Rules for punctuating consistently: a writer’s unique style

Readers of fiction are flexible folk. You can guide them into your story in a number of ways, as long as YOU, once they’ve learned YOUR system, stick with it. This is part of the contract we make with readers: I may confuse you a bit at the beginning as I get all this started, but trust me, I am doing all these things deliberately, and I will get you well started, and I won’t change things arbitrarily after you’ve made the effort to go along for the story.

By system I mean that most writers start with standard punctuation and formatting. Then we make subtle (some of us) or not so subtle variations.

These are not WRONG if they’re stylistic CHOICES. For example, Cormac McCarthy gets away with not using quotation marks around dialogue. It drives me crazy to read, and I probably won’t read anything else he has written, but I read All The Pretty Horses: after a longer-than-usual start (I really do miss knowing which pieces are dialogue), I got used to his system, tucked it in the back of my mind, and survived the read. Wikipedia discusses ATPH and makes his system somewhat clearer. It helped a lot that I grew up in Mexico, and all my history from school comes from the Mexican history textbooks, so that I appreciated parts of the story most people wouldn’t have knowledge of, and that I wanted to find out what happened – because it was woven in with the history so well.

So, when Janice Hardy ( asked the question: ‘What style (for remembered dialogue) is your favorite?’ I located chunks of my deathless prose to examine how I do it. (If you can’t wait for the answer, skip to the bottom. I talk too much.)

I ask a lot of my readers. The novel I’m working on is complex, has a lot of characters, and uses different kinds of internal monologue depending on the depth of the thoughts of the point of view (POV) character: general mental rambling, actual words, and even ‘remembered dialogue.’ (More on that in a bit.)

In some chapters there is a need to provide background reactions from an audience.

There are snippets of movies, and songs, and novels written by one of the main characters.

The outside world of entertainment, TV, and internet puts its two cents’ worth in, formatted as epigraphs (at the beginnings of chapters) or text insertions. The prologue is a longish quotation from a faux New Yorker article.

But don’t worry. I actually have a system for understanding what’s what, and I am CONSISTENT about it. In this post I use ALL CAPS not to shout at you, but to emphasize something. I know it’s non-standard for internet, but the form of emphasis with something like *word emphasized* or _phrase emphasized_ doesn’t do it for me. I try not to use caps too much.

And it’s all combined in a consistent way with POV. I’m writing it here not to show that I somehow feel qualified to ‘teach’ other writers anything, but because I have figured it out for myself, and haven’t seen anything quite as I do it.

Note: I also use as few dialogue tags (she said, George whispered) as I can get away with. I’m far more likely to use the real estate to give you a short action, as in:

The producer darted to the door. “Phew! Now you won’t have to rush.” Quick peek at her watch, head shake. “Cutting it awfully close. I gotta run.” Hesitation. “Is there anything you need? Dana insisted—”

Without further ado, here are the rules I’ve cobbled together to write by, my stylistic choices:

1. Dialogue: If it has double quotes around it, it is being said RIGHT NOW in front of you, the reader, in an active scene. Period. Sort of like you watching TV.

“You okay, babe? You haven’t said a word.”

2. Marking a word or phrase: If it has single quotes around it, and is a word or short phrase, the quotation marks carry the standard meaning: this word or phrase is slightly off, not quite right, ironic, or other not-literal meaning.

I thought his ‘ride’ – a camel – was more of a disaster waiting to happen than a mode of transportation.

3. Internal Monologue: If it’s in italics, NOT within double quotation marks, the words are tight internal monologue, i.e., the pov character is thinking that exact set of words, right now. If it isn’t in italics, NOT within double quotation marks, but is clearly something in the pov’s thoughts, it is more general internal monologue – the character is thinking that, but without quite those exact words.

A ghost house. Everything I’ve worked for is a dream.

4. Italics: I only use this form of emphasis by choice* for several distinct, but clearly obvious from context, occasions:

4a) Close internal monologue (see 3, above)

4b) Audience reaction when the characters are talking in front of a studio audience (because the are not participants in the conversation the way the host of the show and her guest are – but they are present:

From the far side of the stage where his band lounged, George squawked the bass.
Laughter and applause.
“Any plans to take one home?”

4c) Standard emphasis of a single word or short phrase within dialogue:

“Living in a castle, using a privy in winter…?”

4d) Ditto in pov’s thoughts (if the sentence were all italics, I’d make the emphasized word NOT italics for the same kind of contrast):

Stage fright? Prayer? What did she have to hide?

