Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Dialogue Punctuation

Purple coloured wording, The Purple Pen

Dialogue Punctuation is not easily found in reference books, of which I have many. I frequently use ‘The Elements of Style’, by William Strunk, Jr., and ‘Write Right!’ by Jan Venolia, but neither of them contains information about how to punctuate dialogue. Therefore, I have spent a lot of time online tracking down answers to my queries, and this post is a compilation of my discoveries.

Dialogue refers to the lines of narrative when the character is speaking, and either before, during, or after you find ‘dialogue tags’. A dialogue tag denotes who is speaking at that moment, and how we punctuate these around the sentences of dialogue is what this post is about.

1) Dialogue tag with act of speaking 

Lines of dialogue that are followed by a dialogue tag that denotes the character has actually spoken, such as: said, continued, muttered, replied, answered, spoke, interrupted, snapped, spat, snarled, wailed, whispered, should ALL end in a comma. 

(Examples taken from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and theHalf-Blood Prince) 

For example: 

‘You do,’ said Dumbledore. ‘So you will need to hold on to my arm very tightly.’ 

Incorrect would be: ‘You do.’ said Dumbledore. ‘So you will need to hold on to my arm very tightly. 

When there is a question mark, or exclamation mark, it should be treated like a comma. For example: 

‘Why did you confiscate them then?’ demanded Harry.

‘Arthur!’ said Mrs Weasley suddenly. 

Note that the first letter of the word in the dialogue tag is lower case, not capitalised, because it is after a comma, not a full stop.

Incorrect would be: ‘Why did you confiscate them then?’ Demanded Harry. 

Also incorrect: ‘Arthur!’ Said Mrs Weasley suddenly. 

The only exception would be when a name is given, like this: 

‘What does it mean?’ Harry asked Dumbledore. 


2) Breaking a sentence with a dialogue tag 

When a sentence is broken by a dialogue tag and continues after it, a comma is used after both the first part of the sentence AND the dialogue tag.

For example: 

‘If there is an attack,’ said Dumbledore, ‘I give you permission to use any counter-jinx or curse that might occur to you.’

‘It’s just hard,’ Harry said finally, in a low voice, ‘to realise he won’t write to me again.’

Incorrect would be: ‘If there is an attack,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I give you permission to use any counter-jinx or curse that might occur to you.’ 

Also incorrect would be: ‘It’s just hard.’ Harry said finally, in a low voice. ‘to realise he won’t write to me again.’ 


3) Using character actions or expressions instead of a dialogue tag 

Sometimes the speaker of a piece of dialogue is denoted by an action or facial expression before, after, or during a line of dialogue. If that is the case then it should have a full-stop at the end of it, NOT a comma. 

(Examples taken from Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep) 

For example: 

Dan raised his eyebrows. “Go ahead.”

“No. I’m sure she hasn’t. But she wants to.” She looked at him, her eyes wide, her mouth trembling again. “When the turntable thing happened, she was thinking mirror.” 

Incorrect would be: Dan raised his eyebrows, “Go ahead.” 

Also incorrect would be: “No. I’m sure she hasn’t. But she wants to,” she looked at him, her eyes wide, her mouth trembling again, “When the turntable thing happened, she was thinking mirror.” 


Additional things to note: 

1) When there is a question mark, or exclamation mark there is no comma or full stop after it, just close the speech marks.

2) The end of the dialogue sentence punctuation – full stop, comma, exclamation or question mark – is always INSIDE the speech marks.

3) There is no space between the end of dialogue sentence punctuation mark and the speech marks, but there is a space after the speech marks before the next word. 


Speech Marks 

The examples I have used are a British Author (J K Rowling) and an American Author (Stephen King).

Note that British speech marks are single with quotation marks being double, whereas American speech marks are double, with quotation marks being single.

In these modern times they are often interchangeable, and many use the American style, but it can be down to the publishing house, so always check. 


Using Dialogue tags 

Dialogue tags like ‘said’, ‘replied’ and ‘asked’ are considered ‘invisible’ when being read, but do be careful about using too many, especially when you have more than two characters; try and break it up by using lines of action and showing what the characters are doing while they are speaking.

There are some people who think you don’t need to describe the tone of voice; that the dialogue should speak for itself. Plus describing the tone risks using an adverb, which is controversial in all writing these days. (There will be an editing blog post on Adverbs soon). But when reading through J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, she used a lot of dialogue tags, and many contained adverbs to express the tone or mood of the character. Whereas, by contrast, Stephen King used far fewer, instead describing the characters actions and expressions. There weren’t many dialogue tags at all. This can be down to style, and down to the audience the writing is marketed towards, but it tends to be very individual, and there is not always a right or wrong with it. I find reading a piece out loud helps me hear if my dialogue works or not, or using software like WordTalk (free to download here). 

I hope all that makes sense, and helps provide some guidance to using punctuation with dialogue.

If you have any additions, or queries, please leave a comment. 

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