I used to be surprised when I would see editing requests that ask for help with or demand experience in dialog. This is one of the most common literary devices. Not only is it all throughout most fiction novels, but you frequently find it in non-fiction too.
Many people say that to be a good author, you should be an avid reader. So shouldn’t writers be familiar with the rules here?
Until I became a professional editor, I never really paid any attention to punctuation, though (unless it interfered with my reading experience). So I can see how even if you read a lot, you may not have any firm ideas about how to make dialog flow, let alone how to punctuate it or structure it.
When I am doing a proofread of a novel, the number one thing I need to change is the punctuation involved in the dialog.
So let’s start with the dialog tag.
Is this a complete sentence?
Well, it has a subject and verb, so I guess so. But it definitely leaves me wondering, “WHAT?!?! What did he say?”
So we need to add a comma.
If we start the sentence with that, the comma goes after the dialog tag:
1. He said, “I am so bad at this whole thing.”
So maybe you want the dialog tag to go at the end? Then the comma goes inside the ending quotation mark:
2. “I am so bad at this whole thing,” he said.
And that is essentially it!
Other Types of Sentences
But what about an interrogative or exclamatory sentence?
Example 1 stays the same. Just replace the period with a question mark or exclamation point.
3. He said, “How do I do this?”
4. He said, “Oh, forget it!”
In example 2, the question mark or exclamation point replaces the comma. This is the one that gets tricky, because even thought the quotations contain a complete sentence, DO NOT capitalize the first word outside of the quotes (unless it’s a proper name).
5. “How do I do this?” he said.
6. “Oh, forget it!” he said.
Action as Dialog Tags?
Some people are great at mixing in some action with their dialog. Woohoo! So much better to read.
But then the punctuation and capitalization throw them off.
So what’s the rule? Everything I said above only applies to dialog tags. The piece of a sentence that tells you who is speaking and in what manner (he asked, shouted, whispered, etc.)
Some writers will stitch on some action in a dependent clause.
7. “Oh, forget it!” he said, throwing his hands up in the air.
It’s all part of the same sentence, so nothing new to introduce there. Just adding to the sentence from example 6.
But what if the action is in a sentence all by itself? Well, it’s just a normal sentence there. See?
8. “Oh, forget it!” he said. He threw his hands up in the air.
Action sentences are not dialog tags!
Ok, but what if I don’t like the use of “he” twice so close together and want to leave out the dialog tag?
9. “Oh, forget it!” He threw his hands up in the air.
Remember back at the beginning when I said “he said” seems like an incomplete sentence? Well, the action sentence in example 9 is complete. And its capitalization and punctuation show that.
Some people get a little confused when the action is added to a simple declarative sentence. So let’s go back to example 2.
2. “I am so bad at this whole thing,” he said.
If we swap out the dialog tag for an action sentence, we need to make the dialog a sentence on its own.
10. “I am so bad at this whole thing.” He threw his hands up in the air.
Same thing if the action goes first:
11. He threw his hands up in the air. “I am so bad at this whole thing.”
Do NOT put a comma after the word “air” in the above sentence. I am not even going to show it is an example of something wrong, because I don’t want you to have the visual in your head. Just… please don’t do it. It doesn’t make sense.
Advanced Dialog Punctuation
Feeling confident? Want to try putting the tag in the middle of the dialog? All rightie.
12. “I am so bad at this whole thing,” he said. “Though, I think I am starting to figure it out.”
13. “I am so bad at this whole thing.” He said, “Though, think I am starting to figure it out.”
14. “I am so bad at this whole thing,” he said, “though I think I am starting to figure it out.”
If you have the dialog tag between two complete sentences, then the dialog punctuation should reflect that. While technically both 12 and 13 are correct, it makes more sense to me to put the tag with the first sentence. After all, the point of the dialog tag is to tell us who is speaking.
You can also break up a sentence. Just make sure you do it at a logical point, like between two clauses. If you want the dialog to be one longer sentence, make sure the capitalization shows it. Don’t capitalize the part of the dialog after the tag (unless it’s a proper noun).
But what if you want to break up the dialog with action? Well, remember that action gets its own sentence, unless it’s a dependent clause (like in example 15).
15. “I am so bad at this whole thing,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air, “though I think I am starting to figure it out.”
16. “I am so bad at this whole thing.” He threw his hands up in the air. “Though I think I am starting to figure it out.”
Is there a difference between examples 15 and 16?
In example 15, he is doing the action while speaking. But in example 16, he pauses his speech to do the action.
Dialog Punctuation Summary
Dialog tags are a part of the sentence with the dialog, so sentences (with their punctuation and capitalization) should reflect this.
Action sentences that are complete sentences on their own do not belong to the sentence of dialog. They should be enclosed in their own sentence.
If you want action to be in the same sentence as the dialog, it is better to use a dependent clause attached to a dialog tag.
Questions? Opinions? Facts you want to share?
I’d love to hear any of it in the comments section!