogue with an action, a facial expression, or a gesture, you want to start the new paragraph there. Like this:
“Bring me my sword,” the captain said. He gulped down the last of his rum and set the cup down with a clank.
The pirate shook his head. “You’re too drunk to fight.”
However, if the same character continues speaking, you don’t need to start a new paragraph. For instance:
“Bring me my sword,” the captain said. He gulped down the last of his rum and set the cup down with a clank. “By God, I’m going to challenge that octopus to a duel.”
Is it okay to use italics, all capital letters, boldface, or extra exclamation points or question marks in my dialogue?
Even if your characters are screaming their heads off about life and death matters, the drama should come through in the words themselves, not through the punctuation.
While you don’t want to overdo it, it’s fine to use italics once in a while to show that a character is emphasizing a word. (Some writers will tell you to never do it, but I think they need to calm down.)
All caps should rarely be used, if ever.
Boldface, extra exclamation points, and extra question marks should never be used.
Is it okay to not use quotation marks for dialogue?
It’s your call, and several esteemed writers—James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy, for instance—have written dialogue without quotation marks. However, a lot of readers hate this. I would only do it in literary novels, whose readers have already resigned themselves to more difficult reading.
Do you have any other questions about punctuation and setting up dialogue, or would you like to share some opinions? Let me know in the comments!
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