How to Write Speech in a Story

Read time: 8 mins

Being confident about a few style choices and applying them consistently can make all the difference to writing speech clearly. Even though it should not be a main priority for the first draft, it is good to try to standardise these decisions and aim for consistency in the second and subsequent versions of a manuscript.

Done right, speech will add to your writing and make for a better reader experience. Here I set out detailed advice with examples for:

  • Reported and direct speech
  • Quote mark styles
  • Choosing speech tags
  • Punctuating speech tags
  • Broken speech
  • Action beats
  • Refining dialogue.

Reported and direct speech

Reported speech within narrative is not set out with speech marks (also called quote marks):

  • He said that they were under arrest.
  • She told Dad to climb the wall.
  • He asked where I went.

Conventionally, direct speech will include a vocative word or phrase (which indicates, or evokes, the speaker) and is set apart from narrative using quote marks and dialogue tags (also called speech tags).

Style of quote marks

The usual style for quote marks in UK fiction is single, as in this from Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019) by Rónán Hession, p19:

‘Indeed. And sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you want to scream or block out a scream,’ said Leonard.

Whereas in the US double quote marks are the convention, as in this from Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue, p127:

“Look,” she says, “a flamingo flying by.”

“Look, a zombie all drooling.”

“Jack!” That makes her smile for half a second.

Nested quotes

In both UK and US styles, nested quotes (quotes within quotes) take the opposite form of quote mark to that used for the outer quote mark. Thus, the UK convention would be to use double quotes within single; an example would be this from Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, p48:

‘I was very agitated at the conference … and to look out at the South China Sea in the afternoon. Are those not beautiful words … “South China Sea”?’

Whereas, the US convention would be to use single quotes within double, as in this from The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee and in my 2016 edition, p86:

“Didn’t you write a book the first chapter of which was called ‘All Animals are Equal?’”

Smart quotes versus straight quotes

With UK and US styles, the quote marks, and any apostrophes, are smart ones (sometimes called intelligent or curly). They are favoured over straight ones (which typically came from typewriter use, where they were adopted due to space and mechanical constraints).

To make a single smart quote in MS Word for PC use ALT +0145 for left and ALT +0146 for right, and for MS Word on a MAC use Option+] for left and Shift+Option +] for right.

If you do want to enforce the use of straight quotes in a document within MS Word on a PC select the file tab and click options.

Select Proofing and the AutoCorrect Options button.

Click the AutoFormat tab and in the Replace section untick the box next to “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes”, click OK, OK.

 Conversely to enforce smart quotes leave this box ticked.

Speech tags

In these examples, I have added bold to indicate the words that indicate speech (which is the tag). They come from What You Wish For (2014) by Mark Edwards:

  • ‘Who do you mean by “this lot”?’ I asked softly. (p130)
  • ‘I take it you’ve had no word from Cherry?’ I said. (p138)
  • ‘A friend,’ I said. ‘Someone else who loves visitors.’ (p168)

These clarify that the section is different to narrative, clue the reader as to who is talking, and help create pace and rhythm. To guide your use and selection of dialogue tags, think of them as supportive of speech, so:

  • only there if necessary
  • secondary to the dialogue
  • speech based.

Only tag where needed

Think of dialogue tags as traffic lights at a minor road junction, the sort which only operate at peak times. When there are many vehicles, they are needed, but when the there is little traffic, they would hold things up unnecessarily, so stay off.

In sections of direct speech when many people are talking together the tags save confusion, but if there are as few as two people in a scene, tags can often be dispensed with. This avoids slowing the pace, as the conversation is already easy to follow.

Dialogue is superior to its tag

Conventionally, when there is a new speaker, one would open a new paragraph. There are times when this is not followed, such as when those speaking only say a few words to one another.

This works as a rule of thumb, and is what most readers expect. Avoid over flamboyant speech tags, as these take the limelight from where it needs to be for the storytelling.

Sadly, I can remember being set a class exercise in school, which was to create chunks of writing with as many different tags in as we could dream up. We were encouraged to flip through a thesaurus in an effort to add obscure and flowery terms.  I shudder to think of it now and want my school-child self to march to the front of the class and say, ‘I have an urgent message from my editor-to-be self, “No! please don’t.”’

Mostly ‘said’ works, as does ‘asked’ with a question. These are transparent to the reader and have the subtlety of a gentle nod from a parent, leaving the dialogue front and centre.

Keep it about speech

Occasionally, you will decide it is appropriate to use other tags and, properly considered, this can be a good choice. However, if you do, remember to keep the tag relevant to the speech.

These examples from Smith (1967) by Leon Garfield all work well and do not dominate:

  • ‘And who, miss, would you ask?’ queried Miss Bridget irritably. (p17)
  • ‘And so say all of us,’ murmured Miss Fanny, as she might have said, Amen! (p35)
  • ‘Oh, Smith!’ she whispered, and turned away. (p105)

Used less well, tags can be distracting and annoying and can put readers off. I have created the following examples of how not to do it:

  • ‘Climb the wall,’ fantasised the prince.
  • ‘This one is for me,’ gobbled the child greedily.
  • ‘I can’t speak through this mask,’ muffled Sarah.

