He Said, She Said: The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue

I’ve been doing a pile of editing recently for authors of all ages, many from other countries. One of the things that always surprises me at these times is just how confused many seem to be about the mechanics of writing dialogue. Where do quotation marks go? Is the comma before the quotation mark or after? What about capitalization? I actually put together a cheat sheet for my book on writing, The 5-Day Fiction Fix: Writing Complex Charactersand I thought it might be helpful to include that cheat sheet here.

NOTE: The UK and other countries use different standards when it comes to single and double quotes and punctuation placement; these rules apply specifically to works in the U.S.

Quotation marks: “”

Beginning quotation, end quotation. Quotation marks surround any words a character says out loud to another character. To indicate inner dialogue (words attributed directly to a character in that moment that he does not say aloud, e.g., I’d love a piece of her cake, he thought) no quotation marks are used, but you may choose to italicize in order to make your meaning clear.

Punctuation within dialogue:

Commas, periods, dashes, and ellipses that are part of the direct quote all belong within the quotation marks.
“I can’t believe I just did that!”
“I don’t know what else to say…”
“Do you know the way to San Jose?”

Attributions:

Dialogue tags before a direct quote belong outside the beginning quotation mark:
He said, “I can’t believe I just did that!”
She replied, “I don’t know what else to say…”
They sang, “Do you know the way to San Jose?”

Dialogue tags after a direct quote belong within the ending quotation mark:
“I can’t believe I just did that!” he said.
“I don’t know what else to say…” she trailed off.
“Do you know the way to San Jose?” they sang.

Capitalization:

Direct quotes are capitalized unless they are continuations of a quote that began earlier in the same sentence.
“There’s something about him,” she said, “that I just can’t forget.”

Attributions after a quote are not capitalized, regardless of the punctuation. Think of them as a continuation of the same sentence.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” he asked.
“There’s an eyeball in my drink!” she shouted.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Mexico,” she said.

Single Quotes: ‘’

Used when you are directly quoting someone or quotation marks are required for some other reason, within a direct quote.
“That’s something I don’t understand. He told me, ‘Don’t wear your flippers to the party,’ but how else am I supposed to get there?”
“My favorite version of ‘Mony Mony’ is the cover Billy Idol did in the ’80s”

When continuing a quote from one paragraph to the next, use no end quote at the end of the first paragraph, but use a beginning quote at the start of the second paragraph.

“I can’t believe you’ve been waiting for me all night,” she said. “Imagine what could have happened. Wolves could have eaten you alive.
“Though to be fair,” she continued, “I guess there aren’t that many wolves around. Badgers might have gotten you, though.”

There are other niggly things you can learn about punctuating dialogue, but if you know this much, your editor and beta readers will thank you and you’re already well ahead of the game. I hope this proves helpful!

Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. To learn more, visit http://www.jenblood.com. 

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7 Responses to He Said, She Said: The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue

  1. Kate Flora says:

    And I would add…using tags can be very important for helping readers keep track of the speaker.

    Like

    • jenbloodauthor says:

      Good point, Kate! Absolutely. In my experience working with new writers, they tend to go to one extreme or the other. Either every line of dialogue is accompanied by dialogue tag + adverb and a paragraph detailing the character’s thoughts, history, and body language, or there’s just a page of shotgun dialogue with a single dialogue tag halfway down that does little to orient the reader. Thankfully, this is one of those quirks fairly easily remedied with a little gentle guidance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Monica says:

    Are there other books in the ‘5-Day Fiction’ series? Or, is it a series, is a better question!

    Like

    • jenbloodauthor says:

      The intention is that it will be a series, Monica – right now I just have the character book out, but I have two others that I’m working on, and ideally will be doing accompanying courses on Teachable within the next year. Thanks for asking!

      Like

  3. L.C. Rooney says:

    Thanks for this post! How interesting that this was published on the same day I had a different kind of irritating experience with dialogue. This morning I read an excerpt from the latest offering by one of the most prolific authors ever (100+ novels…a consistent NYT best-seller for decades…and those are all the hints I’m giving). It had me positively CRINGING at most of the dialogue. Stilted, wooden, and unlike natural speech in any way. And if I saw just one more adverb hanging off the end of a dialogue tag, I knew I would wing my smartphone across the room. I remembered why I haven’t read anything from this author in 30 years. (But how was the construction, you ask? I couldn’t tell you. I was so distracted by the content, it hardly mattered where the quotation marks appeared!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • jenbloodauthor says:

      Hmmm… I wonder who this author could possibly be! Adverb-heavy dialogue tags are a pet peeve of mine as well, and stilted dialogue can take the life out of even the most compelling storyline. I feel your pain!

      Liked by 1 person

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