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Punctuating Dialogue

by Marg Gilks

Think about it: there's a pretty boggling array of punctuation marks at our disposal -- not just your run-of-the-mill sentence-enders like periods, question marks, and exclamation points, but slashes and dashes and dots of various sorts. I just used six of them in that first sentence, alone. No wonder some writers think of the whole mess as though it were Dorothy's lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).

Like it or not, punctuation is something you have to master. Think of all those odd marks as your guideposts for your readers. Punctuation marks tell readers to pause or stop when you intend them to; in partnership with the words you choose, they add meter and rhythm to your writing and make it dance off the page; they help convey emotion (...don't they? You bet!); they clarify your meaning. (What's your first reaction to this sentence?: "While we were eating the cat on the table jumped down." While we were eating the cat?! What a difference a comma makes!: "While we were eating, the cat on the table jumped down.")

Punctuation in dialogue can be particularly intimidating. Now you're constructing sentences in which characters are speaking sentences of their own! Where do all those punctuation marks go?

If your character utters a complete sentence, should you punctuate it as such? Only if that's all there is to it:

Mark pointed at the sky. "It's going to rain."

Here there are two separate actions, treated as two separate sentences. So you punctuate them as such, the only difference being that Mark's speech is indicated by being enclosed in quotation marks.

Dialogue Tags

What if you want to make sure the reader knows Mark is speaking by including a dialog tag? If you're adding a straightforward tag like "he said," "Mark whispered," or "shouted Mark," that's part of the sentence, so you include it in the sentence with a comma:

"It's going to rain," Mark said.

Mark pointed at the sky and whispered, "It's going to rain."

Two mental tricks that may help: think of Mark's speech as something you're relating to a friend. You wouldn't say, "Then Mark said. It was going to rain." You'd say, "Mark said it was going to rain."

Or, try taking the quotation marks out and punctuating the sentence as a normal sentence:

It's going to rain, shouted Mark.

Then put in the quotation marks when you've got that sorted out:

"It's going to rain," shouted Mark.

Shouting implies that Mark is a bit more excited about all of this rain than a mere comma indicates, however. Perhaps an exclamation point would better signal his excitement to the reader. But an ! is ending punctuation, and you'd really like to make sure the reader knows Mark's the one getting excited. You can do this in two ways. You can avoid the whole issue of comma vs. exclamation mark by inverting the sentence and letting the exclamation mark fill its end-punctuation role:

Mark pointed at the sky and shouted, "It's going to rain!"

Or, you can take advantage of the double standard sometimes offered by quotation marks by treating them -- and what they enclose -- as something of a parenthetical element within the sentence. Just as you may enclose a comment in brackets (the proper term for these brackets is parentheses), you can think of anything within quotation marks as something a little separate from the rest of the sentence. In cases where you want to convey excitement or confusion, the comma can safely be replaced by an exclamation point or a question mark:

"It's going to rain!" Mark shouted.

"What do we do now?" asked Cindy.

Perhaps Cindy doesn't come right out and ask Mark what they should do, but only thinks this. There's a question involved, even if it's not spoken out loud. Where does the question mark fall?

Again, you could avoid the whole issue. You could fall back on exposition:

Cindy wondered what they would do now.

But you lose the immediacy by stepping out of your character's head and telling the reader what she's thinking. You don't want that.

It's perfectly all right to treat Cindy's internal dialog as though she'd spoken it:

What do we do now? Cindy wondered.

Note that, in character dialog, whether internal or spoken, the question mark always falls after the actual question, not after the dialog tag at the end of the sentence. That's because you're relaying Cindy's thoughts, complete with the guideposts that will make them clear to the reader, not actually wondering yourself what the characters will do now -- one hopes.

Punctuation Within Dialogue

You have noticed by now that all end punctuation falls inside the closing quotation mark, right?

Correct: "It's going to rain," said Mark.

Incorrect: "It's going to rain", said Mark.

Okay, so what if you're writing a sentence in which your character is quoting what someone else said? How do you punctuate that so the reader can sort it all out? Simple. Just as you treat character dialog as a parenthetical element within a sentence and flag it as dialog by enclosing it within quotation marks, you treat the quote as parenthetical within the character's spoken sentence and flag it with single quotation marks:

"I don't like Cindy," Mark said. "I told her it was about to rain, but she turned to Biff and asked him, 'What do we do now?' instead of asking me."

Multi-Paragraph Quotes

Perhaps Mark has more to say about Cindy; maybe he goes on for several paragraphs, complaining about every little thing about her that annoys him. How to punctuate that? Well, he's still speaking, even though he's speaking so much, it needs to be broken into paragraphs. So, you start out with your opening quotation marks to signal to the reader that somebody's speaking. But when you reach the end of the first paragraph in Mark's tirade, you don't end that paragraph with closing quotation marks. By leaving the closing quotes out, you're telling the reader that Mark has more to say; drop your eyes down to the next paragraph, reader, and you'll read what more there is.

And when they do, there they find another set of opening quotation marks at the beginning of that paragraph, assuring them that yes, Mark's still speaking. And so on and so on, for as many paragraphs that Mark may speak, until the end of the last paragraph of his tirade, where he finally shuts up and you tell the reader so by inserting those long-awaited closing quotation marks:

"I don't like Cindy," Mark said. "I told her it was about to rain, but she turned to Biff and asked him, 'What do we do now?' instead of asking me.

"Now, if you ask me, Cindy's a bit snooty. She thinks she's too good for me, that I don't know anything except that it's going to rain. Well, let me tell you, I know a lot more than that!

"I know, for instance, that if it had happened in Antarctica, that rain would have been snow!"

What if Biff had been standing there listening, and didn't agree with what Mark was saying? What if he'd interrupted to say so? You signal the dialog of each new speaker with its own quotation marks, and you make it even clearer to the reader that someone else is talking by giving the new speaker their own paragraph for their action:

"I don't like Cindy," Mark said. "I told her it was about to rain, but she turned to Biff and asked him, 'What do we do now?' instead of asking me.

"Now, if you ask me, Cindy's a bit snooty. She thinks she's too good for me, that I don't know anything except that it's going to rain."

"She's not snooty," Biff said. "She asked me because you don't know anything except when it's going to rain."

"Well, let me tell you, I know a lot more than that!" Mark retorted. "I know, for instance, that if it had happened in Antarctica, that rain would have been snow!

"I also know that you and Cindy are having an affair, and -- "

"Oh, shut up," growled Biff.

Just as you break a big project down into smaller parts to make it more manageable, if you break your dialog sentences down into their separate sections, punctuation isn't so scary, after all.

Copyright © 2001 Marg Gilks


Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.

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