In my last post, we talked about internal dialogues, or thoughts our characters may have. But what about that which is spoken aloud?
How to punctuate dialogue can be confusing for those who are just starting out. I will warn you—from the reader’s perspective, punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.
What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative. Therefore, punctuation is for the reader’s benefit. While we can take some liberties with grammar and dialect when writing conversations, following the established rules of punctuation is essential.
Many people are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not that complicated. Here are four rules to remember:
Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m here,” she said.
Begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are called closed quotes. All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow.
Rule 2: When quoting someone else as part of a conversation, you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.
You can do this in two ways:
- John said, “When I asked her, Grace replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
- John said, “When I asked, Grace replied ‘I can’t go.’”
Note that in the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.
Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation.
- When asked, John said Grace couldn’t go.
We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Grace.
Rule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma: “I’m here,” she said.
- When leading with a speech tag, the comma is separating two clauses, so it is placed after the tag and is not inside the quotation marks: She said, “I’m here.”
- Dialogue that is split with the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.
Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story but happens sometimes in essays and when quoting speeches.
In the following example, I tried to include all four of the rules:
“We’ve forgotten one important thing,” Jan said, “barbarian or southerner, we’re all descended from the Remnant. We are all Aeos’s people, barbarian, southerner, or midlands farmer.
“During my vision quest, she told me two important things I didn’t understand until now. ‘Build my clergy’ and ‘lead my people back to the path of righteousness.’ I thought she only meant that I should guide the tribes, but now I know her true plan.”
The things readers won’t forgive are what I think of as the seven deadly sins of dialogue, often committed when writing the first draft:
- The info dump: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
- Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
- Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
- Long, drawn out thoughts and ruminations that are a wall of italics.
- Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
- Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
- Erratic and amateurish punctuation.
Something else I’ve mentioned before: Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.
These are the fundamental rules of the road that readers expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers leave comments on Amazon like, “one star, could not finish.” Those are reviews of the worst kind.
If you have more questions about punctuation, good answers can be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. This is a handy book I regularly refer back to whenever I have questions about grammar.