Friday, February 8, 2008

Punctuating Dialogue

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Okay, to wrap up our series of articles on dialogue, let's talk about proper punctuation of dialogue tags. It is amazing how many writers can't keep this straight. We see some practically unreadable dialogue in submissions. If the editor has to struggle through it, it definitely lessens their enthusiasm for possibly contracting this book -- which they'd then have to edit to fix.

The dialogue tag is a continuation of the sentence and is separated from the dialogue by a comma, exclamation point or question mark, but not by a period. Unless the word following the punctuation is a proper name, the word is lower case. Here are examples of dialogue tag punctuation:

Wrong: "Nancy, you are so naughty." Her friend said.
Correct: "Nancy, you are so naughty," her friend said.
Correct: "Why are you so naughty, Nancy?" her friend asked.
Correct: "Nancy," Irma said, "you are so naughty."

Wrong: "I'm looking for the sex toys!" Said Anastasia.
Correct: "I’m looking for the sex toys!" Anastasia said.
Correct: "I’m looking for the sex toys!" said Anastasia.

The punctuation mark ending the dialogue part is placed within the quote marks.

If a character’s dialogue continues for multiple paragraphs, each paragraph starts with opening quotes, but there are no close quotes until the end of the character’s speech.

Do not use two dialogue tags for one continuous piece of dialogue. Either remove one dialogue tag or split the dialogue into two parts.

Wrong: With a heavy heart, he said, “Had I known, I would never have eaten that last cookie. I didn’t know your blood sugar would drop and you would need a snack,” he whispered sheepishly.

Correct: With a heavy heart, he said, “Had I known, I would never have eaten that last cookie.” He whispered sheepishly, “I didn’t know your blood sugar would drop and you would need a snack.”

So challenge us - hit us with your best shot. Give us your dialogue tag problems or questions, and we'll have a half-dozen editors hash it out and post an answer for you. "That is, if we can come to agreement among ourselves," she said.


Aimlesswriter said...

Great post! When I'm caught up in the story, I'm ashamed to say, sometimes this stuff slips by. Then I blank out the on the proper rule and where creative license ends and proper grammer comes in.
Question: I've been told to avoid the ! mark. When is it appropriate? When someone is shouting do I do it in ALL CAPS?

Scott said...

I like to see the number of dialogue tags cut down to a minimum. These tags are always telling, not showing.

So, for example, instead of something like:

"I give up," John said. He plopped down into a chair. "It's impossible."

I prefer: "I give up." John plopped down into a chair. "It's impossible."

When I write, I usually put the tags in, but they are among the first things I look for when editing, and I take out or replace as many as I can. The first thing I look at when deciding which tags to remove are the -ing words:

"I give up," John said, plopping into a chair.

Tags are sometimes necessary. For example, during short sections of rapid-fire dialogue, if it's not clear whose speaking, you don't want to break the rhythm with long descriptions, so you sprinkle in a few saids here and there to keep readers informed.

Those can be minimized by making each character distinct, but you have to have them sometimes, and in those cases, "John said" is basically invisible and doesn't really break the flow.

People usually do something when they talk, though, so it's generally a good idea to identify the speaker by showing what he or she is doing. But watch out for cliche'd gestures...

Which all goes to show you: dialogue is tough.

mary ann chulick said...

A lot of people overdo it with taking out "he said/she said."
While these can be overused, I think it's worse when the reader can't tell who's speaking. I've seen printed books where I had to pencil in the characters' names in order to keep it straight who was speaking.

I agree with Scott that if you have a gesture or movement, you don't need "said." But you don't want to have too many gestures/movements or the writing begins to sound artificial - and the characters sound twitchy!

ECPI Editors said...

All caps is pretty uncommon in books. Part of it may be the publisher's style - your editor will change things like that. They can be hard to read, just like too much italics. And overuse lessens the effect.

If you've used a dialogue tag like "she screamed" or "he shouted", you've conveyed the emotion and sound, so you rarely also need to use all caps.

Exclamation points also suffer from overuse. Certainly put them in when needed, but then take a look at how often you've used them, and possibly take a lot out. If everything is an exclamation, it has no effect. We don't really talk like that.

Just avoid "!!!" or "?!?".


Anonymous said...

Hey there,
My question is about italics indicating thought. Some editors have requested italics and no tags when a character is thinking. Others say that the italics look silly.
I noticed that Elloras Cave books tend to have thoughts italicized. Could you explain the general rule?

ECPI Editors said...

Regarding internal thought, and other uses of italics:

Every publisher will have their own standards, and writers need to follow those.

The goal is always to make things clear to the reader! You want the reader to understand when the character is thinking versus speaking, or when the text is just "reporting" the character's thoughts. Italics are often used to indicate internal monologue.

In paranormal stories, italics or some other convention (setting off with asterisks, for example) are often used to indicate psychic communication - talking mind-to-mind. Again, you want the reader to easily grasp that this is not spoken aloud, without having to explain it each time.

At ECPI, we also sometimes use italics to set off short dream sequences.

Remember that italic fonts are harder on the eye, more difficult to read, so don't use italics for lengthy passages.

Avoid overuse of italics. If your story contains internal monologue, psychic communication, dream sequences, and word emphasis, you don't want to use italics for all those! Establish, with your editor, a formatting convention for each type and use it consistently throughout the book. The reader will catch on.

Raelene Gorlinsky

Sarahlynn said...

My first response to this post was, "Shh! Don't tell! This is my leg up on the competition!"

Then I thought, well, actually, I have a question.

What if I'm quoting something within a sentence of my own, and my sentence ends with a question mark but the quote doesn't? Does the question mark still go inside the quotation marks?

For example:
"Did Cicero really say, 'A room without books is like a body without a soul?'"

Inside "feels" right to me, but it changes the meaning of the quote.

(I'm glad I've found your blog! Thank you for it; I've added you to my Google Reader.)

Anonymous said...

My issue is not so much a dialogue tag issue, but directives that split the dialoge:

Ex: "“Enough?” She nodded that it was plenty even though she didn’t really have an appetite. “So this is my idea.” She forked a full wound of spaghetti into her mouth and chewed.

Can the same character speak within the same paragraph even when it is split with directives. I know that there should be a new paragraph when a new person speaks, but what if it is the same character?

Anonymous said...

I dislike quotation marks around dialogue because they look messy--especially when used with rapid-fire dialogue. At times, I can get away without using quotation marks, but in other places they seem necessary.

Are there any good alternatives to using quotation marks to indicate dialogue? Would it be pretentious to use the British convention of single quotation marks (which look just slightly less messy)?