Punctuate Dialogue Like a Pro: Part I

Poorly punctuated dialogue can mislead, confuse, or make readers backtrack to understand what’s happening, taking them out of your story.

Placing punctuation
If you forget where to place punctuation in relation to quotation marks, remind yourself to tuck punctuation safely inside the quotation mark. Exception: a question mark or exclamation point not part of a title referred to. “Have you heard Doc Hensley’s dramatic recitation of ‘Jabberwocky’?” Ginger said. (The question mark isn’t in the poem’s title.) Otherwise, tuck it in.

  • Incorrect: “I can’t get published”, the conferee said.
  • Correct: “I can’t get published,” the conferee said.

Should you capitalize the word following what a character says? It depends on whether it is part of a dialogue tag (who is speaking) or an action beat.

When using dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is she said or Alice said. An action beat is like a beat of rest in music—except the characters get to do something.

For dialogue tags, use a comma after the words spoken and lowercase the first word after the quotation mark.

  • Correct: “I’m tired of whining,” she said.
  • Incorrect: The conferee plopped beside Janice. “I’m tired of whining.” She said.

Using action beats
Regard action beats as separate sentences needing capitalization:

  • Incorrect: “I’m tired of whining,” she sighed.

You may see this in print, but it is not possible to sigh a sentence, laugh a sentence, or snicker a sentence—to name a few. She sighed is an action beat, not a dialogue tag, so punctuate it this way:

  • Correct: “I’m tired of whining.” She sighed.
  • Even better: Put the action beat before the dialogue: She signed. “I’m tired of whining.”

Placing action before speech also alerts readers to who’s speaking and how. Those reading aloud to children may use a different voice for Aslan than they do for Lucy. And they’ll thank you for clues like this.

  • Frustrating: “You can do this,” Jane whispered.
  • More helpful: Jane whispered, “You can do this.”

Modify your tags
When do you need commas between verbs and modifiers?

  • Correct: “It’s time to submit this article,” Jeanette said firmly.

Firmly describes how Jeanette said it. So we don’t need a comma between said and firmly.

  • Even better: Use strong language in your dialogue to avoid having to modify it: “It’s time to submit this article,” Jeanette said, “and I won’t say it again.”
  • Correct: “I can’t stand rejection,” the conferee said, trembling.

Trembling describes what the conferee is doing, so we insert a comma to separate said and trembling.

Breaking it up
Ultra long dialogue can leave even silent readers out of breath. Read dialogue passages aloud to ensure the character (and reader) can easily say it in a single breath.

  • Frustrating: “Thanks for the baseball cap, Coach Laube,” Jay said, plopping it on his head sideways as his dad always used to do when he was a kid growing up.

I’ve seen similar sentences even in books from respected publishers (with weary, overworked editors). To improve that sentence, place an action beat before the dialogue.

  • Better: Jay plopped the baseball cap on his head sideways. “Thanks, Coach Laube.”

Pay attention to chronology
Avoid the awkward simultaneousness the word as implies. Few things in life happen simultaneously. Readers expect writers to maintain chronological order.

  • Frustrating: “I’m late for class,” Randall said as he stuffed his manuscripts into his backpack, grabbed a cookie, and hurried down the corridor.

He can’t do all that while he says that short sentence.

  • Better: “I’m late for class.” Randall stuffed his manuscripts into his backpack, grabbed a cookie, and hurried down the corridor.
  • Another option: Randall stuffed his manuscripts into his backpack. “I’m late for class.” Grabbing a cookie, he hurried down the corridor.

Tags and beats facilitate good pacing, illustrate where characters may take a breath while speaking, or indicate a pause for emphasis.

  • Weak, confusing: “If you miss a deadline, you’re dead,” Jerry said, taking his place behind the lectern.

This sounds as if Jerry starts speaking while he’s on his way to the stage. Avoid simultaneousness. Maintain chronological order.

  • Better: Jerry strode to the lectern. “If you miss a deadline, you’re dead,” he began.
  • More powerful: Jerry strode to the lectern. “If you miss a deadline,” he began, “you’re dead.”

The dialogue tag here creates a pause and provides emphasis.

Tags and beats aren’t fillers. Punctuation coaxes your readers to go where you want them to go and shows them what you want them to know.

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, she writes a monthly grammar column for the Christian Communicator and teaches at conferences.

Comments

  1. Michelle says

    Thank you, Joyce. As a new writer, I have sat here at my desk for two years writing and learning to write. I am revising a middle-grade novel and am finding that revision certainly can take longer than writing the first draft. Your instruction helped clear up some gray areas in dialogue for me. I loved your “Frustrating,Better,and More Powerful” examples.

  2. Irene Olumese says

    Thank you for this insightful post. I have gleaned a lot of learning points from it which will be useful as I revise my manuscript.

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