|"That's not my ocelot."|
For stand-alone dialogue, punctuation is pretty easy: just throw everything inside a pair of quotation marks.
- “That’s not my ocelot.”
When the dialogue is part of a larger sentence (for example, when it’s joined by an attributive phrase like “she said,” also called a dialogue tag or speech tag), put a period at the end of the sentence and put a comma inside the quotes where you’d otherwise put a period.
- “That’s not my ocelot,” she said.
You can only use one period per sentence, so save it for the grand finale. On the other hand, your dialogue should always start with a capital letter, even when it’s in the middle of a sentence.
- She said, “That’s not my ocelot.”
- Salomé drawled, “Fancy meeting you here,” and dove out the window.
In the first example, the period is doing double duty for the dialogue and the whole sentence, so you only need one. The same is true of question marks, exclamation points, and em dashes (used when speech is broken off or interrupted).
- Ye-jun said, “What the hell’s an ocelot?”
- He yelled, “That’s a wild animal, not a pet!”
- Ye-jun asked, “Is that—” He was abruptly cut off.
Unlike periods, however, these marks can also sit in the middle of a sentence.
- “Do mermaids get pruny fingers?” asked Ola.
- “Don’t stay in too long!” she yelled.
- “Can mermaids—” she began, before thinking better of it.
|“Do mermaids get pruny fingers?” asked Ola.|
Dialogue Plus Action
Sometimes speech tags muscle into the middle of a piece of dialogue. Set off the interruption with commas, the same way you would in a sentence without quotation marks.
- Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
- “The map,” said Javier, “is incomplete.”
Note how the commas stick to the preceding word, as commas are wont to do, tucking themselves inside the quotes with map and outside with Javier. Also note the lower case is. The word isn’t starting a new sentence of dialogue, so it isn’t capitalized.
- “The map,” said Javier. “Is it complete?”
Now Javier’s dialogue has been broken into two sentences: “The map. Is it complete?” This gives his speech a faster pace and more abrupt tone.
- “The map.” Javier frowned. “It’s incomplete.”
“Javier frowned” isn’t a speech tag—you can’t frown words—but a description of Javier’s action. So it can’t piggyback on the dialogue; it needs to be its own sentence.
- “The map is incomplete.” Javier frowned.
- He stood and began to pace. “We’ll need Salomé’s tattoo to find the Lost Kingdom.”
Suppose we wanted Javier’s action to happen in the middle of his dialogue. Then we could set it off with a pair of em dashes.
- “The map”—Javier frowned—“is incomplete.”
- “We’ll need Salomé’s tattoo”—he stood and began to pace—“to find the Lost Kingdom.”
Note the lack of commas. The em dashes are enough punctuation here—commas would be overkill.
|“The map,” said Javier, “is incomplete.”|
Period or Comma?
A speech tag will hitch itself to a piece of dialogue using a comma, while an action phrase needs either its own sentence or a pair of dashes. But it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a speech tag and an action phrase. If you’re not sure, look at the verb. Is it some kind of verbalization—a way of speaking, no matter how unintelligible?
- “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom,” Mira grumbled/mumbled/muttered/stuttered.
- “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.” Mira winced/shuddered/smiled/rolled her eyes.
The actions in the second example all happen apart from the dialogue, so they must form a separate sentence. If you want to convey action and dialogue happening simultaneously, you can combine your action with a speech tag.
- Mira rolled her eyes and said, “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.”
- “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom,” said Mira with a wince.
- Smiling, Mira said, “No cherubim are allowed in the bathroom.”
Of course, some verbs can convey either action or speech.
- “I’m no adventurer,” he sighed.
- “I’m no adventurer.” He sighed.
The first example describes sighed dialogue, the second, dialogue followed by a sigh. A period or a comma creates a different sequence of events.
In your literary explorations, you may come across actions unrelated to speech being used as dialogue tags. Is this kosher? Can a character, for example, shrug a sentence?
- “I dunno,” he shrugged.
Call it artistic license. Part of creative writing, after all, is using language in unexpected ways. But we’re not all Shakespeare, so if you want to use this type of construction, be sure you know what rules you’re breaking—and that you have a very good reason.
Semicolons; or A Good Excuse to Quote Jane Austen
The question of how to use semicolons with dialogue is not likely to come up often, but that’s no reason not to quote this elegantly constructed sentence from Pride and Prejudice:
- “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father; “she times them ill.”
A little rearranging may clarify this structure:
- “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs; she times them ill,” said her father.
Alternatively, Austen could have used two sentences instead of one.
- “Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father. “She times them ill.”
But where would be the fun in that?
|“Kitty has no discretion in her coughs,” said her father; “she times them ill.”|
Beyond following the basic rules, you can use punctuation to affect your dialogue’s pacing and tone. Think about where your character pauses or races breathlessly ahead. Consider the structure of your sentence as a whole. Is the dialogue nestled inside a larger sentence describing who spoke and how? Is your description of the character’s actions interrupting their speech? Punctuation is a powerful tool: used well, it can convey a world of information to your readers without their even being aware of it.
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