Marking Dialogue

Dialogue Marks

 

I see a lot of talented writers these days who still have trouble when it comes to the conventions of dialogue tagging and paragraphing in narrative, so I thought I’d do a little guide on how to properly punctuate around those all-important lines of speech.

Let’s take a look at the four main types of dialogue demarcation, and I’ll give a rundown on where each of them belongs.

 

When to Comma

The ubiquitous comma should be the most familiar device.  Use it with explicit dialogue marking – i.e., to separate speech from a phrase which directly indicates the speech (words like ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’, etc.). This is your basic, everyday dialogue construction.  The marking phrase can be either before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue.

“I want a hamburger,” the dinosaur pouted.

Taliana asked her husband, “Can you pass me the salt?”

“I guess chocolate is fine,” Emmy sighed, “but lemon would have been better.”

(Placement of the comma in relation to the quotation marks is another matter altogether, and up to the style you’re adhering to.  As you may have seen above, I tend to place the comma inside the quotes when the quoted matter warrants its own terminal or conjunctive punctuation, and leave it outside when it does not.)

A little less obvious – eschew the comma when the dialogue has special terminal punctuation, and the marking phrase comes after it.

“You ruined my perfect day!” Sybel yelled.

“What did you see?” Lysander whispered.

Do not use a comma with action phrases that don’t reference the speech or its manner.  This is where I see the most trouble with dialogue commas.

Frogulous picked up a hammer, “I’m gonna get you!”

“I’ve got a headache,” Susie sat down.

There is a little bit of a grey area when it comes to certain phrases that, although they may not literally be describing speech, convey its manner enough that they’ve been adopted as dialogue tags.  For instance, the following construction is fine:

“Maybe it’s a bear,” he shrugged.

But unlike the first examples, a period would also work here:

“Maybe it’s a bear.”  He shrugged.

Note, however, that the comma implies he is shrugging while speaking, whereas the period conveys a shrug post-speech.

 

When to Period

The period is pretty straightforward.  Use it with dialogue that is adjacent to character action statements that do not indicate the speech itself.

Charlotte surveyed the area.  “That would be impractical.”

This is implicit dialogue marking.  You can use it to indicate who is talking without having to take up narrative real-estate with speech words.  At the same time, don’t use a period separator when you are utilizing speech words.

“I can’t believe it’s not butter.” Kevinsburg muttered to his dog.

 

When to Colon

The colon gets a little trickier, and really, you can go a whole book without needing it.  A colon is used to separate speech when the marking phrase also describes what the speech is, or gives a basic summation of it.  If the dialogue is a clarification to a narrative statement which could stand alone, chances are a colon is called for.

Doughnut described his morning: “I woke up late, cut myself on a bar of soap, and nearly choked to death on my toast.”

Emmy clasped her paws together, recounting her plan: “If we raid the grove before midnight, I think we’ll have enough lemons for everyone!”

Note how “described his morning” and “recounting her plan” are semantically complete without the literal dialogue, whereas this is not the case with comma constructions (“He said.” doesn’t mean much on its own).  If it helps, consider that, in comma constructions, the dialogue is acting as the direct object of the speaking verb, so when the verb already has a direct object preceding the dialogue (‘his morning’, ‘her plan’), the colon is simply indicating an elaboration on it.  Lastly, keep in mind that, if you don’t feel like dealing with colons, you can usually get away with just using a period in these cases.

Now, to make things more confusing, you can also use a colon in those instances where you want to set off a large block of dialogue in its own paragraph and precede it with a direct attribution.

The spider crept in circles along its web, inching ever closer to the rodent tangled within its core.  It whispered:

“Little mouse, little mouse.  What were you doing, wandering in here all alone?  You’re much larger than my usual catch, but I shall not complain.  Little mouse, little mouse, please don’t cry; I promise that your suffering will be brief.  One small bite, one small squeeze, and you will drift off to sleep, where your mind can focus on more pleasant things.  Little mouse, little mouse, be still now.  It’s time for supper.”

Here, it is simply acting like a comma, and is only promoted to colon because of the paragraph break. Note with both of these uses that, unlike a comma, a colon is only used before a piece of dialogue.

