Comma got your tongue?
Dialogue is often fun for authors to write. Figuring out how to punctuate it correctly, on the other hand, sometimes isn’t. If you find yourself slightly confused when it comes to the rules of punctuating dialogue, just know you are not alone. In fact, it is probably one of the more difficult aspects of writing a book for many people. So if the comma’s got your characters’ tongues, read more below so you can stop worrying about where to put all the pesky punctuation once and for all.
First, let’s take a quick look at the importance of dialogue. Part of the reason it’s so fun to write is because you can use it to showcase a character’s personality. Is your character funny? Sarcastic? Rude? Naïve? Revealing character is just one of dialogue’s many purposes. It also drives action and moves the story forward. Additionally, it can relay critical information, history, personal tidbits, and facts.
Second, let’s break down the different components of dialogue. You have the actual dialogue, which is the portion of the sentence that is actually spoken by your character, and the dialogue tag, which identifies the speaker.
Here’s an example, showing the dialog (in bold) and the dialogue tag (in italics).
“I’m going to the store,” Billy said.
Now that we have the basic anatomy of dialogue out of the way, let’s take a look at some common questions.
Common Question #1: Why Is This So Hard?
Breathe. It gets easier. Soon, you’ll be writing dialogue in your sleep!
Common Question #2: What Is Lowercased?
“I’m going to the store,” he said.
When writing dialogue tags that follow the spoken portion, “he said” and “she said” are always lowercased.
Common Question #3: Where does the Comma Go?
The comma comes before the quotation marks, not after.
“I’m going to the store,” he said.
Common Question #4: What If There’s No Dialogue Tag? Where does the Period Go?
If there is no dialogue tag, the period comes before the quotation marks, as shown in the next example.
“I’m going to the store.”
Common Question #5: What If I Want to Write My Dialogue in Reverse?
Fear not. You simply Missy Elliott it and put your thing down, flip it, and reverse it, as shown in the next example.
Billy said, “I’m going to the store.”
Here, we have identified the speaker, added a comma, and then placed the dialogue. See? It’s not that scary, right? (Did you just dance? Are those lyrics stuck in your head now? I’m sorry.)
Common Question #6: What If…What If I Want My Character to Twist and Shout?
“I’m going to the store!” he yelled, twisting his hips in an impromptu dance.
The dialogue tag will be lowercased, as it goes with the dialogue. When writing action in dialogue, you separate it with a comma. (Another comma, I know. I am sorry.)
“I’m going to the store!” He yelled, twisting his hips in an impromptu dance.
He does not yell or twist after the fact, unless of course, he yells something else and then twists. Here, however, it goes together (as shown in the first example).
Common Question #7: Okay, but What If They’re Asking a Question?
“Do you want anything from the store?” he asked.
Again, “he asked” is lowercased, as it goes with the dialogue.
Now, we get to the golden rule. All must follow it. (If you listen closely, you can hear confused readers in the distance, shouting unanswered questions into the void about books that did not follow this rule.)
The Golden Rule: Always Have a Line Break for New Speakers
The line break shows the change in POV (point of view). It gets very confusing, very fast, when dialogue is all crammed together. No one will have any idea which character is saying what. By the end of a paragraph, someone could be going to jail, someone could be pregnant, no one knows whose baby it is; your readers are basically in the Maury audience trying to assess what just happened. See the examples below to avoid the chaos.
“I’ve been sentenced to eight years,” he said. I looked at him. “I’m pregnant. It’s yours.” “What?”
“I’ve been sentenced to eight years,” he said.
I looked at him. “I’m pregnant. It’s yours.”
Each speaker needs their own paragraph, for clarity and comprehension. You can also identify the speaker in other ways, without using dialogue tags, as shown in the example above. “I looked at him” tells the reader that the narrator is speaking, so the dialogue tag “I said” would be unnecessary to add. It’s much clearer in the second example, right? The narrator is pregnant. “He” is going to jail. No one is in the Maury audience. The reader understands what is happening. Life is good.
To wrap it up, dialogue can be daunting. It can be frightening. Not knowing where the commas or quotation marks go can be overwhelming. If you ask any author you know, they will probably tell you the same thing. It gets easier. The more you practice, the more you understand. With each sentence, each book, you will grow. You will evolve. One day, punctuating dialogue correctly will come second nature to you—and your readers will thank you for it.
About the Contributing Editor:
Christina Hart has a BA in Creative Writing and English with a specialization in fiction. Previously, she worked as an associate editor at a publishing and marketing company, and a project manager and writer/editor for a global linguistics company known as “The Language Experts”. Now, she’s a full-time author and freelance editor and makes up one half of Savage Hart Book Services. Her favorite genres to edit include thrillers, romance, literary fiction, poetry, and anything dark and/or unusual that surprises her. She’s a sucker for quirky characters, interesting plots, and anything outside the realm of ordinary or predictable. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries regarding availability.
Visit Christina’s website: www.savagehartbookservices.com