Punctuate Dialogue Like a Pro, Part 2

Paragraphing properly
Readers subconsciously expect actions and speech within a paragraph to be done or said by the same character. If there’s a paragraph break, the assumption is a different person begins speaking or acting.

Confusing:
Philip crept up behind Devon.
Devon turned and glared.
“Mom’s calling you!”
“So?”

The writer may have intended for the “Mom’s calling you!” comment to come from Devon, but readers, seeing the paragraph break, think Philip’s saying it. Instead:

Philip crept up behind Devon.
Devon turned and glared at him. “Mom’s calling you!”
“So?”

What if a character’s speech spans multiple paragraphs? Try to avoid that. Break it up with a reaction from someone else (new paragraph)—even if noting only body language.

If a long-winded character must hog more than one paragraph, leave off the close quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph, then use open quotation marks for the new one.

Interrupting speech
Many writers confuse dashes and ellipses.

  • Use an em dash (—) to indicate that your character has been interrupted and stops talking abruptly.
  • Use an ellipsis (…) to indicate that your character’s voice trails off. An ellipsis always indicates missing words or words unsaid.

Each example is correct.

  • Sara gulped. “Interviewing a pro athlete is outside my comfort zone, and—”
  • “Well, I don’t know…” She gazed off into space. [action beat]
  • “Well, I don’t know…,” she said. [dialogue tag: note comma after ellipsis and lowercase she]

Software tricks that help

  • Create an em dash (—) by typing two hyphens together (no space between). If the second abuts another letter, your next space will make the two hyphens turn into an em dash; if they don’t, type in a letter, hit the space bar, watch the hyphens morph, and then delete the random letter.
  • When using an em dash before closing quotation marks, Microsoft Word inserts open quotation marks. To get closing quotation marks, type hyphen, hyphen, x, close quotes. Then delete the x.
  • Create an ellipsis (…) by holding down Ctrl and Alt and typing a single period.

Punctuation makes sure readers understand your intentions. Be kind to them.

React: What punctuation or grammar issue confuses you the most?

Joyce K. Ellis, an award-winning author, has published more than a dozen books, including three novels and hundreds of articles and short stories. In addition to serving as a CWG mentor and assistant director of the Write-to-Publish Conference, she writes a monthly grammar column for the Christian Communicator and teaches at conferences.

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