Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part I. Punctuation Basics

Chapter 4. How to Format Dialogue

This chapter is an excerpt from How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. For those of you who’ve already read How to Write Dialogue, this will be a refresher, but properly formatting dialogue is tricky enough and important enough that I felt it was essential to include it in Grammar for Fiction Writers as well.

The quickest way to make your work look more professional is to format your dialogue properly. This is the foundation for everything else you’ll learn about dialogue. (If you’re interested in learning more about dialogue, pick up a copy of How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.) Once you learn these formatting requirements, you’ll do them naturally as you write and won’t have to think about them.

ONE SPEAKER PER PARAGRAPH

Every time you have a new speaker, you need a new paragraph, even if the dialogue is only one word long.

Whether you personally like the look of it, this is what readers expect. It makes your dialogue easier to understand because they’re able to quickly recognize a change in speaker even before you identify who’s talking. It also helps you limit the use of speaker attributions (more on that later).

Wrong:

“Ella? Are you here?” Sarah asked. Ella popped up from behind the desk, cobwebs in her hair and a dirty cloth dangling from her fingers. “I just need another ten minutes to finish.”

Right:

“Ella? Are you here?” Sarah asked.

Ella popped up from behind the desk, cobwebs in her hair and a dirty cloth dangling from her fingers. “I just need another ten minutes to finish.”

CHOOSE THE CORRECT FORM OF PUNCTUATION

Improper punctuation of dialogue is one of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts I edit and critique.

Use a comma at the end of a segment of dialogue (even a complete sentence) when followed by a tag.

tag is a word such as said or asked.

“I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said.

Use a question mark without a comma for a question.

This applies to exclamation marks, too.

“Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy asked.

I could have replaced asked with said here and the punctuation would remain the same.

Extra Tip: Although it might look strange at first, you can use the tag said even if your speaker is asking a question. The question mark alone indicates a question, and technically we’re speaking whether the words come out as a question, an exclamation, or a shout.

“Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy said.

This is an option you have, not a requirement.

If a tag is dividing a sentence, use a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue (even if the comma wouldn’t normally go there in the same sentence if it wasn’t dialogue) and use a comma after the tag.

“I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said, “because they burn my tongue.”

Use a period after a tag when the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence. Use a comma at the end of the dialogue preceding the tag.

“I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said. “I refuse to eat them.”

Use a dash when dialogue is cut off or interrupted.

Do not add any other punctuation.

“It wasn’t my—”

“Enough excuses.”

Remember to use an ellipsis for dialogue that fades away.

“I just…” She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I thought he loved me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly!

Sometimes you need an exclamation point to add emotional context, but they’re usually a sign that you’re trying to bolster weak dialogue. They’re also distracting!! And if you use them too often, they lose their emphasis!!

Don’t use colons or semicolons in your dialogue at all.

While this might seem like an arbitrary rule, colons and semicolons just look unnatural in dialogue. For the most part, you should avoid them in your fiction entirely.

Punctuation almost always goes inside the quotation marks in North America.

If you’re not in North America, check some of the traditionally published books on your shelf to see where they place punctuation.