Sprucing up the chit-chat

Punctuating dialogue can be a minefield for new and established authors alike.

In fiction manuscripts, it’s where I find the most inconsistencies; and rumour has it that authors have been known to shuffle words around, purely to avoid the uncertainty of the dreaded dots and dashes.

But when you get it right, beautifully punctuated dialogue not only makes your manuscript look unbelievably pretty, it gives your audience an effortless reading experience.

So, it’s time to tackle your commas and capitals with confidence; get forceful with your full stops; and stop being elusive with your ellipses. Check out these crucial steps for jazzing up the jibber-jabber.

 

1. Standard line of attributed (tagged) dialogue
a)    “That’s a nice jacket,” he said.
b)   
“That’s a nice jacket, where did you buy it?” he asked.
c)    
“That’s a nice jacket. I want one!” barked David.
d)    
He said, “That’s a nice jacket.”

 Points to note:

  • When your tag comes after the speech, end the dialogue with a comma inside the quote marks, (a).
  • Question and exclamation marks, go inside the quotes. No comma is required, (b) and (c). In all cases, (a, b, c), the tag starts with a lowercase letter because it is still part of the same sentence.
  • When the tag precedes the dialogue, use a comma after the tag and start the dialogue in uppercase, (d).

2. Dialogue interrupted by a tag

a)    “That’s a nice jacket,” he said. “The colour really suits you.”
b)   
“That’s a nice jacket. The colour,” he said, “really suits you.”

Points to note:

  • If the second part of the dialogue is a new sentence, put a full stop after the tag and start the second sentence of dialogue in uppercase, (a).
  • If the tag interrupts the flow of dialogue, use a comma after the tag and resume the dialogue in lowercase, (b).

3. Dialogue with action beats

a)   “That’s a nice jacket.” He admired it for a few minutes. “Have I seen it before?”
b)   
“That’s a nice jacket.” He admired it for a few minutes, then said, “Have I seen it before?”
c)    
He nodded at her. “That’s a nice jacket.”

Points to note:

  • When using action beats, preceding dialogue always ends with a full stop, (a).
  • If the action beat is an independent sentence, end it with a full stop, (a).
  • If the action beat leads into a tag followed by more dialogue, end it with a comma, (b).
  • If the action beat precedes the dialogue, end it with a full stop, (c).
 
4. Dialogue with tags followed by action
a)    “That’s a nice jacket,” he said as he poured her a drink.
b)   
“That’s a nice jacket,” he said with a grin.
c)    
“That’s a nice jacket,” he said sarcastically.
d)   
“That’s a nice jacket,” he said, pouring her a drink.
e)    
“That’s a nice jacket,” he said. He was lying.

Points to note:

  • If the action is modifying the dialogue, then no comma is required after the tag (a, b, c)
  • If the action does not modify the dialogue, end the tag with either a comma, (d) or a full stop, (e).
  • You’ll note (a) and (d) are in effect the same sentence, and both formats are acceptable, although I’d suggest (d) is the preferred edit.

5. Dialogue that trails off

      Typically, we use ellipses to show that the speaker has stopped talking mid-sentence, maybe because of a distraction, or they’ve thought twice about what they’re saying.

Be careful not to confuse this with interruption, which typically uses an em-dash to stop dialogue mid-word, or to show that a different person has interjected. (See item 6.)

Use whatever format of ellipsis is consistent with your style, i.e space before and after, space only before, etc. But regardless of style, the final quote mark comes directly after the ellipsis, with no space before it.

a)    “That’s a nice jacket. Where did …” he said, trailing off nervously.
b)   
“That’s a nice jacket. Where did…” He decided not to ask.
c)    
“That’s a nice jacket. Where did…” The door opened and Sarah walked in wearing exactly the same jacket.

Points to note:

  • If you follow a trail-off with a tag, the tag would start in lowercase, (a), and no comma is required inside the quotation mark.
  • It’s more likely that trailed-off dialogue would be followed either by an action beat, which would start with a capital, (b), or by a new paragraph, (c).

6. Interrupted dialogue

     If dialogue is interrupted mid-word, either by another speaker, by the speaker themselves, or by an action, we use the em-dash:

a)    “That’s a ni—”
b)   
“That’s a ni—” He stopped, suddenly realising what he was about to say.
c)    
“That’s a nice co— Sorry, I mean jacket.”
d)   
“Whose is thi—? Oh, it’s mine.”
e)    
“That’s a nice jac—”
       She interrupted him. “Yes, it’s mine,” she said.

