Guest Author - Glenda Schoonmaker
Dialog can add realism to your nonfiction by helping the reader hear characters' voices and how they sound--at least that's what it seems like. Yet, there's nothing worse than reading something when you can't identify who is speaking. Have you ever had to take your finger and retrace up the page, line by line of who said what in order to know who is speaking? Wow. What a tangled sentence, but all tangled up is exactly how a reader feels when reading dialog which isn't punctuated correctly. If readers have to do that more than once, they'll probably give up, put the writing down, and you've lost those readers forever.
Punctuating dialog can seem confusing and speech tags can seem combursome, but once you learn a few simple rules, it will always be clear who is speaking. By the way, speech tag is the term for wording such as he said, she said, Steve exclaimed, Susan giggled, etc.
- A new paragraph (with indentation) begins each time a different character (person) speaks. This is true whether the character "speaks" a paragraph of information or one single word.
- Double quotation marks surround only the actual words said by the character.
- Ending punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks.
- If the sentence starts with a speech tag, put a comma at the end of the tag and surround the quoted material with quotation marks. Example: Mrs. Peabody said, "I know you'll like this study on dialog." No matter what the sentence ends with (period, exclamation point, question mark), the ending mark still goes inside the quotation marks.
- If the sentence starts with dialog and then has a speech tag next which ends the sentence, the period which normally ends the sentence of dialog changes to a comma. Example: "I'm glad to finally learn about punctuating dialog," said Billy Bob.
- If the opening dialog is a question or exclamation then followed by a speech tag, the question mark or exclamation mark does not change to a comma. Example: "Oh, I can't wait to learn more dumb punctuation rules!" said Sylvester.
- Always capitalize the first word in the dialog. Example: Esmerelda said, "Why can't you just stop complaining for a change?"
- If the dialog is broken up anywhere by a speech tag, only the first word of the dialog has a capital letter; the second part does not. Example: "Now, boys and girls," the teacher said, "we need to all get our books out quietly and put our pencils and papers right side up on our desks."
- Sometimes dialog has more sentence following it that isn't part of the dialog. When this occurs, do not capitalize the second part of the sentence. Example: "Uh, Mrs. Peabody," Herbert said, "did you forget that this is a high school class and not a kindergarten class?" and slammed his book on the desk.
- If your character is not speaking but simply thinks the words, then don't put the dialog part in quotation marks, but make sure the tag line shows that the character is thinking to himself or herself. Example: Oh, me, oh, my! I can't believe I forgot that this was high school. Where has my mind been lately? Mrs. Peabody thought.
- There is a common exception to the rule above about not using quotation marks around the words that someone is thinking: it's usually more advisable to simply put thoughts in italics. This creates less confusion. Example: The class must really think I'm off my rocker now. "Oh, I am so sorry," Mrs. Peabody said, "I've just been hurrying way too much lately. Teaching both kindergarten and high school in the same afternoon can be very confusing."
When writing dialog or anything relating to manuscripts for that matter, please heed a word of caution regarding the use of word processors--and probably everyone does use a word processor now. Most word processors have embedded settings that try to correct mistakes that the average person makes. This is fine for the average person except writers aren't average people.
Writers have too many exceptions to normal rules in basic writing. It's best to go into the settings of your word processor and change the automatic formatting. Otherwise, you'll end up with punctuation and capitalization where you don't want it, especially when you write dialog---then you'll be back where you started, confusing the reader.