Conversations and Punctuation

Dialogue adds interest for the reader and helps to bring them into the story, almost as if they were an invisible bystander in a conversation. It also helps to break up what could be dreary paragraphs of narrative that could be a turnoff after a while.

Using a conversation helps to show, rather than tell, what the characters are feeling. So, great! Why not use some dialogue to perk up the story? But be sure to do it right, or your reader will give up in disgust.

Some basic punctuation rules will help to make your dialogue look professional.

First of all, think of your dialogue as a sentence just like any other with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end.

Second, we want to show which words the person said. These go between double quotation marks.

“You sure are bossy,” Joe said.

The part that is inside the quotation marks is like a sentence within a sentence, but instead of a period at the end of what he said, we put a comma, or a question mark if it is warranted. These go INSIDE the closing quotation marks.

If there is a quotation inside a quotation, you would use single quotation marks to show that.

“Did he say ‘You sure are bossy’?” Darryl asked.

Supposing Joe had more to say, and wants to continue his sentence. The dialogue tag (Joe said) interrupts the words he is speaking, so we use a comma to separate it from the spoken words and no capital letter is needed to continue the words he spoke .

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said, “if you’d like to go to the movies with me.”

However, if Joe has two or more sentences to say, we must treat them just like any other sentences, separated by a period.

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said. “That tells me you don’t want to come with me. Why didn’t you just say so?”

If you are trying to show that the character is thinking some words, these are put into italics and not within quotation marks.

“I’ve asked you three times to come to the movies with me,” Joe said. I guess that should have told me she doesn’t want to go.

If you have dialogue at the end of a paragraph and perhaps the speaker is changing the subject, so you want to start a new paragraph as he continues to speak, you leave off the final quotation marks but begin the new paragraph with quotation marks. This way we know it is still the same speaker. If it is a new speaker, we put the closing quotation marks on the sentence before beginning a new quotation.

“I painted the house since you were gone,” Joe said. “I hope you like it.

“By the way, would you like to come to the movies with me tonight?” he added.

Also, notice that no capital is used to begin the dialogue tag (he added) after the quotation, unless it is a person’s name, of course.

“I hope this helps you with your punctuation,” Anneli said, “especially in the case of a sentence interrupted by a dialogue tag.” I wonder what they’ll think. Will they leave a comment to tell me?

Rewriting. What to do and when to stop.

I love rewriting better than writing the first draft of my novels.

  • First I’m much more relaxed because I know the hard work of getting the storyline on “paper” is done.
  • As I rewrite I find mistakes and have a feeling of satisfaction when I fix them.
  • I find little treasures like a paragraph that I can rewrite using dialogue rather than boring narrative, and I’m pleased with myself for figuring that out.
  • I can’t believe I fell for the use of other words as dialogue tags instead of “said” and “asked” and I fix those, reaffirming that I can make the dialogue do the job of expressing the emotion rather than relying on the dialogue tag to provide it. Fancy words like “inquired” and “replied” just slow down the action. “Said” and “asked” are more like punctuation—necessary, but meant to be glossed over. This is also the place where I look for “ing” words and get rid of them if possible. (For example: “I’ll be right there,” she said, putting down the phone.) If she was putting down the phone when she was speaking into it, I wonder if the other party even heard her.
  • I look for repeated words and try to avoid using the same words or expressions in one paragraph. Repetition becomes obvious immediately when reading your work out loud.
  • Speaking of repetition, character names are often overused, especially in dialogue. Have you ever noticed that when you’re talking to someone, you rarely speak their name? The other person knows you’re talking to them and you and that person both know his or her name. Why would you keep on saying it? So for natural conversation, use the other person’s name sparingly. I often have to take out names in dialogue, and in narrative sections I replace them when possible with he or she.
  • In dialogue, the sentences should be fairly short. I need to check for long sentences that give a lot of information. People just don’t talk that way. Often they use only one or two words or phrases. Besides, short, snappy dialogue heightens the tension and that is what every author is striving for.
  • In the rewrite, I can also add little tidbits of description of people or places, but I try to be careful to do it in small doses. Long descriptions have a huge “yawn” factor.
  • When someone speaks, they may have some physical or emotional reaction that should be added, usually before the quotation. This is a good time to add that information.
  • As I reread my first draft, it’s important that I remember which point of view I’m in. I’ve made some awful POV mistakes that my critiquing buddy or I have found. For example, if I’m telling the scene in Andrea’s POV, I can’t write a thought that is happening in Jim’s head. Andrea has no way of knowing what he is thinking. I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix POV problems before publication and save myself some embarrassment.
  • Now that I’ve mentioned my critiquing buddy, I have to say that my writing efforts are made so much easier because of her. I try to do the same for her and it makes us a great team. If you don’t have a writing buddy to exchange files with and help each other out, it’s very much worth your while to try to find someone who is willing to work with you. I find my buddy’s help invaluable! Oops! She’ll say not to use exclamation marks unless it’s for a one- or two-word expression, but in this case, I do want to stress that her help is invaluable!

 Most authors are perfectionists and they tend to rewrite over and over. I’ve heard it said that an author can tell that they’re finished rewriting when they end up with what they originally wrote in the first rewrite. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but sometimes you wonder ….