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National Punctuation Day: The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue

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National Punctuation Day

Today, September 24, is National Punctuation Day. I’ve written about this before, but last year’s offering was fairly broad-based. This year, I’m going to focus on an area of fiction writing that comes quite easily to some, but for many, is a labyrinth of false starts, dead ends, and forbidding alleyways. What I’m not going to do is tell you how to write scintillating dialogue that turns your characters into real people your readers care about,  all the while deftly advancing your plot. Instead, I’m going to show you how to punctuate your dialogue so your readers understand who said what, and to whom, without having to reread every other line of conversation.

“He said,” she said."He said" "She said"

The simplest dialogue, of course, is a conversation between two people:1

“You look lovely today,” Tom said.

“You look quite handsome yourself,” Susan said.

Two lines of dialogue, each identifying the respective speaker. Some salient points:

  • Dialogue is enclosed with double quotes. Many text editors and word processors will convert those to typographical (open- and close-quotes) if you wish.2
  • Each change in speaker starts a new paragraph.
  • Each bit of dialog (in this example) is a complete sentence, in and of itself; however, within the double-quotes, the punctuation is a comma instead of a period.
  • There is no space after the open quote or between the comma and the close quote, and one space after the close quote.
  • The period goes at the end of the complete sentence, which consists of the dialogue and the attribution.
  • Each line of dialogue is attributed to its speaker.

But what if the dialogue is something other than the simple declarative sentences shown above?

“Look out below!” yelled Tom.

“Why?” Susan hollered back.3

Once again, we see (more or less) complete sentences, but in the first case, the ending punctuation for the dialogue is an exclamation point and a question mark. Both are inside the double quotes, and the complete sentence again ends with a period. Another example before we move on:

Tom watched as Susan entered the room. She looked so beautiful, it almost took his breath away. “You look lovely tonight,” he said.

“Thank you,” replied Susan.

Note that Tom’s dialogue continues the paragraph. We’ve already identified Tom, so it’s perfectly natural to use he said rather than Tom said—and it sounds better, too. It’s also okay to put Tom’s speech in another paragraph, and often, you’ll probably want to do that, especially with longer introductory material or lengthier speeches. Finally, if you prefer to write she replied, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. As we’ll get into in more detail later, you do want to be sure your pronouns refer back to the intended antecedent, but that’s not an issue in this short passage.

“He said,” she said, “there’s more.”

Dialogue can get pretty repetitive, monotonous, and boring if we write nothing but “he said, she said” conversations. Remember, one of the key purposes of dialogue is to move the action along, or at least to show (rather than tell) what characters are doing.

Tom tried not to stare as Susan entered the room. She looked so beautiful, it almost took his breath away. As she walked up to him, he smiled shyly. “You—you look lovely tonight,” he stammered, blushing.

“Why thank you, Tom,” Susan dimpled. “You look quite handsome tonight, yourself.”4

We’ve added quite a few embellishments to our original “he said, she said” bit. Let’s take a closer look.

First, there’s a bit more introductory material before Tom speaks. Rather than simply watching, he’s trying “not to stare.” Clearly, he’s taken with Susan. Not only that, but he is somewhat overwhelmed: his smile is shy, and he stammers out his greeting. And then (horrors!) he blushes.

There are some who would say—and I won’t necessarily argue the point—that the “You—you look lovely” bit is evidence enough that Tom stammered, so a simple Tom said is sufficient. Note the use of the em dash, which indicates a sudden break, rather than an ellipsis . . . which means his voice trails off. (More to come on these two punctuation marks.)

But, what I want you to focus on, in addition to the use of the dash, is the use of the comma before blushing. As a general rule, if you place a gerund or descriptive phrase after said, replied, uttered, spoke, queried, asked, answered, yelled, shouted, et cetera, put a comma after the verb. The general exception to the general rule is, unless it’s an adverb (or adverbial phrase):

“To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” he yelled, galloping through the center of town.

“To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” he yelled, as he spurred on his horse.

“To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” he yelled excitedly.

“To arms! To arms! The British are coming!” he yelled with gusto.

And finally, “You—you look lovely tonight,” he stammered as he blushed.

Back to Susan now. There are a lot of ways the first part of her reply could be written; I chose one of the simplest. That doesn’t mean it is at all good: a lot of people would probably argue about she dimpled. The point is, you and I both know what I mean. Here are some alternatives:

“Why thank you, Tom,” Susan said, dimpling.

“Why thank you, Tom,” Susan replied, as her dimpled face lit up with pleasure.

