Writing Tips #6: Punctuating Dialogue (Advanced Skills)
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to another installment of Writing Tips. Today, we’ll be discussing advanced dialogue punctuation (for more basic skills, please refer to episode 5). Let’s get started.
1. Combining narrative beats with dialogue tags. In the previous post, we discussed how to properly punctuate dialogue tags (he said, she said, they asked, etc.) and narrative beats (body language, non-vocal responses, etc.) Of course, there are times when you want to use both techniques at once. In this case, you want to punctuate the dialogue like so:
g.) “I can’t believe you did that,” she whispered, staring at him in horror.
h.) He turned to her and said, “We’re going to need more explosives.”
i.) “Well,” she said, eyeing him appreciatively, “that went better than I expected.”
Each of the above examples handles this technique in a slightly different way, but you’ll notice that the punctuation is consistent with that of dialogue tags, rather than narrative beats. In this structure, it can be helpful to think of the dialogue tag acts as the main course, while the narrative beat is more of a side dish (which is not to say that your side dish is any less nutritious or delicious than your main course, but much like the main course at a fancy restaurant, the dialogue tag gets priority.)
because I am sneaky, I have nested another set of dialogue lessons into
these three examples. Example G is the vanilla version of combining
narrative beats with dialogue tags. It’s the format you’re most likely to
see, and the most easily constructed.
But look at Example H. Rather than coming after the dialogue, as you’ve seen in previous examples, the dialogue tag (and narrative beat) come before the
dialogue. The punctuation is very similar (a comma to conjoin each
segment of the sentence), but you’ll notice that the first word of the
dialogue is capitalized. Dialogue like this is basically a complete
sentence nested within a larger sentence, and is punctuated
independently (except when followed by a dialogue tag, in which case the
period at the end of the dialogue becomes a comma, as we’ve discussed.)
Example I is even more complicated, with the dialogue split into two separate pieces by the tag/beat combo. In cases like this, you want to insert the tag/beat where there’s a natural pause in the dialogue (usually at a comma). But because you are continuing the dialogue after the tag/beat, you end the tag/beat with another comma (as we saw in Example H), then continue the dialogue as if there had not been any interruption (by which I mean, do not capitalize the first word of the second segment of dialogue). Here are a few more examples of how to do this correctly:
j.) “I hate to break it to you, mate,” he said, setting his hat on the bar, “but it might be time to admit defeat.”
k.) “You know,” she said, “it probably would have been faster to walk.”
l.) “I don’t normally say this,” the man grumbled, peering down at her, “but that was some damned fine shooting.”
Note, however, that if you split the dialogue at the end of a sentence, you end the following tag/beat with a period, not a comma, then punctuate the next snippet of dialogue as normal. Examples:
m.) “That wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” she said, pulling her shoes on. “I was trying to suggest we look for answers ourselves.”
n.) “If you don’t clean your room right now, you can forget about going to the park,” his mother said, hands on her hips. “Honestly, the things I put up with around here …”
o.) “We could always kill him,” she suggested, frowning when her girlfriend looked at her in horror. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
2. What to do when the dialogue goes on for multiple paragraphs without a break. This is a fairly rare occurrence, since most of the time, it’s pretty easy to sprinkle in a response from another character to break up a monologue, but you may find occasion to use it, so here’s an explanation: When a single character is speaking for more than one paragraph at a time, without any sort of narrative beat or interruption, you punctuate it like this:
“See, Leah was a fine young woman. Had a mouth on her, sure, and she could shoot a man dead in the eye from a hundred paces, but she had her chips in a row, if you take my meaning.
“Cindy, now, she was a different beast. Mean as a rattlesnake, and just as quick. Why, I’d rather go into a gunfight unarmed than cross her. And that’s not even takin’ into account that dog of hers. Meanest sumbitch I ever did see.”
that there is no ending quotation mark after the first paragraph. This
indicates that the dialogue is not yet finished. Note also that there is an
opening quotation mark at the beginning of the second paragraph, which
acts as confirmation that the dialogue is indeed still going on. And
then, at the end of the second paragraph, when the dialogue actually is over,
there’s a closing quotation mark. As I said, it’s rare for dialogue to
go on for more than one paragraph without some sort of interruption, but
it does happen, so it’s best to be prepared for it.
3. Quotes within quotes. Another situation you might run into is having a character quote something another character has said (or mentioning something, such as a poem, song, or short story which would ordinarily be in quotes). Fortunately, this one is pretty easy: you follow the same rules you would with any regular piece of dialogue, except that instead of putting it in double-quotation marks, you put it in single quotation marks (note: with British English, the reverse is true). Here are some examples:
p.) “And then she said, ‘Well, I just don’t know what you’re talking about.‘ As if she really didn’t know! Can you believe that?”
q.) He leaned back in his chair, expression thoughtful. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I remember the first time I met her. Up on stage, singing an operatic version of ‘Second Chance.’ Damned beautiful, she was.”
r.) “You’ll find ‘The Raven’ on page two-hundred sixty-four of your textbook,” the teacher said.
And that’s pretty much everything you need to know about punctuating dialogue. Please let me know if you have any questions or would like clarification on any of the above points. In the future, I will post lessons about how to write dialogue itself, but that’s a ways off yet. For now, I hope you found this post helpful, and thanks again for reading.