4e) To mark the name of a show, book, or movie:

“Now, tell us about your band, the Deadly Nightshades.”
Night Talk (TV talk show)
Roland, Dodgson (movie titles)
Prairie Fires (book title)

The answer to formatting remembered dialogue:

With my rules explained, I can now answer Janice Hardy’s question – because I format remembered dialogue DIFFERENTLY from all her examples. For remembered dialogue (essentially dialogue remembered in its exact wording WITHIN a pov’s thoughts), I use SINGLE QUOTES:

Bianca glanced at the frame on the nightstand with its ridiculous school-photo background of autumn leaves. ‘Bird in hand, princess,’ Daddy said. Thank God the house was hers, and an untouchable trust kept it that way forever. “We’ve had this discussion, Michael. I’d lose half my fans.”

My reasons? That using the single quotes makes it clear that it is not ACTUAL dialogue (see 1 above). Note that it ALSO gets italics because she thinks the EXACT words. Clear as mud?

These are all stylistic choices, and different writers, editors, and publishers  make them differently, even in traditionally published books of fiction in the US. They are not WRONG – the only wrong is when a single book or a single author forgets to keep punctuation consistent – readers DO get confused. They may not know exactly WHY, but they will notice, and they don’t like it.

Thanks to Janice for this interesting blog topic. Except for Example 2, all of the examples come from the text of the scenes I have posted on the Pride’s Children tab of this blog.

This nitpicking is too technical for most people, and I hope I guide readers of my fiction into understanding these ‘rules’ (especially multiple italics use) in such a way that it is transparent to them by a few scenes into the story. I apologize to non-US readers – I can only handle one system without going completely nuts. I have read tons of British stuff, and it is all punctuated differently – and when I read their stuff, I read by their rules.

*Wordpress – and the free 2012 theme – allows me very limited control over how things appear on this blog. So I have to use the Block Quote feature to set off the epigraphs at the beginnings of chapters, and snippets of movies embedded within the scenes (meant to give the impression you are seeing a bit of the movie). When I self-publish, the ebook will allow much more formatting control, and, of course, the print book will look exactly as I want it to look, because otherwise it doesn’t go out. A very real benefit to the opinionated author with complicated control issues.

Comments? Do you do something different from what Janice or I do? And why?


10 thoughts on “Rules for punctuating consistently: a writer’s unique style

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Thank you – and welcome.

      A writer’s style will eventually gel into something the writer can rely on. I’m not saying change isn’t necessary after that, but many things are easier because there is no reason to reexamine choices which are working well.

      You can’t reinvent the wheel for every new story – it is too exhausting, and you never finish.


  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Alicia, I wandered over via your link on Wrede’s blog. I like your rules for punctuation. You’ve developed uses that I have yet to need (as a writer), but I can see they work well.

    Your post lured me into reading some of Pride’s Children, which I’d been meaning to do, but not gotten around to. 😉 Wow! Really great stuff! I kept saying to myself: “Just one more chapter. Oh! Just one more.” I finally dragged myself away at a much later hour in the evening than I’d planned!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Music to my ears – you are too kind.

      I’m glad the post was of interest – I develop things for my own use, and figure someone else may be able to use them. I hadn’t seen anything quite like that in any of my many books on writing.


  2. LastTechAge

    I read this some time ago. Just decided to comment when I realized that you made me clean up my own act. Darn. My blog uses all kinds of punctuation cues to indicate irony, exasperation, or other such non-flat writing styles. I felt a bit uncomfortable without really putting my finger-tip on the issue but then I found this. A week or so later, I wrote up a guide for myself so that the posts could be consistent.

    So, Alicia, your analysis here changed the way I work. Completely. Doin’ tech, gotta be consistent. L J is great work from great effort and I keep coming back for more; you’re changing my own style! Am enjoying Pride’s Children, BTW. Charlie


    1. ABE Post author

      Hi, Charlie – good to see you here.

      I think you can get away with just about anything if you are organized, tidy, and consistent. But too many different headings, and text styles confuse me – I have a simple mind. Remember when we first got FONTS to play with?

      Most of the time I also keep posts between 500 and 2000 words. I’m not perfect at it, but try to keep in in a comfortable reading chunk.

      You do know you can take a long post, create a series of them instead, and schedule them to post, right? On WordPress it’s easy – use Schedule – and set the time and date, instead of Publish. Write your regular post; then create several new posts, copy the whole post into them, and delete successive bits until you have several posts which form a series. Label them with parts, and Schedule them when you’d like them to come out – same amount of work in the writing, more digestible posts for the reader.

      Fiction is different, but even there, in this day and age, a reader consumes a chunk that’s not too large more easily than a huge piece, especially online. This is one of the reasons I put up a scene at a time – 2-10 pages typically – rather than a chapter.

      I’m glad you’re finding some of this stuff useful for your blog – which is my hope when I share it. I have learned so much from other writing blogs, fiction and non – so when I find something I haven’t seen done quite the same way, I add it to the available advice – maybe someone will find it and use it.



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