Sorry, I’m a sucker for a good pun … and a bad pun…
Today I want to talk about punctuation specifically as it applies to dialogue. Authors should keep in mind that the US, UK, and Canada may have slightly different rules for this. I’m Canadian, and I read mostly works published and formatted for a North American audience.
North American industry standard is to use the double quotation mark to indicate spoken dialogue. “Like this”. Depending on the font you use, they will be curlier or straighter. ‘Single quotation marks’ are used to indicate thought (more on thought and inner dialogue later) or indicate that a word or phrase is being stressed or singled out in some way. (No, not ‘those’ apples.)
A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’ that is put before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue line to tell the reader who is speaking it. Generally, they are separated from the dialogue with a comma.
“Talk first,” she said. (Here, the comma is inside the closing quotation mark and the s in she is lower case)
He said, “Talk later.” (Here the comma is before the opening quotation mark and the t in talk is upper case)
“Can we compromise?” she asked. (Here, the question mark replaces the comma but the s in she is still lower case – this also happens when an exclamation mark is used)
He said, “No, we cannot compromise!” (Here, the comma remains between the tag and the opening quotation mark, even though the period is replaced by the exclamation mark. Note, too, that the period in example 2 and the exclamation mark in example 4 are inside the quotation marks)
“Please,” she pleaded. “I just want to know what’s going on.” (Here, the comma comes inside the closing quotation, as in example 1. The period between the tag and the second portion of the dialogue can be a period or a comma, but it must come before the opening quotation mark)
Using words other than said is a contentious point of debate in the writing community. My preference is to let the spoken words and the action/description tags (which I’ll talk about next) convey the emotion and intent of the dialogue. However, if used sparingly throughout the book, words like pleaded, moaned, groaned, gasped, chortled, etc. can be useful in conveying tone of voice.
When you replace the ‘he said’ with an action that happens alongside or immediately following the dialogue or replace it with a description of the scene or the character’s emotions, the rules around the tags change.
“Talk first.” She slammed her hands down on the table. (The comma has become a period because these are two different sentences now instead of parts of one sentence)
He shook his head. “Talk later.” (Again, 2 sentences separated by a period)
“Can we compromise?” Her lip trembled as she struggled to hold back tears.
His chair dragged loudly over the floor as he burst to his feet. “No, we cannot compromise!”
Combined Action and Dialogue tags
When you combine the ‘he said’ with the action he is performing as he speaks, the rules shift slightly again.
“Talk first,” she said, slamming her hands down on the table. (Here, the comma inside the closing quotation has returned and the action is added to the sentence with another comma)
He shook his head and said, “Talk later.” (Here, the comma before the quotation mark is back and the action has been added before the tag, joined with an ‘and’)
“Can we compromise?” she asked, her lip trembling. (The ‘s’ in she is lowercase again, indicating it is one sentence and the action has been added with a comma)
Sometimes a character talks too much and the dialogue requires paragraph breaks. To show that the same person is still talking, you open the quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but do not close them until the end of the speech.
He stood before the crowd and began to speak. “My dear friends, it is an honour to speak before you today. Lots of talking. Talking. More talking. Gee this guy talks a lot.
“That is what it is so important to address this issue today. So, I’m going to talk about it a lot. And some more. I have a lot to say!
“I don’t want to keep you all day, but I like the sound of my own voice so I’m going to talk a little longer. So, thank you for coming to listen to me.”
Adverbs generally end in ‘ly’. They are words that add a condition to another part of the sentence.
He ran. He ran quickly. He ran desperately. (Quickly and desperately are adverbs).
Adverbs are overused in writing. One suggestion I came across was to use an adverb if it turned an expectation on its head.
She smiled. We know a smile means happy so saying “She smiled happily” is a waste of a good adverb. It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence or clarify a detail. “She smiled sadly” on the other hand means something very different from “she smiled.”
In dialogue, we often add adverbs to the end of a dialogue tag to add emotion. “He said sadly” or “She said happily”.
As I mentioned with words other than said, I prefer to let the dialogue itself, the actions, and the descriptions, do the heavy lifting. Adverbs in dialogue tags should be used sparingly.
“Talk now,” she said angrily. (because the adverb is tacked on the end, there is no change.
Angrily, he said, “Talk later.” (Again, no change, except to add the adverb to be beginning with a comma.
Don’t combine adverbs with words other than said. Shouted angrily. Sobbed sadly. Cried loudly. One or the other UNLESS it is required (and really, really consider if it’s necessary) for clarity in some way.
Thoughts and Inner Dialogue
There are several options, and all of them are correct. The key to writing a character’s thoughts or inner dialogue, or to writing telepathic exchanges in fantasy or speculative fiction settings, is consistency.
Option 1: single quotations. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. ‘But what I think is written in single quotations,’ he thought. (Note that the comma usage around the quotation marks is the same whether it’s double or single.
Option 2: italics, no quotation marks. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. But what I think is written in italics, he thought. (Note that the comma usage at the end of the italics is the same as if there were quotation marks)
Option 3: italics with either single or double quotation marks. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. ‘But what I think is written in single quotations,’ he thought.
I use option 2 for thoughts and option 3 with single quotations for telepathic dialogue. Whatever you choose, you must use a single option for the entire book to avoid confusion.
Emails, text messages, PMs on social media, scrawled notes, written letters … sometimes our characters need to write things down or read things that are written down. As with thoughts, there are a few ways to do this, and consistency is key.
Option 1: single quotations
Option 2: italics
Option 3: italics with quotations
(Do not use the same format for written communication as you do for thoughts)
Option 4: Bold
Option 5: Other punctuation marks. In The Underground I use ~ for short messages like texts. ~Answer your phone. ~
Option 6: Block quotes/modified margins – this is when you adjust the margin, so the body of the text has a 1” margin on left and right but a letter or email (especially if it’s several paragraphs) has a 1.5” margin on left and right
Option 7: Use the narrative to indicate it’s written (He read the letter) and use the same quotations as a speech
Questions? Leave me a comment and I’ll answer it for you. If you feel I’ve missed a special case/type of dialogue or if you have other options for thoughts and written communications, comment and let me know.