I have taught my one-day seminar Living Dialog a few times already and have had the best time with that session. It’s coming up again in the spring and I’ve been thinking about it, and thinking lately about some basic skills in dialog that I thought might be useful to share to a wider audience here.

It surprises me, frankly, when I see manuscripts come in with some very strange assumptions about how to punctuate a line of dialog, so let’s leave off the part of that seminar that covers what the characters are actually saying, and is useful to people writing screenplays, game scripts, etc., as well as prose fiction and go back to basics with short stories and novels.

Think of a line of dialog as two sentences mashed into one, sort of.

One sentence is the line of dialog itself: what the character is actually saying. The second sentence-within-a-sentence is the dialog attribution. Dialog attribution tells the reader who is saying that line of dialog and sometimes offers a little more specific information.

The following examples are drawn from  Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, a book I literally pulled off the shelf next to my desk more or less at random.

“M’lord,” Stilgar growled, “you’ve had men executed for less!”

The line of dialog is the full sentence: M’lord, you’ve had men executed for less!

The dialog attribution is: Stilgar growled. So we know this is Stilgar who said “M’lord, you’ve had men executed for less!” Not only that but we know that Stilgar’s voice was, for lack of a better word, growly. That hints at the emotion behind the statement—showing that emotion, by the way, rather than telling us: Stilgar was frustrated.

Note that when I wrote just the sentence that Stilgar was speaking by itself, without the attribution, there’s a comma between M’lord and you’ve. As such, there is a comma in the full sentence after M’lord and before the first set of closing quotes, then another comma after Stilgar growled in order to indicate that Stilgar is continuing to speak—the character unaware that the unseen narrator of the book has interrupted to tell us he’s growling and it’s Stilgar saying this, not someone else.

The scene goes on:

“Men, yes,” Paul agreed. “But this is a Guild Ambassador.”

With this we actually have two sentences that Paul has said: Men, yes. And: But this is a Guild Ambassador. This explains why there’s a period after Paul agreed. The dialog attribution is set as a part of the first sentence. It’s okay to make that attribution part of the next sentence if you wish. In this case it might have read:

“Men, yes.” Paul quickly added, “But this is a Guild Ambassador.”

But in this case we can assume the author was more interested in conveying the fact that Stilgar wasn’t lying when he said Paul had had men executed for less. Then he hits us with the thing about this particular “man” that’s different: he’s a Guild Ambassador.

The next line:

“He accuses you of an unholy fraud!” Stilgar said.

This line of dialog ends with an exclamation mark, but what if it ended with a period? He accuses you of an unholy fraud. In that case the line of dialog would end with a comma, leaving the period at the end of the combined dialog + attribution: “He accuses you of an unholy fraud,” Stilgar said.

On that same page:

“Are you testing the limits of my tolerance?” Paul asked.

Like the exclamation mark, the quotation mark at the end of a question stays inside the quotes.

Herbert might have instead written this as: “Are you testing the limits of my tolerance?” asked Paul. That’s fine, too. Note that even though this line of dialog ends with a question mark and not a comma the part of the combined sentence that contains the verb of speaking (asked) still begins in lowercase—this is a sentence within a sentence.

The exception to this is if the line of dialog ends with a period and there is no verb of speaking in the sentence following it. A verb of speaking is simply a word like said, asked, replied, shouted, etc.

For instance, a bit later on in the book:

“I stand corrected.” He glared at her, smiled, returned his attention to piloting the ’thopter.

The line of dialog is a complete sentence: I stand corrected. But in the sentence that follows there is no verb of speaking. Herbert moves on to describe what the character is doing. He glares at her. He smiles at her. He returns his attention to piloting the ’thopter.

It’s important to understand the distinction between a verb of speaking and other verbs like glared, smiled, and returned. You can’t glare words at someone, or smile words at someone, even if those expressions still communicate a lot of information.

Had Herbert written:

“I stand corrected,” he said, then glared at her, smiled, returned his attention to piloting the ’thopter.

Then that period after corrected would change to a comma to link to he said.

Be careful with your verbs of speaking. There are people who will tell you that said is all you’ll ever need, but I disagree, and so, apparently, did Frank Herbert. Quickly flipping through Dune Messiah I found characters who asked, snapped, whispered, flared, agreed, protested, shouted, even husked. Still, said was by far the most common.

We’ll tackle adverbs, or lack thereof, in a later post!


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. rogersjeanne says:

    Thank you, Phil. This is very basic information that many new writers stumble a bit over. You’ve made it clear and concise!

  2. Jevon says:

    I’ve heard that you should always use said, but I’ve seen many authors use other verbs sparingly.

    What about expressing character thoughts? Using your example, should it be:

    Is he testing the limit of my tolerance, Paul thought?
    Is he testing the limit of my tolerance? Paul thought.

  3. Pingback: ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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