Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Punctuating dialogue


I’m consistently seeing submissions with problems in punctuating dialogue. By consistently, I mean it’s rare for me to see dialogue properly punctuated. If you think this could be you, you’re in good company. Some of these manuscripts were good enough to rate an automatic contract offer. A few punctuation problems alone will not turn me off an otherwise good story. However, proper punctuation makes an awfully good impression on a reviewing editor, so today’s post is on punctuating dialogue.

DIALOGUE TAGS Most writers know how to punctuate the basic unit of dialogue using a dialogue tag, like he said. Enclose the spoken line in double quotation marks and separate the dialogue tag from the spoken line with a comma. If the dialogue tag follows the spoken line, the comma goes inside the closing quote mark.

EXAMPLE: “I’ve come to fix your satellite antenna,” she said.

If the dialogue tag comes first, the comma is right after the tag, outside the quote marks, and the final period is inside the closing quote mark.

EXAMPLE: She said, “I’ve come to fix your satellite antenna.”

If the dialogue tag interrupts the spoken line, put a comma inside the first closing quote mark and after the dialogue tag.

EXAMPLE: “I’ve come,” she said, “to fix your satellite antenna.”

ACTION TAGS Using action tags instead of dialogue tags makes a richer, more active piece of writing. Action tags link more character information to the spoken line and create pictures in the reader’s mind. Action tags can precede, follow, or interrupt the spoken line, but each of these options comes with its own problems in punctuation.

Dialogue tags use words that involve making sound, like said, asked, or replied. Action tags can show almost any action, but do not involve making sounds, so, unlike dialogue tags, action tags are not connected to the spoken line with a comma. Treat the spoken line and the action tag as two separate sentences. When the action tag precedes or follows the spoken line, separate the two with a period.

EXAMPLE: She removed her hat and gazed directly into my eyes. “I’ve come to fix your satellite antenna.”

EXAMPLE: “It’s right over there on the porch roof.” I pointed toward the veranda.

When the action tag interrupts the spoken line, that’s when punctuation can get wonky. Use emdashes to show interruption. When the spoken line and the action occur simultaneously, place the emdashes around the action tag outside the quote marks. Don’t put a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue because there’s no pause in the speech.

EXAMPLE: “It’s right over there”—I pointed toward the veranda—“on the porch roof.”

If the spoken line breaks off and then the action occurs, put the emdash at the place where the speech breaks off inside the closing quote mark. Treat the action tag as a separate sentence.

EXAMPLE: “How are you gonna—” I caught sight of her truck. “Oh, you brought your own ladder.”

If the spoken line trails off or hesitates, then resumes, show this with suspension points (ellipsis). Treat the action tag as a separate sentence.

EXAMPLE: “Are you sure you’re okay…” She hoisted the ladder off the truck. “…by yourself?”


These few examples will cover most forms of dialogue. If you can get these right, your editor will be very grateful!

Eilidh MacKenzie
Editor - The Wild Rose press

2 comments:

E.L. F. said...

Great examples! One of my favorite titles has always been "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"!

cindy said...

This basic skill is what I see lacking most in my college writers, including creative writing students. Great post!