How to Punctuate and Format Dialogue
This post will cover how dialogue is punctuated in contemporary fiction. There are, of course, many writers who punctuate dialogue differently―and to good effect. But in most cases, traditional punctuation works well and will make your work appear professional.
In American English, double quotation marks are used to denote speech. Commas should be placed inside of the double quotation marks prior to dialogue tags. Here’s an example from Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand:
“I guess it’s hard for us,” she says.
Note that it’s she says and not says she. The same applies for names: Diane says, not says Diane.
Dialogue tags should also be standard capitalization regardless of the punctuation that appears before them. Another example from Abbott:
“You live alone?” she asks.
In other words, question marks and exclamation points are treated the same as commas.
In these two examples, Abbott has used the two verbs that are best for dialogue tags: says/asks (or said/asked). You may be tempted to switch it up with a range of other verbs and have your characters whisper, exclaim, cry, etc. Most of the time it’s best to let the dialogue speak for itself, which said/asked do as they are close to invisible, something the reader can flit over easily.
The sole purpose of the dialogue tag is to inform the reader of who’s talking. That means it’s best to use dialogue tags at the first available break in speech.
“Kit,” she says, “you’re the only one who really knows me.”
Commas, not periods, should be used in connection with dialogue tags. However, periods should be used to denote actions that are separate from speech. This means that all non-speech actions―smirking, frowning, laughing, etc.―are not dialogue tags and should be separated from dialogue.
I take a breath. “Yes.”
Not: “Yes,” I breathed.
This can be an effective way to show who’s talking without bothering with dialogue tags. Though relying on any one action too frequently is an easy trap to fall into. One that I see often is the use of smile. At some point, the smiling characters all seem ecstatically happy or blissfully moronic.
Sometimes it’s preferable to include no dialogue tags or actions when possible. This allows the characters to speak directly to each other and the reader to become more immersed in the fictional world you’re creating. Once you’ve established which character is talking, you can go quite a while before dropping in a she said. One more by Abbott:
She looks at me and blinks once. “So that’s a yes?”
“Yes.” I curl my fingers under. Keep it simple, I tell myself.
“And you say the last time you saw him was here three days ago? That’s Saturday?”
“That’s right. Well, down the hall. In the lab.”
“He was working?”
“Was that typical? On a weekend morning, so early?”
“Not that typical, no.”
Lastly, any quoted material within dialogue should be in single quotes. Here’s an example from Harlan Coben’s Darkest Fear.
“Oh, wait, you said ‘gut,’ didn’t you?”
Notice as well that the comma goes inside the single quotes here.
While these might seem like small, inconsequential matters, I can tell you that when I read a submission that does the little things right, it makes me breathe a sigh of relief. It means that if I accept the manuscript, cleaning up dialogue will be one less thing to do.
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