Writing Books/dialog


Dear Bobby,

I have questions about dialog. First here is what I believe I know.

Use double quotes for standard dialog

Use single quotes for dialog inside dialog. In other words, when someone is talking and telling us what someone else said.

I have been reading a lot and have seen the following dialog situations in many forms. I am looking for the most standard, I guess.

How are the following dialog situations punctuated?

1.   During a dialog I have a thought, but do not want to say it out loud.
2.   During the narrative I have a thought that will help the story.
3.   I create a situation where an inanimate object says something (i.e., the look on his red face says, Go ahead, try to screw with me again)

Also, when I put in a thought is the first letter capitalized?

Any other cool tips will be greatly appreciated.

         Sincerely, Dick Schlueter

The punctuation of dialogue (note the more conventional spelling of dialogue here) depends upon whether you are writing in British English or American English. If you are writing in American English, which is my area of expertise, it is correct that double quotation marks go first, and if something is quoted within that dialogue, it has single quotation marks. Here’s an example: “John told me Mary said, ‘I refuse to leave the house.’”

The examples in your question, however, have to do with thoughts, also called internal dialogue, more than actual dialogue. In such a case, the main things to remember are to be consistent throughout the manuscript and be sure the readers clearly understand the difference between thoughts and narrative. Personally I prefer using italics to indicate internal dialogue, if it is in first person. Italics, as we writers know, are the same as underlines, and in Standard Manuscript Format, that means you would underline the thoughts to show the typesetter of the book that those words should be set in type when the book goes to press.          

Unfortunately neither italics nor underlines come through in the e-mail program we are using, so after the examples I give below, I will repeat any words that would be underlined in a manuscript or italicized in the printed version.

Also, the first letter of the first word in external or internal dialogue is capitalized.

Now I will answer each of your numbered questioned specifically.

1. I would not interrupt dialogue to show a thought, but put it after the dialogue ends. Example: “John, I haven’t seen you in ages.” Boy, have you ever aged. (in italics or underlined: Boy, have you ever aged.

2. I’m not quite sure what is meant by “During the narrative I have a thought that will help the story.” If you, as the author, have a thought that will help the story, and the book is fiction, rarely is it wise to intrude in fiction with personal thoughts of the author. It’s called, in fact, Author Intrusion. If the character in the story, however, has a thought, it would be in first person and in italics or underlined, as the example in the prior paragraph.

If the book is nonfiction and the author has an opinion, those thoughts and opinions can show up as footnotes or appear inside parentheses or inside other punctuation, such as commas.

Examples of the last two methods: The general opinion (although my research has made me disagree with that opinion) was that the ship sank in five minutes.
The general opinion, although my research has made me disagree with that opinion, was that the ship sank in five minutes.

Be cautious not to overuse parentheses. As an editor, I prefer using standard punctuation, instead, as in the latter example.

3. What to do when inanimate objects speak? If they must speak, I would recast it as dialogue, but the narrative would clearly show it is not actual dialogue, as in this example: His red face looked as though it said, “Go ahead, try to screw with me again.” This ploy is another one I would not use very often; it could get stale quickly.

I hope you will sign up for my free newsletter for writers, The Writers Network News. To sign up go to www.zebraeditor.com and click on the yellow box on the upper right of the page.

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Bobbie Christmas


Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas owns Zebra Communications, a book-editing firm in metro Atlanta. She not only edits books, she also helps writers power up their prose to increase their chances of success. She is the author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), a creative-writing guide that won three awards.


Bobbie has spent more than 40 years in the publishing and communications industry and has run Zebra Communications, a book-editing company, since 1992. The editor of many publications and periodicals, she has worked with book publishers and trade magazine publishers as well as working in marketing communications and corporate communications.

Past president, Georgia Writers Association; past vice president, South Carolina Writers Workshop; charter/lifelong member, Florida Writers Association; Southeastern Writers Association; Atlanta Writers Club; Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL); International Guild of Professional Consultants

Write in Style (Union Square Publishing), A Cup of Comfort (Adams Media Corporation), A Cup of Comfort for Friends (Adams Media), A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (Adams Media), Haunted Engounters (Atriad Press), Remembering Woolworth's (St. Martin's Press), First-Time Home Buyer magazine, HomeBusiness Journal, Apparel Industry Magazine, Edge Magazine, Atlanta Jewish Times, Time Travel Australia, American Writers Review, Points North, That's Entertainment, Atlanta Parent, Agnes Scott Alumnae Magazine, etc.

Journalism: University of South Carolina plus four decades of working in publishing, marketing, communications, advertising, newspaper and magazine production, book publishing, etc.

Awards and Honors
First Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers Annual Contest, 2005; First Place, education, Royal Palm Literary Award, 2004; Best in Division, Georgia Author of the Year Awards, 2005; Finalist, Best Books 2005, USA BookNews Third Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers, 1999; Nominated for Georgia Author of the Year, 1998; plus many other awards

Past/Present Clients
Capital Books, Sourcebooks, Olin Frederick, The Writer's Machine, Russell Dean & Company, Outskirts Press, and hundreds of writers.

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