And some frequently seen terms just do not work:

  • ‘I did not know that,’ laughed Tony.
  • ‘Here take an ice cream,’ she smiled generously.
  • ‘Catch the bus home,’ he pointed.
  • ‘Good grief,’ they snarled.

Speech tags have to be something which can be done with words and must present the possible; otherwise they pose a puzzle.

These are not so much firm rules, as guidelines, to consider when seeking to engage readers. Ignore them, and you risk spinning readers out of your story, wondering how they would have written that sentence differently had they been the writer.  

As with so much about writing, once you are aware of the conventions you may decide to go against them but with knowledge, foresight and intention.

Punctuating the speech tag

A speech tag can be placed before, in the middle of or after a piece of speech and, in most cases, is set out with a comma (although a question mark or exclamation mark might be used instead where appropriate).

These examples all come from Me Before You (2012) by Jojo Moyes.

  • Granddad called out something that may well have been, ‘Hear, hear.’ (p229)
  • ‘Let’s get some lunch,’ I said to Nathan. (p187)
  • ‘Yiss,’ he said, and broke out a smile. ‘Yes, it is let’s head for the gee-gees.’ (p181)

Where there is a long passage of speech, which crosses into a new paragraph, the convention is to place an opening quote mark at the start of the new paragraph within the speech. But not to close the preceding paragraph with a quote mark.

An example of this can be seen in The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee, which in the 2016 edition is on p56:

“Let me now turn to Gulliver’s Travels.

“On the one hand you have the Yahoos, who are associated …”

Broken speech

Not all speech will be neatly complete sentences, especially when a speaker is interrupted or distracted. To present this, an ellipsis is used.

Trailing off speech

Where a character’s speech either dries up or is interrupted is indicated by an ellipsis. In a part sentence, an ellipsis is placed after the last word uttered and is followed by the closing speech mark.

This example is from The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan – 2006 edition p35:

‘Yes, two of those,’ Colin said eagerly, ‘and …’

Faltering speech

Hesitant, uncertain or tentative speech is indicated by a spaced ellipsis. There is no need to indicate this further – instead respect the reader’s ability to understand the pauses, stumbles or breaks.

This example is from Cold Sunflowers (2018) by Mark Sippings p160:

‘It’s a book about the First World War. I got it from the club – It was only two bob, well, ten pence. You wouldn’t believe what those soldiers went through; they were only youngsters. Some were even shot for desertion. It was terrible … terrible, the conditions … goodness me.’

Action beats

An action beat is a short section of writing which is attached to dialogue and indicates who is speaking. The use of an action beat can add to the pace of writing and can help show a character’s voice or provide insight into their emotions and perhaps their movement in a scene.

These examples from The Snow Child (2012) Eowyn Ivey:

‘It’s her.’ She turned her hand at her throat. (In the 2016 edition p86.)

‘So you do have some fight in you, my girl.’ Esther hugged her waist. ‘You’ll need every bit of that to survive around here.’ (In the 2016 edition p140.)

And from The Crow Trap (1999) Ann Cleeves, p323:

‘This is all I could find.’ She grinned so they would know she was lying.

‘That’s very kind.’ Anne took the letter and added, ‘Do you know where Edmund Fulwell is?’

Refining dialogue

Good advice to an aspiring writer would be to read their dialogue out loud, as this helps to bring authenticity. It is also a good idea to look at a selection of titles and see how speech is presented, as some authors make unconventional approaches work well.

Some prefer not to use speech marks at all, seeing them as an interruption, distraction or perhaps slowing the pace too much. Not using speech marks seems especially popular for writing in the present tense or over a restricted timespan.

Some genres and target readerships may lend themselves to less conventional approaches; some recent books which present speech unconventionally include Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney and Summer (2020) by Ali Smith.

There is a great deal to writing well and, as the communication medium, writing needs to convey the writer’s message to the reader. The writer decides on what the message is, and the extent to which conventional approaches are used is their choice.

Where editorial assistance is sought, the author needs to consider their style decisions and present these within their project brief to enable an efficient collaboration.

These points should help you to consider what is involved in writing engaging dialogue and presenting it clearly.  Get it right, and it will give your story variety, interest and pace.

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Bailey, M. (2020). Editing Fiction, UK: August Publishing

New Hart’s Rules: New Oxford Style Manual (2012). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Quoted books (in quoted order)

Hession, R. (2019). Leonard and Hungry Paul. Hebden Bridge: Bluemoose Books Ltd

Donaghue, E. (2010). Room. London: Picador

Levy, D. (2016) Hot Milk. UK: Penguin Random House

Coetzee, JM. (1999) The Lives of Animals. Princetown: Princetown University Press

McEwan, I. (1981) The Comfort of Strangers. 2006 edition. London: Vintage

Sippings, M. (2018) Cold Sunflowers. Amazon

Ivey, E. (2016) The Snow Child. Second edition. London: Tinder Press

Edwards, M. (2014) What You Wish For. Seattle: Thomas & Mercer

Garfield, L. (1967) Smith. 2004 Edition. London: Puffin Modern Classics

Moyes, J. (2012) Me Before You. London: Penguin Books