How to structure and punctuate direct speech in fiction

  • Direct speech is any word spoken by a character, it can be used to help develop the characters and plot.
  • Direct speech should sit inside speech marks.
  • Direct speech must be carefully structured and punctuated to clearly separate it from the rest of the text.
Learn how to correctly structure and punctuate direct speech when writing fiction

Speech marks

Punctuation is used in direct speech to separate spoken words, or dialogue, from the rest of a story. The words spoken by a character sit inside speech marks:

“Did you hear that noise?” whispered Sam.

Speech marks are sometimes known as inverted commas or quotation marks.

Some writers use double speech marks and some use single speech marks. You can use either type as long as you are consistent - it’s important not to swap between the two.

Remember to open - and close - the speech marks at the start - and end - of the direct speech:

“I think there is something moving in the bushes,” George said.

New speaker, new line

Direct speech is carefully structured to help the reader follow the conversation. Every time there is a new speaker in the conversation, a new line is used.

Each new section of dialogue is like beginning a new paragraph, so in a printed novel you will see that each new line is also indented - this is when a line starts further in from the margin. Each new line of direct speech should also start with a capital letter:

          “I think there is something moving in the bushes,” George said, looking carefully in the direction from which the sound came.
         “I can’t see anything,” said Molly.
         “Perhaps we should turn our torches on,” whispered George.
         “Okay, but let’s be really quiet.”

A reporting clause after the direct speech tells the reader who is speaking. The last line above misses the reporting clause because the reader can see that the character Molly is replying to George. Once a conversation gets started, it’s fine to drop the reporting clauses.

“I can’t see anything,” said Molly. The reporting clause 'said Molly' tells the reader who is speaking

Punctuation inside speech marks

Each section of direct speech should end with a punctuation mark. If there is no reporting clause then this is likely to be a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark:

“Listen! I definitely heard something that time!”

Notice that these punctuation marks are included inside the speech marks. If there is a reporting clause, then there is often a comma before the final speech marks:

“I think we should go inside now,” said Molly.

There is usually a full stop after the reporting clause. This may come later if the sentence continues:

“I think we should go inside now,” said Molly as she moved towards the house.

Moving the reporting clause

Sometimes the reporting clause is added in the middle of the direct speech:

“I think we should go inside now,” said Molly. “I just saw the lights come on.”

In this example, the punctuation still goes inside the speech marks of the first section. A punctuation mark is then used after the reporting clause, before the next set of speech marks. The second section of direct speech ends with the punctuation mark inside the speech marks.

A reporting clause can also be used to separate the speech of one character - “I think we should go inside now,” said Molly. “I just saw the lights come on.”

Quiz

Find out how much you know about direct speech in this short quiz!

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