Proper Use of Quotation Marks in Fiction Writing


In the world of punctuation, there are many rules and usages. A period likes to stop, a comma can pause, and an exclamation mark can scream. So what is the purpose of quotation marks? They can give your writing a voice.

We all learned in grade school how to use quotation marks, but after so many years of editing, I’m still shocked to see that writers either use them incorrectly or inconsistently avoid them. There are writers who omit quotation marks as a stylistic choice, like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri uses in The Lowland, but as with any “rules” in writing, you must first know the rules before you can break them.

Simply put, quotation marks are used to set off material that is quoted. And, you can quote me on this, I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a fiction book of any genre that doesn’t have dialogue. Characters need to speak, right?

Quotation marks are those double apostrophes that swing both ways—left and right (“ = opening; ” = closing). They always travel in pairs and are placed at the beginning and the end of dialogue.

So, let’s review some examples of how to use quotation marks in fiction work.

John and David ran into the woods. The sky darkened as the sun dipped below the horizon. The cool wind bit at their cheeks. A branch snapped in the distance.

“Did you hear that?” John said.

“Yes,” David replied. His heart pounded in fear.

The boys quietly followed the path down toward the river. They had heard of a ghost haunting these woods, but they never believed it. Just a tall tale rumored at school. There was no way Henry, the Ghost of Highwater, really existed.

In this example, John and David’s dialogue is spoken; therefore, quotation marks are needed. As you can see from the example, the “opening” quotation mark (“) is placed at the beginning of the dialogue, and the “closing” quotation mark (”) is placed at the end of the dialogue. Keep in mind that American English places punctuation (periods, commas, etc.) inside quotation marks, while UK English places punctuation outside the quotation marks.

While most writers know to use quotation marks for dialogue, confusion arises on how to use quotation marks when dialogue continues onto the next paragraph, and the next paragraph, and the next . . .

When a character has long chunks of dialogue, it will be difficult to read if there are no paragraph breaks (readers will feel disjointed if there’s a five-page paragraph). When quoted dialogue carries from one paragraph to the next, the closing quotation mark doesn’t appear until the dialogue has ended, and each paragraph will begin with an open quotation mark.

For example:

Bethany stood in front of the podium and looked out at the audience. “Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. My fellow colleagues and I have been very successful in our research, and we want to present our findings in detail at this seminar.

“As you may know, there are countless homeless teens in our city, and we haven’t done everything we can as a community, as a city, or as a society to tackle this problem. Last year, there were over one hundred homeless teens living on the streets in our community, and more than half of those teens have been arrested.

“We need to do better. Our schools need to do better. Our parents need to do better. Our leaders need to do better. We, as a community, need to come together to ensure that our children are nurtured, cared for, and loved. It is my goal to make this happen.”

In this example, Bethany’s dialogue continues for more than one paragraph. Open quotation marks are used at the beginning of each paragraph to indicate to the reader that the character is still speaking. The closing quotation mark is only used at the end of the spoken dialogue.

Things get a little tricky when quoted material is used within quoted material. How can you quote something that’s being quoted? This is where single quotation marks (‘ ’) come in. In American English, single quotation marks are used within double quotation marks to indicate a quote within a quote.

For example:

Amy threw her lipstick across the room. “I can’t believe Jackie said that,” she scoffed.

Melissa raised her eyebrows. “What did she say?”

Amy rolled her eyes. “She said, ‘You can’t wear that dress to prom, because I’m wearing that dress to prom.’ Can you believe she said that?”

As shown, Amy is not happy with Jackie for telling her she can’t wear the dress to the prom. Single quotation marks are used to quote Jackie’s dialogue within Amy’s dialogue.

Quotation marks are also used to quote journal articles, magazine articles, short stories, and song titles, but italics are used for titles of books, newspapers, magazines, journals, album titles, etc.

For example:

The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” is on Abbey Road.

“The Things They Carried” is Tim O’Brien’s most famous short story from his collection, The Things They Carried.

The New York Times just published the article “The Small, Happy Life” by David Brooks.

Now that we’ve gone through a few examples, take a look at your own writing to see if you are using quotation marks correctly.

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