Can’t say why, but I’m feeling like Ms. Tutor these days. <LOL> Let’s continue dialog as it relates to punctuation.
There’s nothing wrong with bending or breaking rules now and again in fiction writing; in fact, it can be rather refreshing. When it comes to dialog punctuation, though, it’s better to stick with the norm. Sure, you’ll find a few authors that break from said norm—like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Cormac McCarthy (“if you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate”). Generally speaking, though, we’re accustomed to certain dialog conventions and can find it jarring if they’re not typically utilized.
Given most of us don’t like to study grammar and the like, let’s stick to the basics as they relate to American writing rules (our friends across the Big Pond have different ones).
Two main/common rules to start:
- Keep punctuation inside the quotation marks when a character is speaking.
- Start new paragraphs for new speakers (this makes it easier to follow who’s saying what and when).
Now that we have that emblazoned on the ol’ memory banks, let’s move on to a few more.
Dialog begins with a capitalized word.
“Montague claims he won the bet fair and square,” Nancy declared.
The words a character speaks are inside the quotation (which is known as direct dialog).
“Poor Lidia’s gone mad!”
“Poor Lidia’s gone mad!” she exclaimed, dropping onto the sofa. “Utterly mad!”
As above and below, use a comma between the dialog and tagline.
“I believe Randolph Upperbottom is the murderer,” Taria announced as the butler cleared the table.
Franklin said, “Nonsense. The man was here the whole time.”
Leaping to his feet, Josh declared, “Yes, Inspector, I can prove it!”
Punctuation separates spoken words from other parts of the sentence. Periods, commas, exclamation marks and question marks go inside quotation marks—if part of the dialog/discussion.
“You’ve indulged in too much wine,” Marcus said, affronted. “How could you possibly believe he killed Rachel?”
“She did it!” Laura-Lee said, pointing a shaky finger at the anxious maid.
Here’s an example of when this is not the case:
Taria couldn’t believe her ears. Did Marcus just say, “You’ve indulged in too much wine”?
Utilize commas when a tagline breaks up a sentence.
“To say that,” Eugenia declared, “is to be utterly rude.”
Use single quotes for quotations within dialog—for example, when someone’s speaking, but also quoting what someone else said. Punctuation indicates the difference between what the character is saying and what he/she is quoting (repeating).
“Yes, I’m sure. Marcus definitely said ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’.”
“Marcus said, and I quote, ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’.”
James asked, “Did Marcus really say, ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’?”
What about dialog that’s interrupted by an action or thought? Follow these steps:
- Insert quotation marks at the start of the dialog and an em dash ** at the end of the quotation.
- Add the action or thought and then insert another em dash.
- Use another quotation mark to continue with the dialog.
- Employ a period (exclamation mark or question mark) when the dialog is finished.
Note: there are no spaces between dashes and quotation marks.
“He did it”—Detective Leonard slapped the table—“but we can’t prove it.”
What other basics should we cover? Ah yes—interrupted dialog.
When a character is speaking and is interrupted (cut off), use an em dash before the closing quotation mark. (Dialog can be interrupted anywhere, but give thought as to where best to place the disruption.)
Dashes are one thing, ellipses another. What do we use … for? Right! To demonstrate a character’s words trailing off.
“I can’t believe he actually thought that . . .”
We shouldn’t forget names in dialog. Use a comma before and/or after a name.
“Kyle was the one who shot you, David.”
“David, Kyle shot you.”
“Kyle shot you, David, and then he shot himself.”
What about super long dialog—for example, when a character is explaining something? You’ll want to break it up into a couple of paragraphs so as not to lose the reader (or create eye strain). If you do this, don’t use quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph.
“Pierre was so envious of his twin brother’s success, he eventually grew angry, even resentful,” Henry explained to the guests. “Finally, emotions took control and all rational thought was lost.
“He spent months planning the perfect murder and then how he would take over his brother’s life. Those millions would be his, of this he was determined.”
Yes, you can have dialog and narration in the same paragraph. Simply add dialog if the narration (description, account) refers to one character or is the point of view (POV) of only one character. Decide where best to place it: beginning, middle, or end. If there are several characters, begin dialog with a new paragraph and a dialog tag.
“I just saw Janka stab th—”
A knife caught him in the throat and he toppled down the steep stairs.
“Marvin really cared for—”
“The hell he—”
“—you. He did. He told me so!”
** An em dash is a punctuation mark, a symbol (—) that is used in writing to demonstrate a break in thought or sentence structure. It’s used for emphasis, to define or explain, or to separate two clauses. ** An en dash is similar to an em dash, but is shorter (-). It’s used a) to connect continuing or inclusive numbers, or b) to connect components of a compound adjective when either of the components is an open compound (whew!). For example, Yonge-Dundas station or 2018-2028.
There you have the basics. Hopefully, you’re not overly daunted. It’s just a matter of practice makes perfect. Truly.
For more intensive/descriptive punctuation rules, do some site hopping—you can never learn enough.