Self Editing Tip #5: Let’s “Talk” About Punctuation


Today I want to talk about punctuation, specifically in writing dialogue. I feel oddly fortunate that my own education, especially as a Creative Writing major in college, ingrained in me a certain inherent knowledge of how to write dialogue with correct punctuation. I’ve spoken and worked with a surprisingly large handful of other authors who simply had no idea what the correct usage of these elements were in their fiction. Which is perfectly okay! Writing courses, degrees, publications, or a working knowledge of all grammar and punctuation elements are not essentials of being a writer.

A writer’s inspiration, the drive to pump out stories and characters, the willingness to step aside and let one’s story take control with a life of its own – those are the prerequisites, in my opinion, of becoming, being, and remaining a writer. However, new information tools never hurt anyone (I’m constantly learning something new every day!), and I wanted to help those of you who do not particularly understand exactly how dialogue punctuation works.

These are the most common errors I see in working with my clients and reading submissions from otherwise extraordinarily talented wordsmiths:

#1: Single ‘quotes’ versus double “quotations”

This one seems like a given, and maybe it is. But there are clear standards for when to use one instead of the other. Double quotations are most often used to show an exact line of dialogue spoken by a character. Example: “I really want to go to the swimming pool today,” Caitlyn said. Now, I say most of the time because there are certain situations where single quotes can be more aptly used to show dialogue – I’ve done it in my own work.

For example, in my novel Daughter of the Drackan, half of my characters communicate telepathically. To show this (instead of constantly reminding the reader that these conversations take place in the characters’ minds), I use single quotes and italicize the dialogue. Example: She met his gaze and sent her thoughts directly to him. ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore.’ I use the single quotations plus italicizing the dialogue to show that this is not normal, audible conversation, but is an exchange taking place within the characters’ minds.

On the complete other end of the spectrum exists the use of a character’s internal thoughts, which can most definitely be expressed in writing without the narration summarizing these thoughts. However, I’ve found that the most acceptable form of writing specific thoughts is the use of only italics. Example: I really have done it this time, she thought. Any kind of quotation use here is unnecessary. The italics show the thought as separate from the narration (where the dialogue tag is not italicized), and the lack of quotations shows that this was not said aloud. Too often I have seen this written as: “I really have done it this time,” she thought. Not only is this incorrect, but it’s very confusing to the reader. Did this character think it silently? If so, the double quotations should not be there. Did the character say it out loud, because it’s in quotations? If so, the dialogue tag needs to be she muttered, or she whispered, or she said to no one in particular. And it’s important to keep in mind that this only works when the character is in a situation in which talking out loud to themselves is acceptable.

#2: Quotations with dialogue tags

This really is where I see a lot of authors have the most difficulty. Within this topic, there are four major things to remember.

1) Dialogue tags, whether they come before or after the spoken dialogue, are still a part of the same sentence. If a character says, whispers, growls, or yells something, using a dialogue for this is describing the dialogue, and remains part of the sentence. Example: “You’re always so mean,” she cried. Example: He turned to her with a smile and softly whispered, “You know how much I love desert.” So, if the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue, you first must have the comma inside the double quotation marks, and the period at the end of the dialogue tag. If the tag comes before the dialogue, this is pretty much the exact opposite. The comma goes outside of the quotations, and the period that ends the sentence in the dialogue goes at the end of the sentence inside the quotations. So many times I see this written as “You’re always so mean” she cried. or “You’re always so mean.” she cried. These are both incorrect. The first is missing the comma inside the quotations, and the second has a period within the quotations instead of the comma. The other way this can be done, which I really recommend using sparingly because it has a greater potential to distract from the dialogue, is cutting up sentence of dialogue with the dialogue tag in the middle. Example: “I must say, my dear,” he added, raising his glass for a toast, “you have prepared an excellent meal.” Most often, this is used to show that the speaker may pause in his sentence, or that he says something, pauses to raise his glass, and then continues. The rules still apply to this as well, combining both rules from the above examples. The comma goes inside the quotations for the first part of the dialogue, the dialogue tag is inserted with a comma outside the quotations, and when the sentence is finished the period goes within the last set of quotations.

2) Proper capitalization of any narration, dialogue tag or otherwise, is very important. Sometimes, it is the combination of the dialogue punctuation with proper capitalization that dissolves any confusion over what’s actually happening. If the dialogue tag is attached to the end of the dialogue sentence, the beginning word of the dialogue tag is never capitalized (unless that next word is a proper noun, such as your character’s name). Example: “I can’t believe you’re an hour late,” his wife scolded. Example: “His name is Harold,” Caroline explained. On the other hand, the first word of a line of dialogue, even if the dialogue tag is attached to the beginning of the sentence, is always capitalized. Example: The cashier handed him his change and asked, “Would you like a bag?” The only time this does not apply is when the dialogue tag comes in the middle of the dialogue sentence, and I’ll use the same example from above: “I must say, my dear,” he added, raising his glass for a toast, “you have prepared an excellent meal.” The second half of the dialogue sentence is not capitalized inside the quotations because it is still the same sentence.

