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Punctuating Dialogue: Pro Tips

May 17 / Jeanne De Vita
Conversation is such a beautiful part of life and is a fantastic tool when used correctly in writing. So let’s talk… about dialogue.
There are several elements of dialogue that I most frequently correct in manuscripts. Let’s look at an example and discuss the parts.

Punctuating dialogue.

As a general rule, any words spoken by a character should be contained inside a pair of matched quotation marks.A correctly punctuated line of dialogue will have FOUR marks around it. It’s also important to mention that quotation marks vary based on your font and type. Some are curly (curved) and some are straight (in this post all the quotations are straight).  So if you use CURLY quotation marks at the beginning of the character’s dialogue, you should use the exact same CURLY quotation marks at the end of the line.So in the example above, use straight quotation marks before the first spoken word AND after the last. Include SOME form of closing punctuation INSIDE the quotation marks. So, she is screaming her dialogue, the exclamation point would INSIDE the quotation marks. The word she which follows the dialogue is in lower case, not capitalized. We do this because the she is technically part of the same sentence. Remember elementary sentence writing? A sentence is simply a subject and a verb… a do-er and an action, frequently with lots of other stuff added in. In this sentence, she is the subject, the do-er. Screamed is the verb or the action. **Don’t be confused because the subject-verb is at the end of the sentence! You know it’s the subject-verb because even if you flip it, the words make sense. Here’s how that would look: She screamed, “Don’t let it in!”**We use the quotation marks to simply “point out” or “separate” the spoken part of the sentence from the rest. The natural end to the first sentence then is a period after screamed. Note also that the first word inside the quotation marks should be capitalized. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but let’s focus on what’s generally correct. Most of the time, that first word (Don’t, What, and She) should be capitalized.The rest of the example is going to drive you crazy if you don’t care for punctuation marks, or if you scare easily, but there are lots of important rules in this example.When one character repeats exactly the words of someone else AND that character is speaking, what is said should be in double quotations and what is repeated should go in single quotes. That’s why you see this:

Punctuating repeated words/dialogue

“What did she say?” the guy in the blue sweater asked.
“She said, ‘Don’t let it in!’ But I already opened the door.” I tried to slam the door but it was too late.
You probably noticed when the speaker stops talking, that dialogue ends with a period, not a comma like the sentence above. Why? Isn’t the slamming the door part of the same sentence? Well apply the subject-verb test. In this case, the words AFTER the dialogue are their own complete sentence. They describe what the speaker is doing rather than describing the act of speaking.
Which brings me to another important punctuation pointer: the difference between dialogue tags and action beats.
A dialogue tag is simply a clause that tells the reader that someone spoke. That’s it. These are all dialogue tags:
A dialogue tag can’t tell the reader anything except information about who spoke and how he/she/they/it said those words.
An action beat is quite different. An action beat is a sentence that on its own is clear and understandable (a complete sentence, subject-verb), but which closely relates to the dialogue that was spoken.
If you’re writing action beats, you must punctuate the dialogue that comes before the action beat with a period (or whatever ending punctuation is appropriate, normally a period or exclamation point).
The sentence which follows the action beat will either need more quotations (if the same speaker is speaking) or a new paragraph. If another person speaks, then you’ll need BOTH a new paragraph AND more quotation marks.
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Here’s a complete correct example. Don’t be confused by the extra words after my second dialogue tag!
“Don’t let it in!” she screamed.
“What did she say?” the guy in the blue sweater asked.
“She said, ‘Don’t let it in!’ But I already opened the door.” I tried to slam the door but it was too late.
“Awww, it’s going to eat all the cookies,” she said in a voice that sounded more sad than frightened.