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Talk about being punctual!

Let’s have a look at how punctuation is used in dialogue. This used to confuse me all the time, but there are some simple rules to follow:

1) It’s all one sentence.

Many people separate the sentence in the dialogue from it’s dialogue tag, but that’s wrong. What’s a dialogue tag? That’s the part of the sentence that tells you how the dialogue is expressed. For example “he said.” “she screamed.” “they whispered.”

Look at the following sentences:

“Let’s try again,” he whispered.
 “I’ve got it!” he exclaimed.
“Where do we go?” she asked.

The first thing to note is that the dialogue tags aren’t separate sentences as shown by the lowercase “he” and “she.”

Next, while “Let’s try again,” looks like a complete sentence and should end with a period, it doesn’t. Use a comma because the sentence isn’t over yet. We use a “!” and “?” in the other two example because they’re show how the sentence is read.

Finally, note that the punctuation at the end of the sentence goes inside the quotes.

Now you may be thinking, “I’ve seen dialogue that ends with a period.” You probably have, but was that dialogue  followed by a dialogue tag? If we’ve established the speaker we can often omit the dialogue tag altogether because the context has been established.

“Let’s kill him now,” Eric said, holding the blade of his sword to the king’s throat.
“No!” exclaimed Bart. “We need him alive or we don’t get paid.”
“Fine.” Eric slammed his blade back in its sheath before dropping the king to the floor.

Notice in the last line, the dialogue stands as its own sentence yet we know who’s saying it and how it’s said.

2) What if the dialogue tag comes first?

Bart picked up the king and asked, “Are you going to behave or must I tie you up?”

Notice here that the comma comes after the dialogue tag “asking” and the dialogue begins with a capital even though technically this is still all one sentence.

When the dialogue finishes the sentence it can end with a period like you’d expect.

The king nodded, replying, “I’ll behave. Please don’t hurt me.”

Now we get a little tricky because there are two sentences in the quotes. This is easier to handle when they come at the end, but if they start the sentence then the sentence just before the dialogue tags end in a comma instead of a period if it doesn’t need a “!” or “?” at the end.

3) And if the dialogue tag splits a sentence?

The following two sentences look a lot alike, but the difference is in how they’re punctuated.

“Alright. But,” he said, raising a knife, “if you try anything you’ll not only be bound, but missing a finger.”

See how the whole thing is a sentence? This is because the dialogue is separated by an action occurring as it is said. You have to pay attention when you do this because it doesn’t work usually work with just a plain dialogue tag.

“You have my word,” said the king, “just put away the knife.”
“You have my word,” said the king. “Just put away the knife.”

In these two examples the second one is correct. Saying it out you can hear why the second example works and the first doesn’t.

When you split dialogue this way, always have an action occurring or a reason for a pause in the sentence. When in doubt, read it aloud.

4) Bad dialogue tags

Be careful not to use bad dialogue tags. These are tags that don’t really express speech.

“Hello,” he smiled.

You can’t smile “hello.” You can say “hello.” This is a very common error.

“Hello,” he said with a smile.

Think about what you’re trying to express. Word like “agreed,” “laughed,” and “sobbed,” express actions not speech. You can run your story through the Story Analyzer to find many dialogue tags you may be misusing.

Any questions? Leave a comment.