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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Punctuating Dialogue 101

So, you're going along, pounding away at the keyboard, the words flowing sweet and smooth like honey rolling downhill. Suddenly, a shiny object sitting beside your path distracts you. The temptation to stop for a closer look nudges you closer. You really should come back to examine the shiny object later. After all, you're in the writing zone, and if you stop, you might not be able to slide back into that coveted state of being.

The shiny object is dialogue punctuation, and for newer writers, it can be a pain in the rear. Even experienced, published authors flub it up at times. No one is perfect, right?

Prime examples of making every dialogue blunder in the book are my short original fiction and fan fiction stories. They were written long ago and are posted at After reading this article, feel free to copy one of these stories into a Word document and edit it for practice. This will help solidify the rules of dialogue in your mind. A couple of links follow to help you get started. Please note the story rating before viewing. Rated: NC17 Rated: PG13 - R

Now, it's time for the basics. We all know to put quotation marks around the dialogue, make clear who is speaking, and to start a new paragraph each time a new person speaks.

"So," the moderator said, "let's get started."

"Well, it's about time," the reader grumbled.

Notice the comma after so and time. This is done because a tag instead of a beat follows them. Also, notice where all dialogue related punctuation is placed. American convention dictates that punctuation be inside the quotation marks, as opposed to British standards.

Tag: "What's the difference between a tag and a beat?" the reader asked.

Beat: "Tags identify the speaker and beats are little bits of action interspersed through a scene." Kendra shuffled her notes and double-checked a page. "Yes, I believe I said that correctly."

Notice two things about the tag sentence. 1.) A comma and closing quotations end the dialogue when followed by a tag except when a question mark or exclamation point is called for. 2.) The tag is not capitalized except in the use of a proper name.

A beat is a stand-alone sentence denoting action within dialogue and should be capitalized normally.

What about the ellipsis and dash? When should I use those? Here, I'll quote *The Grammar Wench:

One, if your speaker gets cut off, you still need punctuation at the end of his or her speech inside the quotation marks. That punctuation should be a dash, not an ellipsis, as I commonly see. Speechus interruptus is an abrupt thing, not a dwindling.

"You call that good-" the reader began.

"Shut your cake hole. I'm just getting warmed up," the Grammar Wench said.

Incidentally, the Chicago Manual of Style likes a comma after the dash when there's a speech tag afterwards, though just a dash if it's at the end of a sentence. I've seen it both ways in reputable printed material.

Since I know you love it, your darling, dotty ellipsis can be used when the speaker's words flutter off like a stack of student essays in a spring breeze.

"I guess...." said the reader with a sigh.

Refer to any Barbara Cartland novel on how to overuse ellipsis points in dialogue. The grand old gal made a very meaningful mark on the field of romance fiction, but imitating her love for the dots isn't a form of flattery I recommend. When it's four dots, like above, that means there is pause at the end of a complete sentence. The first dot is the period; the next three are the ellipsis points. Use only three dots when your speaker's words don't form a whole sentence, ie:

"Don't just guess when you can..." The Grammar Wench's voice trailed off when her reader wandered away in search of an article about writing sex scenes.

Again, the Chicago Manual likes a comma after the ellipsis if the dialogue is followed by a tag, as in the first example. So, that's kind of grey. Grey like athletic socks after your son does his own laundry for the first time at college.

Since divided dialogue is one of my biggest challenges, let's hear what *The Grammar Wench has to say about it.

Sometimes you stop the gush of words for speaker identification but find yourself forced to continue since your character just won't shut up. If the dialogue before the interruption is the same grammatical sentence in the second part, you punctuate it differently than if it's a brand new sentence.

"My daughter," the Grammar Wench said, "is sitting in my lap and won't let me type!"

"My daughter is sitting in my lap etc." is a single sentence, so the interruption is wedged in with commas and the second half begins with a lowercase letter. An example of two different sentences:

"A likely excuse," the reader said. "More likely, you're sick of working and want to go read a boring grammar book or something."

After "said", I inserted a period, bopped ahead two spaces, and started the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter. It's up to you to decide whether or not your separated speeches are one sentence or two. When in doubt, rewrite so that you're no longer in doubt!

One last thing, and I'll call it a night. Browne and King claim that one should favor "the reader said" over "said the reader" because the second version sounds like it's from a children's book, not an adult book. You're on your own there, but if a lot of editors consciously or subconsciously agree, I suppose it's worth noting.


Works Cited:

*The Grammar Wench is author Jody Wallace. She is a member of the Music City Romance Writers, Middle Tennessee's RWA(r) Chapter. You may learn more about her and read excellent grammar articles at

Other Resources-

Original Fiction and Fan Fiction Archive - Writing Resources:

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1 comment(s):

This is a really interesting, useful site - I like it so much that it is now Ecks Rated. And let's be honest, there are few higher accolades than that.

By Blogger Ecks Ridgehead, at 4:21 AM  

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