 

When to Paragraph

This is where I see the most trouble when it comes to dialogue attribution on the whole.  A paragraph break is not a clearly defined and prescribed method for assigning speech like a comma or colon.  It’s another form of implicit attribution – a narrative shortcut that relies on assumptions to function properly. Let me state in brief the two main considerations for paragraphing around dialogue:

  • Wherever possible, when two or more characters interact, consolidate each individual’s speech, feelings, and greater actions to his or her own paragraph(s), and segregate them from paragraphs that focus on the other character(s).
  • A paragraph break, by itself with no other attribution, indicates that the other character is now speaking, not the character who had focus in the immediately preceding paragraph.

As always, better to explain by example:

Peggy’s eyes glanced over the table and landed on the porcelain platter.  She picked up the sandwich sitting neatly upon it and gave it a sniff.  The cloying stench of rot nearly knocked her of her feet.  “Agh.  Tim, was this your lunch?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he muttered.  He folded his arms, leaning back against the wall.

“Well…well, that’s gross.”

“Did you bring a towel?” the tire asked.

“No,” Stacey huffed.  “Wait – why are you a talking tire?”

“Because a cat gave me the ability to talk.”

“And…why was a cat able to do that?”

“Because it was a magic cat.”

“Oh, right, of course.”

In the first example, the last line belongs to Peggy, not Tim.  In the second, once the tire and Stacey are indicated as a speaking pair, each paragraph break alternatingly attributes the subsequent dialogue to the other character.

With that in mind, don’t do something like this:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.  The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

There’s no reason for that second paragraph break if that last line belongs to Jimberley.  As is, it reads as though Trudissima is saying it.  There are several ways to rewrite this properly:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.  The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.  “Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.

He’d had enough of this run-around.  “Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight,” he said.

Or even:

Trudissima gave a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Oh, please.  The ball wasn’t my idea.”

Clenching a fist, Jimberley pursed his lips and turned his glare out the window.   The rain continued to etch away the once pristine features of his statue on the terrace, yet he couldn’t help but view it as a suitable reflection.  He’d had enough of this run-around.  He grumbled:

“Either way, it’ll all be over by tonight.”

The first is probably preferable, as it keeps the character’s actions, thoughts, and dialogue together, but the others at least make it clear who is speaking.

One should also avoid constructions like this:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.  His brother stepped up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

Whose dialogue was that – Crinkley’s or his brother’s?  The sudden shift to his brother may suggest the latter, but Crinkley’s thoughts and actions had the focus of the paragraph, which simultaneously implies the former.  If his brother is talking, a paragraph break would clear this right up:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.

His brother stepped up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

If the line belongs to Crinkley, shifting the focus of the preceding statement would make that more apparent:

Crinkley threw his biscuit to the ground.  This was rubbish, plain and simple.  Were they testing his tenacity?  He could think of not a single reason to give in to the farmers’ demands.  He noticed his brother step up beside him.  “Let them sow their discontent; we shall see that they reap it.”

Even if we resort to explicit attribution (“[Crinkley / his brother] said”), it would still be best to include the paragraph break in the case of his brother speaking.

Now, in these types of situations, context will sometimes make it obvious who is talking, but don’t let that be a crutch.  Implicit dialogue attribution is not a place to exercise your stylistic uniqueness; subverting your readers’ built-in assumptions as to what paragraphing indicates in narrative is a recipe for confusion, and not knowing who is speaking can make for a frustrating reading experience. Adhering to convention is simply much less ambiguous in the long run (and is ultimately what allows it to work in the first place).  Clarity is a good thing!

 

So, in brief summation – use commas with indicated speech (she said,) and colons with clarified speech (she read the note:).  Use periods to separate non-speech actions from dialogue belonging to the same character, and paragraph breaks for dialogue belonging to a different character.

Simple, right?  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

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11 responses to “Marking Dialogue

  1. Reblogged this on Amos M. Carpenter and commented:
    Things every writer should know about punctuation in and around dialogue, explained clearly and with great examples to illustrate each point. Absolute must for anyone interested in perfecting the writer’s craft. Bene scribete vero.

  2. I’m so glad I found this post! I have a handle on dialogue, but it’s not second nature, making writing it a bit of a chore. Your explanation is a great help. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Marking Thoughts | Writin' Fish

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