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Punctuation

What is the appropriate punctuation for dialogue? Well, in U.S. English, we use quotation marks, like this:

“…”

U.K. English is:

‘…’

Germans use different quotes:

„…” or «…»

And also in French and Spanish:

«…»

But, that’s just extra info.

Going back to the U.S. English quotes, we end dialogue that is followed by a speaker attribute (a.k.a. speaker tag) with:

  • commas for statements
    • “I dare say, Georgina, we’re in for some nasty weather, said the young man to his companion.
  • exclamation points for excited statements
    • “Oh no!” exclaimed the young lady.
  • question marks for questions
    • “Who told you that?” she asked.

When the dialogue is not followed by a speaker attribution, then we use:

  • periods for statements.
    • “I dare say, Georgina, we’re in for some nasty weather.
  • exclamation points
    • “Oh no! Not rain!
  • question marks
    • “Who told you that?

The same holds true for any speaker attributes that include action. (correct punctuation in blue, speaker attribute in green)

I dare say, Georgina. The young man glanced up at the sky. “We’re in for some nasty weather.

OR

“Oh no!”  She flicked her eyes down to her silk walking dress.  “My newest gown will be ruined!

OR

“Who told you that?She pushed the parasol open and lifted it over her head–the picture of dainty concern.


Grammar

Whenever a new person speaks, you have to make a new paragraph. Sometimes, for stylistic purposes, the new-paragraph-rule can be skipped, but normal circumstances demand that dialogue start on a new line.

Additionally, the speaker attribute is always in the same paragraph as the dialogue.  In other words, whenever there is an action or narrative associated with the person speaking, then you must keep it with the dialogue.  (speaker attributes and dialogue in different colors for different speakers)

The young man glanced up at the sky. “I dare say, Miss Georgina. We’re in for some nasty weather.”

“Oh no! Not rain!” She flicked her eyes down to her new gown. “Who told you that?”

“No one needed to tell me, my dear,” he replied, hooking his arm under hers. “A glance at those clouds should be sufficient warning.”

“My new dress shall be ruined, Mr. Peterson. Take me home.” She frowned at the young man, her pink lips pouting in a way that no man could resist.

“Certainly.”

As you can see, whenever the speaker changes, a new paragraph begins.


Punctuation for Style

For style, you can add in things such as ellipses or dashes.  An ellipses gives the impression of slower speaking or of pauses in between words.   A dash has the effect of interrupting, as if a person has had a sudden thought mid-speech. Once again, look below:

“Certainly As you wish.” He bit at his lip unconsciously he had been looking forward to their walk. Alas, foul weather and a lady’s fashion never mix.
“Mr. Peterson” Georgina began, considering her words carefully.   “How do you feel about Miss Allison Patrick?”
“Why do you askah, I see. Are you jealous?”


Dialogue Mistakes

One common mistake is the frequent use of a word other than said. The word “said” becomes invisible to the reader, so it’s the word you should use most often in your speaker attributes.  Of course, any word that expresses speech can be used in the speaker tags, but keep in mind that too many different speaker tags can stops the flow of your dialogue.

Compare:

“Don’t go there,” he commanded. “There’s a puddle.”
“Oh dear,” she murmured. “I hadn’t even noticed.”
“That’s what I thought,” he declared.
“Oh, Mr. Peterson, you’re so thoughtful,” she exclaimed.

To:

“Don’t go there,” he said. “There’s a puddle.”
“Oh dear,” she murmured. “I hadn’t even noticed.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Oh, Mr. Peterson, you’re so thoughtful.”

Okay, so clearly the first example has too many words other than “said”. It doesn’t flow at all.  Keep in mind, though, that using the word “said” too often can also interrupt the dialogue’s flow.  If it’s obvious who’s speaking, then don’t bog us down with “he said/she said.”  At the same time, you don’t skimp on speaker tags either–if we can’t figure out who’s talking, add in a tag.

The same loss of flow often happens if you use the person’s name too often — or worse, no tags at all!

“Oh dear,” Miss Georgina murmured. “I hadn’t even noticed.”
“That’s what I thought,” Mr. Peterson replied.
“Oh, Mr. Peterson, you’re so thoughtful,” Miss Georgina said.
“Isn’t he though?” asked Miss Gloria, appearing beside them.
“He is, he is!” exclaimed Miss Georgina.

OR

“Oh dear. I hadn’t even noticed.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Oh, Mr. Peterson, you’re so thoughtful.”
“Isn’t he though?”
“He is, he is!”

Confusing, huh?

So, how do you figure out when to add names, when to add pronouns, and when to nix the tag all together?  My suggestion is to read it out loud.  You”ll quickly hear where names and tags need to go.  Trust me on this.

Another dialogue problem is when you use, as a speaker tag, an action that is not a verb meaning “to speak”.

“He is, he is!” she laughed.

OR

“That’s what I thought,” he nodded.

OR

“Isn’t he though?” she grinned.

Think about it this way: it is physically impossible for a person to nod their words, grin their words, laugh them, or any other action that is not a synonym of “to say.”  Fortunately, this mistake is easily fixed by either making the messed-up-speaker-tag its own sentence, or adding in a correct speaker tag.

“He is, he is!”  She laughed.

OR

“That’s what I thought,” he said, nodding.

OR

“Isn’t he though?” she asked with a grin.


Conclusion

Dialogue isn’t easy — the mechanics must be learned and the finesse must be practiced.  Wanna know the best way to learn?  Read.

Read how other writers do it, see how they use punctuation, tags, and action to create a realistic, flowing dialogue.  Best of luck!

Any questions?  Feel free to ask.

-S.

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