Monday, October 11, 2010

Grammar: Proper dialogue punctuation

When writing fiction we often find ourselves in strange situations while writing dialogue between characters.

Dialogue Tags

When tagging dialogue, the last comma within the dialogue sentence is always within the quotation, and, in the case that it should be a period in a normal sentence, we transform it into a comma:

Correct: “I see you came back from slaying the dragon,” he said.

Incorrect: “I see you came back from slaying the dragon”, he said.

Do not capitalize the next word after the comma as if it begins a sentence as the quotation is really the beginning of the sentence and the tag is just an extension of it.

If the period at the end of the spoken sentence happens to be another form of end punctuation like a question mark or exclamation mark then you leave that inside the quotes, but still do not capitalize the tag:

Correct: “You made it mad!” he said.

Correct: “Why did you make it mad?” he said.

Incorrect: “You made it mad!” He said.

When a dialogue tag breaks a spoken sentence in two, the tag is set aside with commas:

Correct: “I was just minding my own business,” the dragon slayer said, “and from out of nowhere the dragon attacked me!”

If the tag instead breaks between two sentences within the dialogue a period is used:

Correct: “First it bit my shield. I fought it off,” the dragon slayer said. “Next it got my sword.”

Action Tags

Sometimes, instead of using “s/he said” we tag dialogue with action. If the speaker happens to be doing something while speaking. This route is called Action Tagging and works pretty much a lot like standard dialogue tags, except that the reader assumes that the actor is speaking. When doing this, it’s important to make it clear the actor is the speaker.

Correct: “I thrust for its loins with a deft stroke of my blade!” The dragon slayer lunged with his sword at the crowd and they gasped in delight.

In this case, the punctuation inside the quote remains intact and we capitalize the action tag.

Although, there are some cases where an action tag interrupts the flow of a sentence:

Correct: The dragon slayer moved close to one fresh face in the crowd. “The dragon loomed overhead, menace in his eyes and—” He abruptly put fingers to his mouth and coughed, blowing ash from his lips. “—spewed fire down upon my raised shield!”

In this case, the sentence and the action occur at the same time, but the speaker uses an action to punctuate his oratory. As a result, I’ve set it aside with em-dashes, punctuated within the double-quotes. It creates the effect of a significant pause in the speech, but a continuity of dialogue and action.

Multi-paragraph Dialogue

When dialogue passes over several paragraphs, it becomes necessary to split it up. To do so, we simply leave off the end quotes of the previous paragraph to show that the previous speaker has continued to speak (and a new speaker hasn’t taken up.)

“With her massive jaws she hemmed and she hawed at my armor,” the dragon slayer said as he stalked the room. “Try as she might, she could not extract me from my girded metal safety. Although her claws could catch, her jaws could not crush.

“So, knowing my time was short, I took my dagger from my boot and cut into the soft spot between foreclaw and thumb.”

Quotations within dialogue

Sometimes people quote others when they speak. The same rules apply for dialogue quotes as with quoting people in articles and research papers. Transform double-quotes within dialogue into single quotes:

Correct: “The dragon stood over my pinned form and said, ‘Wouldst thou good knight parlay a truce? I grow weary of our tumble and it’s about time for tea.’”


I hope that you found this instructive. I will write a few more articles on dialogue, but this the basics of how to punctuate dialogue. The next article will cover how to mix it up when writing dialogue—although it’s best to stick with what has been working for the reader, sometimes (like the action interrupt tag) it’s necessary to get a little strange in order to portray sequence to the reader.

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