quick note to fanfic writers
So I have noticed that there are times when I read fanfic and I really enjoy so much about it - the dialogue, the characterisation, the descriptions. And then I find my enjoyment is hampered a little bit, not a huge amount, by incorrect dialogue punctuation. I realised this is a common problem in fanfic, and I figured a quick tutorial regarding dialogue was in order. I know it seems like a small thing, but I honestly think putting a comma in the place of a full stop/period makes all the difference with a fic’s readability, and the rules themselves are fairly straightforward.
First, just to clarify, a dialogue tag is a verb (i.e. a doing word) that describes how a word is said. Examples of dialogue tags are “said”, “shouted”, “cried”, etc. If the word does not describe specifically how the word is said and instead focuses on another action by the character (such as “coughed” or “laughed” or “smiled”), it is not a dialogue tag and should not be treated as such.
So, when writing dialogue that ends with a question mark:
“Have I told you how much I love you in that dress?” He murmured. (Incorrect)
“Have I told you how much I love you in that dress?” he murmured. (Correct)
The second example is formatted correctly. Remember, you only have to capitalise a word, unless it’s a proper noun (usually names), at the beginning of a new sentence. The “he” is not capitalised because it is still the same sentence and the word “murmured” is a dialogue tag.
“More than a few times now.” She teased. (Incorrect)
“More than a few times now,” she teased. (Correct)
Again, that whole line is one sentence because the word “teased” is the dialogue tag that is directly describing how the dialogue is being said. Notice the comma, as opposed to the full stop/period, and also the fact that “she” is in lowercase.
If the word you are using is not a dialogue tag, you do need a full stop/period. For example:
He coughed, “you look chilly, though.” (Incorrect)
He coughed. “You look chilly, though.” (Correct)
This is because the character coughing is separate from the dialogue itself, which is why the sentence and the dialogue are two distinct sentences. Notice that therefore the start of each sentence is capitalised.
When you continue the dialogue after the dialogue tag:
“I didn’t mean that,” Oliver said, “although I didn’t see it as breaking my vows. Not when your life was at stake.”
Note the underlined commas and the fact that “although” is in lowercase. The way you test this is simple. Simply take out the dialogue tag in its entirety, and if the sentence still makes grammatical sense, you use commas and lowercase.
Let’s test this out.
"I didn’t mean that, although I didn’t see it as breaking my vows. Not when your life was at stake.“
Yep. It still makes sense, so you have punctuated correctly.
Compare that to this example:
"I remember this one too,” she said. “You know, I thought you were going to bleed to death in my car.”
Note the underlined full stop/period and the fact that “You” is capitalised. This is because the sentences are clearly separate (whereas in the last example it was a bit more ambiguous). If you’re confused, just use the test set out above - take out the dialogue tag and see if the sentence makes grammatical sense.
“I remember this one too, you know, I thought you were going to bleed to death in my car.”
If you know anything about comma splicing, you will know that that sentence is most definitely not grammatically correct, so a full stop/period after “too” is in order.
So, in summary:
~use a COMMA and lowercase when using dialogue tags such as “said”, etc.
~use a full stop/period and capitalise the first letter when using verbs that are not dialogue tags (such as “smiled”)
~if you’re unsure when splitting dialogue with a tag in between, take out the tag and see if it makes sense as a sentence on its own. If it does, use commas and lowercase, and if it doesn’t, use a full stop/period and capitalise.
I hope that was somewhat helpful! Grammar is a strange thing - you often don’t realise you’re doing something incorrectly until it is pointed out to you, so don’t feel bad if you realise you’ve been wrongly formatting dialogue all this time! :) It’s not a huge deal, but it honestly makes such a difference for me when reading a fic and not having the flow of the story stopped because I’ve noticed the same mistake being made over and over. Anyway, my inbox is always open if anyone has any questions about this or anything else. I used to beta a lot back in my HP days, so if you’re unsure about anything grammar-wise, I’m your girl. (I mean I’m not your girl - I wasn’t making a pass at you or anything.
Or maybe I was…)