dialogue punctuation
 made easy

 HOW TO PUNCTUATE DIALOGUE

Dialogue represents a major part of your novel, so punctuating dialogue well is not just something to leave to the editor; it is quite crucial that you learn how to punctuate dialogue yourself. The following is taken straight from Module 6 of my writing course, so, if you do the course,  you will have a sense of déjà vu (or ennui – don’tcha love French?) when you get to it.  


British versus American Style
US conventional punctuation has diverged from the traditional British style. Consequently, avid readers will note that  double quotes mark dialogue in US-published books, yet single quotes have the same function in many British books – although not necessarily!
The important thing is to choose one style and stick to it throughout your book.  If you have a publisher in mind, it is a good idea to investigate the style they approve (just look at books they’ve published) and follow that.

Quotes within quotes

Of course, somewhere in the many pieces of dialogue, you will probably have someone quoting someone else.  That means you switch to single quotes, if using doubles, or to double quotes if using singles.
US  “Did I hear you say, ‘Mary can’t come’ when you spoke to John on the phone?”
BRIT. ‘Did I hear you say, “Mary can’t come” when you spoke to John on the phone?’


To some degree, what seems right is only what the eye becomes accustomed to.  I am now so used to double quotes, that I find external single quotes odd.  Nevertheless, both systems are acceptable – somewhere in the world.
There are some other minor differences between the two styles. If you are close to publication, or otherwise need guidance, I recommend that you purchase a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, if you seek publication in the US, or the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for British or Australian audiences.


Pinning Down the Basics of Dialogue Punctuation
Once we get past the first basic decision about whether we use single or double quotes as first-line speech delimiters, there are several conventions that are so universal they are rather rule-like in application.
Throughout my novel writing course lesson material, you will see that I have chosen to use double quotes, so the following examples simply follow my chosen style.


1.    When speech stands alone without dialogue tags [he said,  AND John yelled are dialogue tags], it is enclosed in quote marks and the punctuation lies inside the quotes.
“Mark, this is the file I want copied.”
“Mark, is this the file you want copied?”
“Mark, what a huge file!”


TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following as tag-free dialogue (as above).
1)     I see you have mastered basic dialogue punctuation
2)    What else would you expect from a literary genius
3)    What an enormous ego
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2.    When a tag goes on the front, it is followed by a comma. The rest remains the same.
Jack said, “Mark, this is the file I want copied.”
Jack said, “Mark, is this the file you want copied?”

TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following with dialogue tags (as above).
1)    Trish said  hey  I’ve got a good idea
2)    Bill replied  spill the beans
3)    Marty said  will it take all night
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3.    When a tag is added after the speech, the full stop (period) inside the final quote mark becomes a comma, and the full stop/period moves to the new end of the sentence.
    “Mark, this is the file I want copied,” Jack said.
    “I am hotly opposed to this, Henley,” Sarah said.
    “I have absolutely no objection,” Lord Moncreiff replied.


TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following with dialogue tags (as above).
1)    Julie  I am deeply indebted to you  Bill said
2)    Don’t tell me Tom’s come back home  Arthur said
3)    There is nothing to the rumour then George said Nancy
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4.    However, when the speech ends in a question mark or exclamation mark, and a tag is added at the end, question marks and exclamations remain unchanged and there is no bridge at all between the speech and the tag. DON’T add a comma.

“Mark, what a huge file!” Jack said.
“Mark, is this the file you want copied?” Jack said.
“How do you explain that, George?” she asked.


TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following with dialogue tags (as above).
1)    Who wants to go to the movies Marcia asked
2)    Holy cow  Mike yelled
3)    Is that the best you can do Charles  Lulubelle said
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5.    When the tag is inserted somewhere inside a complete sentence, commas are used before and after, and new quote marks are added to show where speech stops and starts again, on either side of the authorial intrusion.