You get the picture, I hope. Again, I’m not trying to tell you how to write scintillating dialogue, but how to properly punctuate it. Speaking of which, note the second example immediately above. Here, I’ve put a comma before “as,” which begins an adverbial phrase, but I didn’t in the final example of the previous set. This ventures into the whole area of comma usage, which is worthy of an entire article (or more) of its own. In this case, I’m using the comma to help break up the phrasing for the reader. If you prefer to omit the comma in the last example, I won’t argue. I will argue, though, if you omit the comma from Susan said, dimpling.

In the main example, after Susan’s initial reply, she continues speaking. In this instance, I’ve ended the first sentence and started a new one. But if you put your attribution in the middle of the spoken sentence, punctuate it thusly:

“Tom,” answered Susan, “you look quite dashing yourself.”

The attribution is set off by commas on both sides, and the continuation is lower-case.

“There is,” he added, “more yet.”

Quotes within quotes

Occasionally, a character speaking in dialogue is quoting someone else. I try hard to avoid doing that in my own writing, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. So here’s how to do it properly:

Tom turned to Susan and said, “So your father told me, ‘Have my daughter home by eleven, or else.’”

Tom said to Susan, “Your father told me, ‘Have my daughter home by eleven, or else.’ I don’t think I want to know what ‘or else’ means.”

The first example is pretty straightforward: A quotation within dialogue is surrounded by single quotes. If the inner quotation ends the dialogue, there is no space between the closing single and double quotes. Otherwise, all the spacing and punctuation we’ve talked about above apply.

In the second example, the dialogue is expanded past the internal quote. Put a space after the closing single quote. Tom also repeats part of what Susan’s father said in his concluding sentence, and that material is also set off by single quotes.

“Thought speech”

A common theme in speculative fiction (science fiction or fantasy) is telepathy or thought speech: mind-to-mind communication. Conventionally, such speech is set in italics, without quotation marks:

I don’t think this is a very good idea, the Rowan said, broadcasting her thoughts to the rest of the family.

I don’t either, replied her husband, but there isn’t a better alternative.

The italics generally suffice to indicate telepathic communication, so standard attributive terms—said, replied, answered, stated, asked—are preferred to awkward constructions such as “he thought at her.”

Pronoun antecedents

Pronouns (he, she, it, they, and so on) generally refer to someone or something previously identified in your text. However, it’s not too difficult to create confusion with pronouns: “Eric visited Scott after his discharge from the army.” Whose discharge: Eric’s or Scott’s? The same questions can arise in dialogue. In the examples above, we’ve used names, so there hasn’t been an opportunity for confusion. But consider this example:

Tom went off in search of the others. He found Larry and Gary quickly, but it took him a bit longer to locate Harry, who was walking near the dock.

“Hey,” he said, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“I was looking for you, too,” answered Tom.

Raise your hand if you initially thought the first speaker was Tom, not Harry. Yep, quite a few of you. Okay, hands down. Now, if you were confused about who spoke first, until you read Tom’s answer, raise your hands. Not quite so many…but still, more than a couple. The confusion is understandable: I mentioned four names, two of whom were involved in the following dialogue. But the preceding action was all Tom, so most people assume he’s the first speaker. To avoid that confusion, be sure your pronouns refer to the immediate antecedent, unless there is no possibility for confusion:

Tom went off in search of the others. He found Larry and Gary quickly, but it took him a bit longer to locate Sherry, who was walking near the dock.

“Hey,” she said, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“I was looking for you, too,” answered Tom.

Dashes and Ellipses

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed., there are specific ways to use dashes and ellipses to indicate, respectively, sudden breaks and faltering or interrupted speech.

 §6.84 Em dashes to indicate sudden breaks

An em dash or a pair of em dashes may indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue. […]

“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.
“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—”
“Might what?” she demanded.

If the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.

“Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”

§13.39 Faltering or interrupted speech

Suspension points—also used to indicate an ellipsis—may be used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity. In the examples below, note the relative positions of the suspension points and other punctuation.

“I . . . I . . . that is, we . . . yes, we have made an awful blunder!”
“The ship . . . oh my God! . . . it’s sinking!” cried Henrietta.
“But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.

“That’s all,” she wrote.

I hope this relatively brief overview of how to punctuate dialog has been informative and helpful. There are certainly some aspects I’ve omitted, either by accident, or because I tried to keep the scope of this article fairly narrow. But if you have any specific questions or examples you’d like to discuss, please post them in the comments.

 

 


  1. I make no apologies, nor any excuses, for the prose passages I use as examples. Some, I made up; others, I simply stole borrowed copied from convenient places.
  2. Keep in mind this is written for writers of American English; other languages may use other symbols instead of quotes.
  3. Don’t do this at home. If someone yells “Look out below!” just get out of the way. The “why” should become self-evident.
  4. This passage is probably a good example of why I don’t try to write middle-grade or young adult fiction.
 

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