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 Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery) 

For example: 

‘Terrible business, this,’ said the young man chattily. ‘Not been such a thing in Exhampton for years.’

Incorrect would be: ‘Terrible business, this.’ Said the young man chattily. ‘Not been such a thing in Exhampton for years.’

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

‘Who do you think did it?’ demanded Enderby.

‘Inspector Narracott!’ she said 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: ‘Who do you think did it?’ Demanded Enderby. 

Also incorrect: ‘Inspector Narracott!’ She said suddenly. 

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

‘What does it mean?’ Emily asked the Inspector. 

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: 

‘Major Burnaby' said Emily, who do you think did it?' 

‘Oh I say,' protested Charles, ‘that's awfully far-fetched.’

Incorrect would be:Major Burnaby' said Emily. Who do you think did it?' 

Also incorrect would be: ‘Oh I say,' protested Charles. ‘that's awfully far-fetched.’

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 (Agatha Christie) 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 Agatha Christie's 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). 

Don’t use speech marks between paragraphs of a speech

If a character speaks more than a few sentences at a time, to deliver a speech or talk for a length of time, you may need multiple paragraphs. So to denote someone is still speaking, start each subsequent paragraph with an opening speech mark; and

ONLY use a closing speech marks on the final paragraph.

For example:

‘At this juncture Mrs Tanios took a decisive action. She left her husband, throwing herself on the pity of Miss Lawson. She also definitely accused her husband of murder.

Unless I acted, I felt convinced that he would be her next victim. I took steps to isolate them one from the other on the pretext that it was for her safety. She could not very well contradict that. Really it was his safety I had in mind.’

Notice how the first paragraph doesn't end with speech marks. This is to indicate that the same person is speaking in the next paragraph.

There are great examples of this at the end of every Agatha Christie book when Miss Marple or Poirot explain what took place – as this example describes. 

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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