Thursday, 13 November 2014

How to punctuate dialogue …

I first posted this over at the Magic Beans Blog, and it was by far the most popular post over there. Since I have now closed that blog (for the sake of efficiency and personal sanity), I am going to repost here!

Lucy and Charlie opted for vanilla
I receive quite a few manuscripts with poorly punctuated dialogue, and it’s a shame, especially if the rest of the writing is good. Bad punctuation shouts ‘inexperienced writer’ and really gets in the way of the reader experience. Your reader needs to be clear about who is speaking or they may just give up before the end of the first page. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so learn these simple rules and make a good impression from the start.

NB For the purposes of this post, speech marks = quotation marks = inverted commas

1. Use speech marks – “What, these?” – around spoken words. (You don’t need them around thoughts.)

2. All punctuation – full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, or comma – goes inside the closing quotation marks...

           "Do you want an ice cream?" said Charlie

Unless it is not part of the material being quoted.

            Did Lucy say, “Yes please”? Charlie wasn’t sure.

3. Every speaker should get a new line, and if a character embarks on an action before they speak, that should also go on the new line. For example:

“Would you like an ice cream, Lucy?” said Charlie.
Lucy clapped her hands and squealed. “Yes please!”

If a character speaks, continues with action or thought and then returns to speak, you can keep this all within the same paragraph.

"Which flavour would you like?" Charlie said, as he searched in his purse for the pennies. "They have strawberry or chocolate."

And you may continue with this same paragraph until another character speaks or acts.
NB - A paragraph is a sentence or group of sentences that support one main idea.

4. If you end a piece of dialogue with “she said” or any other tag, then the dialogue sentence should finish with a comma, not a full stop (unless it’s a question mark or exclamation mark). The tag should start with a lower-case letter (unless it begins with a name, obviously).

            “I want a strawberry one,” said Lucy.           

5. If the dialogue is followed by action, it should end with a full stop like any other sentence.

            “No! I want a chocolate one.” Lucy jumped up and down and clapped some more.

6. If your speech comes after tag, use a comma before the first speech marks, and a capital letter for the start of the spoken sentence.

            And then she said, “No! Strawberry. Changed my mind.”

7. Most of the time, dialogue tags or associated actions go before or after the dialogue, but sometimes you’ll want to position a dialogue tag or action in the middle of the speech.

"Quick! Make a decision,” said Charlie, “before the van goes ..."

When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas, and the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case. Usually, you do this to indicate a pause.

8. To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes:

"Shall we read ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’?" Charlie asked Lucy.

9. Only use end quotes when your character has finished speaking. If a quotation spills over into more than one paragraph, don't use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph.

I think that’s everything. But please let me know of you can think of anything else!

          “Happy writing,” said Charlie.

PS - added 6th June - You might also be interested in my guest post - 5 Great Rules for Writing Dialogue - at Lorrie Porter's Blog - This Craft Called Writing.

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