Articles, author, reading, writing, Writing Tips

What is the correct way to write speech in a novel?

I have recently had a friend of mine ask why they see so many different takes on speech

punctuation throughout different books. So I thought I would use my own years worth of research, and not only answer the question but show one of the common takes on what should be done, punctuation-wise.

Why do different books have different ways of showing speech?

The answer is relatively straightforward. A lot of a book’s style can come down to either a publishing house or author’s preference. Some places insist on a single candle, quill, writing,quotation mark (’) being used for speech, whereas others adopt the double quotation mark (“). There is no right and wrong, although different locations will have a more common/preferred style. The truth is, as an author, you can use either, however, consistency is paramount. There is little that can be more jarring to a reader than a change in style part way through.

In my own work I consistently use double quotations for speech. In special circumstances, where internal thoughts or voices can be heard, I use a single quotation, and make the text italic to show the difference in interaction type.

The reader will develop their own feel for the style, so it is vital to make this a smooth and consistent experience.

So if there is no right and wrong answer, what should I do?

The best thing to do is to choose your method, and stick to it. As I said above, consistency is key.

When I first started writing I did months of research around the correct uses of speech. I hated the contradictions of one person saying one thing is right while another says something else, and never was there a definitive resolution. So I decided I would keep note of what I used, and how I used it. This ensures each of my books retain the same layout. For your reference, I am sharing my collection of rules below. Please note, I am not saying this is the right or only way to do it, just that this is how I do it following my research, and the information I was taught during my editing, proofreading, and copywriting courses.

Speech rules:

Always end speech with punctuation

Use a comma if there is a tag line such as he said, she gasped, etc.
Example “Hi,” she said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger.

Use a full stop if the next line following speech is a new sentence.
Example “Whatever you want.” He turned, closing the door softly as he left.

— (EM-dashes) are used inside the speech marks if the speech is cut off abruptly.
Example “What the—”

… (ellipses) are used if the speech trails off, or to indicate a short pause in speech
Example “But he said…”

! if emphasis is needed. Try not to overuse these so that when you do use them it makes more of an impact.
Example “What!”

? if the speech ended in a question
Example “What?”

Note: If the speech marks close with an exclamation point or question mark and are followed by a tag line you, a capital is not required
– wrong “What?” She questioned
– right “What?” she questioned

Always use a capital after opening a speech mark, unless:

1. The person has spoken before a tag line, and said tag line ends with a comma
“Hi,” she panted, “how are you?”


2. The speech is segregated by an EM-dash to add additional information. In the case of this there should also be no closing punctuation and no space between EM-dash and the speech mark, or first word.


“Hi”—she darted across the road—“how are you?”
Note: One thing to be cautious of, a lot of editing software will automatically reverse the opening speech mark after the em-dash to face it, so always double check this.
Wrong —”how are you?”
Corrected —“how are you?”

When not to use a capital after closing speech marks

1. When the text following the speech relates to how something is said, aka, a tag line.
“You’re alright,” she whispered.
“If you say so,” he groaned.

2. As noted previously, if speech ends in a ? or ! a capital is not used after the closing speech marks if it is followed by a tag line.
“Hi, how are you?” he said
“Hi.” There was a flurry of movement.
“Hello?” she whispered. “Is anyone there?”
“Hello,” she whispered, “is anyone there?” Her voice trembled with fear.

3. If speech marks are closed to add extra information with an EM-dash
“Hi”—she darted across the road—“how are you?”

How do I present speech?

Can I put speech anywhere, or does it need its own line?

There is much debate around this topic, and it is one of the hardest to Google an answer quotation-39627_640on. The one thing everyone agrees on is “New speaker new line” after all, if you have multiple people speaking in the same paragraph the reader will not know who is saying what.

“Hello?” she whispered. “Is anyone there?” The sound of movement echoed from above. “I’m here, where are you?” – It is really unclear here how many people are speaking. It could be one, two, or even three.

The largest cause for debate on this matter, however, is where the speech should occur. I favour opening speech on its own paragraph, whereas other people put it part way through the narrative.

“Hello?” she whispered as the sound of movement echoed from above. “Is anyone there?”
The sound of movement echoed from above. “Hello?” she whispered. “Is anyone there?”

Both of these are perfectly acceptable.

I use a new line to open speech, what do I do when someone spoke in the paragraph above and speaks again in the next paragraph, do I have to start a new line?

No. When someone has already spoken, and speak again a few paragraphs later, the standard method it to insert the text into the narrative. To start speech on a new line might suggest to the reader a new person is speaking.

“Hello?” she whispered as the sound of movement echoed from above. “Is anyone there?” The cave was dark and damp. She had long given up hope of rescue, and yet she knew something lurked within the shadows.
Her eyes began to close as fatigue stole her precious awareness. The sound of ruffling fabric caused her to startle, her vision scanned her surroundings desperately. “Hello?” she called again, fear lining her voice. She didn’t know what would be better, an answer to her desperate cries, or silence.

EM-dash rules and usage

In speech to add detail:
Do not use any closing punctuation inside the speach marks, and do not capitalise after the EM-dash.

“There”—he gestured towards speeding car—“that’s the car I was telling you about.”

In a description:
When using an EM-dash to add a little extra information (a parenthesis) you don’t need to use a space, punctuation or a capital before or after the EM-dash

Today he—or more specifically the hunter named Aeolos—would receive an influx of requests

An EM-dash is used in speech, and sometimes in narrative to indicate abrupt stop (someone being interrupted) or missing word.

“What the—”


Before you go:

I hope you enjoyed this and it proves a useful resource. As I mentioned above, these are the rules I follow based on the research and courses I have done. It is important to be aware that there are some variations especially in the rules between British and American English. You may do things completely differently, as long as you are consistent a reader will always know what to expect from you.

Thank you for stopping by, credits for the pictures I have used are found below. I hope to see you again soon.


Article by K.J. Simmill (KS the Dreamer)

Since I still have your attention, and this is a marketing post, it must be time for some shameless self-promotion – check out my award-winning books here, and have a great week x

Parchment and Quill picture by K.J. Simmill
Letter image by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Quotation image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay 
Thanks image Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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