3) A dialogue tag is never a question. Your character may ask a question, but the dialogue tag is always a description, and is not part of that question. Example: “Where did you get that dog?” she asked with a frown. If your character asks a question, the question mark always goes within the quotations, and never outside of them. “Where did you get that dog,” she asked with a frown. “Where did you get that dog,” she asked with a frown? These are completely incorrect. No exceptions.

4) If the narration does not express that the character is speaking, asking, replying, commenting, or sobbing a piece if dialogue, it is not a dialogue tag. Example: She turned to him with a wry smile. “You really know how to make a girl feel special.” This is opposed to the very incorrect way I’ve seen so many times: She turned to him with a wry smile, “You really know how to make a girl feel special.” The first part of this incorrectly written sentence is not a dialogue tag because it simply describes an action without attaching the act of the character speaking. If you wanted to make this one sentence, with a dialogue tag, it would instead be: She turned to him with a wry smile and said, “You really know how to make a girl feel special.” That ‘and said’ added before the dialogue is the only way to make this one complete sentence and still written correctly (of course, any variation of ‘said’ can be used – shouted, murmured, whispered, etc.).

#3: Ellipses and em dashes

These can be used anywhere in dialogue to show a pause in thought, or a change of direction of your character’s speech. I’m just going to address here how to use each of them correctly when at the end of a sentence and the end of dialogue. An ellipsis is used when your character trails off, as though their own thoughts took over whatever it was they were about to say. Example: My mother stared out the window and said, “You know, I never really noticed that flower…” Example: “How would you feel if I…” He fumbled with his wallet in search of his business card. Here, the characters are just trailing off. This is perfectly acceptable and does happen outside of fiction – I have a few family members who find it very difficult to finish their own sentences. Always keep in mind with an ellipsis that it consists of only three dots (…). Not more, not less. Huge lines of dots when characters trail off or stutter within their dialogue just screams that the writer thinks ten dots in a row is the best way to show a long pause. It’s not. Em dashes, on the other hand, are used when a line of dialogue is cut off abruptly, either by an action or by another character interrupting them.

Example: She waved her hands and shouted, “I need to get this to the–” 

“Stop yelling,” her sister interrupted.

Example: “There’s a reason I told you to–” The book in question flew through the air and hit Sarah square in the face. Notice, here, that the sentence of narrative is a new sentence, not a dialogue tag. I have also seen em dashes used like so: “There’s a reason I told you to–,” The book in question flew through the air and hit Sarah square in the face. That comma there, after the em dash, is incorrect. Both the em dash and the ellipsis serve as the only form of punctuation needed at the end of the dialogue. (*Note: two consecutive dashes in between two words, with no space in between the words or the dashes, will create one solid, long line, known as the em dash.)

I also feel that it’s my duty to acknowledge that using ellipses and em dashes within narration, however, in order to show pauses in the description or a change of thought in the narrative is up to the discretion of the writer. I recommend keeping them to a minimum in any prose, but they seem to be used interchangeably, for the most part, outside of dialogue.

#4: Each character deserves their own paragraph

I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll just make it short. This is so important! In my opinion, it is never okay to put dialogue of two different characters in the same paragraph. Every time a new person speaks, they must have their own space to do so. Not only is this the correct way of writing dialogue, but it also serves a purpose. That paragraph change is a chance for the reader to subconsciously differentiate the speakers, and to mentally prepare themselves for the fact that a new person is speaking.

I have seen the following done, as a decent attempt to follow these rules:

“Why do you have to be so rude?” she asked, and when I looked at her I couldn’t help from yelling,

“I can be whatever I want to be!”

Yes, the new speaker gets their own paragraph, but this is so incorrect. A new paragraph should never start in the middle of a sentence, and because this dialogue tag was inserted between two pieces of dialogue, without ending the sentence, the writer has created their own Catch-22. If you ever see this happening in your writing, just split up the dialogue tags into two sentences. Please.

“Why do you have to be so rude?” she asked.

When I looked at her I couldn’t help from yelling, “I can be whatever I want to be!”

I hope that these explanations of punctuation in your written dialogue can give you, and your editor, a whole new appreciation for the no doubt natural yet exciting conversations in your fiction.

If you have any other questions about dialogue punctuation that I did not cover here, please leave a comment and I will address the “issue”. If I seemed to have left something out, let me know. I, too, am on a constant learning adventure!

One thought on “Self Editing Tip #5: Let’s “Talk” About Punctuation

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