April 5, 2016 | Posted in: April 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge, Writing & Grammar Tips, XterraWeb Book Blog

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D is for Dialogue and Punctuation

Dialogue and Punctuation. Rules for punctuation with dialogue and dialogue tags.

Dialogue has its own rules for punctuation and where the different punctuation goes. Only a character’s spoken words is contained within the quotation marks. All other parts of the same sentence—dialogue tags, actions, and/or thoughts— go outside of the quotation marks.

Dialogue begins with a capitalized word, no matter where it begins in the sentence. The only exception is with interrupted dialogue. When interrupted dialogue resumes, it is not capitalized.

While direct dialogue requires quotation marks, indirect dialogue does not. Indirect dialogue reports that someone said something, and the word “that” is often implied in indirect dialogue.

Direct dialogue: “He is leaving,” she said.
Indirect dialogue: She said [that] he is leaving.

Here are some of the rules for dialogue and punctuation with examples.

Single line of dialogue without a dialogue tag.
The entire sentence, including the period (or question mark or exclamation point), is within the quotation marks.

“He is leaving.”

Single line of dialogue with a dialogue tag first.
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A comma separates the dialogue tag from the spoken words, but it is outside the quotation marks, and the period is inside the quotation marks.

She said, “He is leaving.”

Single line of dialogue with a dialogue tag following.
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks, and a comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. A period is used to end the sentence. The punctuation separates the spoken words from other parts of the sentence. Since the dialogue tag, she said, is part of the sentence, it isn’t capitalized.

“He is leaving,” she said.

Single line of dialogue with a dialogue tag and an action.
The dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks, and a comma follows the dialogue and comes before the closing quotation mark. The dialogue tag is next with the action following the tag and a period to end the sentence.

“He is leaving,” she said, leaning in closer.

Single line of dialogue with a dialogue tag and an action first.

Leaning in closer, she said, “He is leaving.”

Dialogue interrupted by a dialogue tag.
Dialogue can be interrupted by a dialogue tag and/or action and then resumed in the same sentence. The commas go inside the first set of quotation marks and after the dialogue tag and/or action.

“He is leaving,” she said, “to get Ann’s gift.”
“He is leaving,” she said, leaning in closer, “to get Ann’s gift.”

Questions or exclamations in dialogue without a dialogue tag.
Question marks and exclamation marks are contained within the quotation marks. When a dialogue tag is used, it isn’t capitalized as it is part of the sentence.

“He is leaving?” OR “He is leaving?” she asked.

“He is leaving!” OR “He is leaving!” she cried.

Dialogue interrupted by action/thought without a dialogue tag.
Characters can pause in their speech to do/think something and then resume the dialogue. When a dialogue tag isn’t used, special punctuation is required to set off the action and/or thought.

Enclose the first part of the dialogue in quotation marks but do not include the comma. Follow the ending quotation mark with an em dash, then the action and/or thought, and then another em dash. Resume the dialogue with another opening quotation mark, complete the dialogue, and end the dialogue with a period and a closing quotation mark. There are no spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the dashes and the action and/or thought. (The spoken words are contained within the quotation marks and the action and/or thought is set off by the dashes.)

“He is leaving”—she turned on the stereo—”to get Ann’s gift.”

Dialogue abruptly cut off.
When dialogue is cut off—something suddenly diverts the character’s attention or another character interrupts him—use an em dash before the closing quotation mark. Dialogue can be interrupted mid-word or at the end of a word. Before deciding where to break the interrupted word, consider the sounds of words and syllables before deciding where to break the interrupted word.

“He is lea—”

Dialogue abruptly cut off by new speaker and then resumed.
When a new speaker interrupts the first, use the em dash where the first speaker’s words are interrupted and again where they resume.

“He is leaving—”
“But I’m not ready to go yet.”
“—to get Ann’s gift.”

Dialogue that trails off.
When dialogue trails off, usually when the character has lost his train of thought or doesn’t know what to say, use the ellipsis.

“He is leaving …” OR “He is leaving …” she said.

If you want to read more dialogue tips, check out our blog article Five Common Dialogue Mistakes Writers Make.

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