Points to note:

  • If the interrupted speech finishes the sentence, end using only a quote mark. No full stop is required, (a).
  • If the interruption is followed by an action beat, the action starts with a capital, (b).
  • If the speaker stops him/herself, then resumes dialogue, start the resumed speech with a capital, (c).
  • If the speaker stops him/herself mid-question or mid-exclamation, then resumes dialogue, the question mark or exclamation mark need not be followed by a full stop or comma. Start the resumed speech with a capital, (d).
  • If the interrupted dialogue leads to a new paragraph, finish only with the quote marks, no full stop required (e).

7. Interrupting unattributed dialogue with a thought or an action

If speech which is untagged, is interrupted by a thought or action and then resumes, you use the closed em-dash (i.e. no spaces either side):

       “I like that jacket”—he swung around to look at it again—hanging on the door over there.”

Points to note:

  • The em-dash sits outside the quote marks.
  • No commas are required.
  • The interrupting thought or action starts with a lowercase letter.

8. Dialogue spread over multiple paragraphs

This causes a lot of confusion, but is really very simple.

If you’re writing a long section of dialogue that covers more than one paragraph, start every paragraph with quote marks. But only close the quote marks at the end of your final paragraph. That’s it.

By omitting quote marks from the end of every paragraph, you’re showing that dialogue has not yet finished. Then, by starting the next paragraph with quotes again, you’re simply confirming that this is still dialogue.

By closing the quote marks only at the end, you’re showing the dialogue has finished.

       “That’s a really nice jacket,” he said. “The colour really suits you. In fact it reminds me of a jacket I had when I was a kid. It was my favourite, although my brother thought I looked ridiculous in it.
        “It was the 1970s – what a decade that was! All my friends were into the clothes and music at that time. There were so many TV shows dedicated to teenage interest that we were spoilt for choice back then.

        “I’m sorry, I digress; I really shouldn’t talk so much. But when I saw your jacket it really brought back a lot of memories.”


9. Punctuating a quote within dialogue

      Rule of thumb: if your chosen style favours single quote marks for main dialogue, then your nested quotes should be shown in double quote marks. Similarly, if you favour doubles for normal speech, then nested quotes should be shown in singles.

a)    “He looked at me and said, ‘That’s a nice jacket,’ but I think he was being sarcastic.”
b)   
‘He looked at me and said, “That’s a nice jacket.” Something tells me he was being sarcastic.’
c)    
“He looked at me and said, ‘That’s a nice jacket.'”

Points to note:

  • Your nested quote should always start with a capital, regardless of whether the sentence leading up to it has ended in a comma, or a full stop.
  • If the sentence runs on after the nested quote, use a comma inside the nested quote mark, (a).
  • If the nested quote ends the sentence, use a full stop inside the nested quote mark and start the next sentence with a capital, (b).
  • If the nested quote ends your main dialogue, use a full stop inside the nested quote marks, and finish with your main quotation marks, (c).

     

10. Internal or silent thoughts

Preferred style can vary from author to author; there are no rules, just make sure you remain
consistent. A popular way to denote internal and silent thoughts is with italics.

      Whatever your style, quotation marks are not required:

a)    He saw the jacket hanging up; I really like that, he thought to himself.
b)   
He stepped outside, felt the cold and thought, Damn! I wish I had my jacket with me, as he shoved his hands under his jumper.
c)    
He stepped outside, felt the cold and thought, Damn! I wish I had my jacket with me. He shoved his hands under his jumper.

 Points to note:

  • The thought will always start with a capital, even if it appears mid-sentence, (a, b).
  • If the sentence continues after the thought, close the thought using a comma, (a, b).
  • If the thought ends a sentence, close it using a full stop, (c).
 
11. Addressing someone by name, title or term of endearment

 

a)    “Sarah, do you like my jacket?”
b)   
“Do you like my jacket, sweetheart?
c)   
“Good afternoon, madam. Can I interest you in a new jacket?”
d)   
“The jacket looks better on you, Sarah, than it does on Helen.”

Points to note:

  • If someone is addressing another person within dialogue, whether it’s by their name, title or a pet name/term of endearment, a comma will always appear before the name, (a, b, c).
  • If the name appears mid-sentence, it will have a comma before and after, (d).
  • No comma is required before the name of a person who is not the addressee within the sentence, such as Helen in (d).

I think I’ve covered all of the most common eventualities here, but if you feel there’s anything missing, or any specific questions you’d like to discuss, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help you.

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