Joan said, “Mary, did you ever expect a murder to happen right next door?”
“Mary,” Joan said, “did you ever expect a murder to happen right next door?”
“Mary, did you ever expect,” Joan said, “a murder to happen right next door?”
“Mary, did you ever expect a murder to happen,” Joan said, “right next door?”
You will notice that, when the interrupted sentence continues, it does not take a capital letter.  This is true, even in the first example, when only “Mary” is isolated, leaving a complete sentence on the other side.

The key to this dialogue punctuation – the question you must ask yourself – is: “Was it one whole sentence before I messed with it?” If so, then I must show the interruptions with commas only.


TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following with dialogue tags (as above).
Mary replied, “Joan, I’ll have you know, in this neighbourhood murders are a dime a dozen.”
1)    Joan  Mary replied  I’ll have you know, in this neighbourhood murders are a dime a dozen
2)    Joan, I’ll have you know Mary replied  in this neighbourhood murders are a dime a dozen
3)    Joan, I’ll have you know, in this neighbourhood  Mary replied  murders are a dime a dozen
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6.    When two complete sentences are connected by a tag, however, no sentence is actually interrupted, so the first sentence is treated as in (3) above, and the second sentence starts with a capital and stands alone.


Here are the two distinct sentences:
Mary, I didn’t know this town was so evil.
You’ve been chatting every morning to a murderer.
Here’s how we connect them:
“Mary, I didn’t know this town was so evil,” Joan said.  “You’ve been chatting every morning to a murderer.”

So, a first sentence that ends with an exclamation mark or question mark will remain unchanged:


“Mary, what an evil town!”  Joan said. “Fancy a murder happening right next door.”

“Mary, did you ever expect that?” Joan said. “Fancy a murder happening right next door.”


TRY IT YOURSELF – punctuate the following with dialogue tags (as above).
1)    I have never liked this town  Mary said   It makes me feel depressed
2)    Is that the local beauty queen Jill said  I thought she’d be prettier than that
3)    What a load of nonsense  Mike replied  there’s no such thing as ghosts
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8.    It is also a generally recognised convention that each time the dialogue moves from one speaker to another, the writer takes a new paragraph. This results in:

     “Have you found the course interesting and fruitful, my dear?” he asked.  His tone indicated that he was a little fearful she might say no. He peered over his half-glasses.
     
     “Oh, Dr Edwards, how could it be otherwise, when we have the benefit of a great mind like yours applying itself to the greatest, most profound, issues of the human condition?  Not to mention that you’re totally gorgeous.”  Delilah batted her eyes at him, sending a shower of mascara down his tie.

     “Gorgeous is good.  Keep talking,” Edwards mumbled, as he stuffed one of the ridiculously small sandwiches into his mouth.

When there are no tags, it results in exchanges such as this:

    “That’s stupid!”
    “S’not stupid.  If your father was poor, instead of rich and famous, you’d think the same. I’m going to do it, anyway.”
    “Bet you don’t.”
    “You see if I don’t!”
    “You’re wacko!”
    “Maybe I am, but I got guts.  That’s something you never heard of.”

This works well, if it doesn’t go on too long, or so long that the reader becomes confused about who is speaking.


There's a page dedicated to DIALOGUE TAGS - CLICK TO GO THERE.


NOW go to the DIALOGUE CONSTRUCTION EXERCISE.  It is a test to see if you have mastered the essentials, having practiced them with examples immediately above.  Send your worked sheet to writing-course@hotmail.com and I will send you the answer key so that you can check your work.

If you would like writing coach Jim Parsons to assess your writing skills or some excerpts from your manuscript free of charge, download the assessment tasks  HERE and send your work to writing-course@hotmail.com


Jim says: “You might also like to try the first instruction module and assignment 1 of my popular novel writing course. It’s yours free and with no obligation to continue.  Simply send a request titled “FREE MODULE PLEASE” at writing-course@hotmail.com  . Feel free to introduce yourself and tell me a little about your writing experience, the genre you’re interested in writing, and what you’d like to achieve.  Cheers, Jim.”