Wednesday, 5 December 2012

How to punctuate dialogue

For my first hopefully-helpful post, I’m going to tackle a common and (apparently) very tricky topic: the use of quotation marks, punctuation and capitalisation in dialogue. This is something that a huge number of novice fiction-writers have trouble getting to grips with. It’s common to see this kind of thing in fiction manuscripts:

‘How do you punctuate dialogue?’ Asked Sidney.
‘Why, it’s easy enough when you get the knack of it.’ Said Cassandra.

Because each of these portions of quoted speech is a full sentence, some novice writers believe that it should be terminated by the appropriate punctuation mark and the attribution should be a new sentence. Wrong, wrong, wrongety wrong. The speech and the attribution should flow together as one structure. Extended to the length of a full work of fiction, incorrectly rendered dialogue reduces the readability of your narrative significantly, making it feel halting and awkward.

The conventions for punctuating speech are fairly intricate, but the basics are as follows. There are three variants: 1) when the attribution (the ‘he said’ part) follows the quote; 2) when the attribution precedes the quote; and 3) where the attribution is inserted in a break in the quote. I’m sure you’ve seen them all in action. Here are the rules...

1. When the attribution follows the speech

If the attribution continues directly from the end of a bit of quoted speech, the speech should be punctuated with a comma (unless a question mark or exclamation mark is more appropriate) which should be inside the quotation marks. The first word of the narrative text should begin with a lowercase letter unless it’s a proper name. Some examples:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said.
  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ Cassandra said.
  • ‘Is this the way to do it?’ he asked.
  • ‘This is the way to do it!’ she exclaimed.

Note how the attribution still begins with a lowercase letter even when the speech ends with a terminal mark like a question mark.
When there is no direct attribution, the narrative text should resume as a new sentence:

  • ‘This is the way to do it.’ She gazed at him, hoping he understood.

2. When the attribution precedes the speech

When the attribution leads directly into a bit of quoted speech, there should be a comma. Where the lead-in is more indirect, a colon or semicolon might be used (there’s no strict rule about this). Where there is no direct link between the narrative text and the speech, a full-stop should be used. The quoted speech should always begin with a capital letter, except in cases where just a fragment of speech is being quoted (in that case, the punctuation should also be outside the quotation marks). Some examples:

  • She said, ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She spoke harshly to him: ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She gave him a harsh look. ‘This is the way to do it.’
  • She said that this was ‘the way to do it’.

3. When the attribution is interpolated

When the attribution is inserted between two bits of quoted speech, the way you handle it depends on whether there is direct continuity between the two bits of speech - i.e. whether they are parts of a broken-up sentence or not. For example:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said, ‘and no other way is correct.’
  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said. ‘No other way is correct.’

Alternatively, you might have something like this:

  • ‘This is the way to do it,’ she said; ‘no other way is correct.’

There is a rare and arcane variant connected with this rule. When the inserted narrative text breaks up the quoted speech in a place where there isn’t a natural pause (as is sometimes done for dramatic effect), some grammarians insist that the punctuation of the first bit should be placed outside the quotation marks, like so:

  • ‘This’, she said pedantically, ‘is the way to do it.’

However, it’s usually only very pedantic punctuators who do this. Generally it is perfectly acceptable to punctuate the speech in the same way as in the previous examples, like so:

  • ‘This,’ she said indulgently, ‘is the way to do it.’ 

So, that’s how to render speech in your fiction and make life easier for your readers. I hope you find this little guide helpful and not too dictatorial.

If you find that you need help with punctuation, spelling, grammar, you might want to look into getting a professional copy-editor to assist you.

Coming soon: Quotation marks: single or double? And when is it acceptable to mix them?

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