Writing great dialog–Part 4: proper dialog formatting
In this post, I’m going to cover formatting dialog, which some new writers get wrong. For purposes of this blog, I’ll assume the American English style of formatting, that is, double quote marks, where British English may use single quotes. The current UK trend, however, seems to be moving toward double quotes.
NOTE: Occasional literary authors will omit quote marks completely, which makes reading the work somewhat difficult. Lest you think it’s the latest trend in writing, it’s not. I’ve never been able to come up with a compelling (or logical) reason for the practice, and I don’t recommend it.
To clarify, a double quote mark means ” not two apostrophes next to each other: ‘ ‘ . I’ve seen these occasionally and have always assumed it to be some sort of weird typographical error, but I’ve also seen it repeated throughout a story, so I’m not sure what actually happened.
Dialog begins with an open quote as either a straight quote ” or curly open quote (sometimes called a smart quote) “ followed by the dialog line or lines, some punctuation, and ends with another straight quote ” or a curly close quote ” .
If no dialog tag follows the dialog line, place a period, question mark, or exclamation mark–as appropriate–before the close quote mark. Examples:
“I can’t go to the party with you tonight.”
“I have better things to do than to watch you get drunk!”
“Can I bring a friend?”
Most writers get these right. It’s when a tag follows that confusion seems to exist.
“I can’t go to the party with you tonight.” He said.
“I have better things to do than to watch you get drunk!” He said.
“Can I bring a friend?” She asked.
“I can’t go to the party with you tonight,” he said.
“I have better things to do than to watch you get drunk!” he said.
“Can I bring a friend?” she asked.
He said, “I can’t go with you tonight.”
She asked, “Can I bring a friend?”
Two rules apply here:
(1) A comma always separates a dialog tag from the dialog, regardless of whether the tag precedes or follows the dialog. Never use a period before a dialog tag. If ? or ! is required in the dialog line, use that in place of the comma.
(2) The dialog tag NEVER gets capitalized except when the speaker is mentioned by a proper name. (“I can’t go tonight,” John said.)
The confusion about capitalizing tags after ? or ! arises because we’re used to treating ? and ! as equal to the period when, in this case, they’re really replacing a comma. In dialog, these two punctuation marks are clarifiers, not sentence terminators.
The sentence really ends with the dialog tag, which is why the period follows the tag. If you remember that the tag is part of the sentence, then you’ll remember not to capitalize the tag unless it begins the sentence:
He said, “I can’t go tonight.”
Note the comma after the tag in this situation.
This brings up to question of how to handle tags inserted in the middle of the dialog. The answer is that it depends on the sentence. Basically, you treat it as any other sentence, by counting the tag as part of the sentence. Some examples will illustrate:
“I really don’t care,” he said, “if you go. That’s not my problem.”
“I really don’t care if you go,” he said. “That’s not my problem.”
“I really don’t care if you go.” He shrugged. “That’s not my problem.”
He shrugged. “I really don’t care if you go. That’s not my problem.”
Notice in the last two examples that He shrugged is an ACTION, not a speech tag, since you can’t “shrug” words. These are therefore three separate sentences, two of which are dialog, and they are punctuated as complete sentences, not with commas.
Here are some more examples.
“Raise your hands real slow,” he said, pointing the gun, “and don’t try anything stupid.”
He pointed the gun at me. “Raise your hands real slow…” Glancing sideways at his partner, who also had a gun aimed at us, he smiled. “… and don’t try anything.”
Lips trembling, I started to speak, “W-what d-do you–?”
He thrust the gun forward. “Silence!”
NOTES: In the second example, the … (ellipsis) represents a pause in the speech. In the third example, the dash (–) shows interrupted speech (interrupted by the one pointing the gun, not paused speech. Don’t confuse the two.
Finally, I’ll end with how to handle dialog the extends over multiple paragraphs. Let’s say one character is explaining something to another, and you don’t want to dump it all in one long paragraph. How you do punctuate it? Here’s a modified passage from the prologue of my novel More Than Magick to illustrate. Bryce Duncan is explaining a technical point to Jake Kesten. They’re standing at an archeological dig site Bryce found in Upstate New York.
Bryce grinned evilly. “The x-ray of the black stone showed what we think is a microchip embedded in it. There’s another twist. I sent a bone sample of the skeleton for carbon dating. It came back with a carbon-14 content one point three times greater than what a living specimen should contain.”
“I don’t understand,” Jake said.
“While an organism is alive, the carbon-14 ratio in its body maintains an equilibrium with the environment,” Bryce said. “After it dies, the radioactive decay takes over. Every 5700 years, half of the C-14 decays.
“Any organic material should have a C-14 content equal to or less than what’s in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If it’s greater, then either the lab screwed up—but they said they ran it three times to be sure they hadn’t—or the sample was exposed to radiation. The black stone was not radioactive, and my Geiger counter picked up no radiation around the area.
“After the C-14 results, I took a second bone sample to a biochemist at Stony Brook who works with ancient DNA. To cover my ass, I told him I thought it might belong to a Pleistocene mammal. He said it was more human than anything, but it matched nothing in the databases. He was curious about where I’d gotten it. I said I’d get back to him. Meanwhile, I had given a small piece of the uniform and the scroll to a forensic chemist I know.”
“What scroll?” Jake asked.
Bryce reached into a crevice and pulled out a cylinder six inches long. “Feel.”
Take a close look at those three large middle paragraphs (paragraphs 3-5 of the passage). Did you notice the lack of a closing quote at the end of the first two of those? This is how you handle extended dialog. As long as the speech continues and no actions or tags intervene, you open each paragraph with quote marks, but you do not close the quote otherwise until the whole speech is done.
Also look at paragraph three of the passage (beginning with “While an organism” and note the punctuation around the dialog tag. But since he’s still speaking at the end of the paragraph, we don’t put a closing quote.
Punctuating dialog is not difficult once you know these few simple rules.
NOTE: The choice of straight or curly quotes is up to you, but in published material, the curly/smart quotes generally look better. Be careful, however, because MS Word sometimes gets them wrong. For example, Word will do the following:
“I’m sorry but I can’t go tonight. “ (This happened because I put a space after the period. A quote should follow the end punctuation directly.)
“I’m sorry but–“ (Word doesn’t recognize an em-dash or hyphen as the end of a sentence, hence it incorrectly uses an open quote.) So, how do you fix this? Simple. You add a period after the –, insert the quote marks, then delete the period. MS Word will put in the correct curly quote because it sees a period.
But there is a another way to manually enter “ or ” into the document.
For the open quote (“), hold the CTRL key and press the ` key (next to the 1). Release CTRL, then hold SHIFT and press ” .
For a close quote (”), hold the CTRL and press ‘ (the apostrophe). Then hold SHIFT and press ” .
All of the points, and more, covered in this post will appear in our “Punctuation For Fiction Writers” book, along with further examples, including how to punctuate quotes within quotes.