Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters

I’m running into a common error lately, one I haven’t addressed previously.

The writer sets down a line or three of dialogue, ending with an ellipsis or an em dash to indicate the thought breaks off. However, they follow that with a lowercase letter and a complete sentence. A beat, in other words.

In every case, the word following the closing quotation mark needs to be capitalized. It’s beginning a sentence, not starting a dialogue tag.

What I’m seeing, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” she stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What it should be, V1:

“Put that down! You don’t know where it’s—” She stopped short of completing the statement when a hand touched her on the shoulder.

What I’m seeing, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” he stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

What it should be, V2:

“I’ve had this very thing happen to me a thousand times! Why, just last month, in Paris . . .” He stared into space as if a movie of those days were being projected on the wall in front of them.

Compare both of these to speech that’s interrupted by a beat, action that occurs while the speaker is talking. Like this:

“In Paris, as I was saying, I was standing on my balcony, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower” — he tapped his empty rocks glass, shooting a glance at the bartender and nodding thanks — “and I felt a hand on my shoulder. But I knew I was alone!” *

The key to getting this right is remembering that the ellipsis always belongs with the speech, so whatever comes after the closing quote will begin with a lowercase letter if it’s an actual tag (like “he said”). If it’s anything other than a tag, it begins with a capital letter. Honestly, I’m hard pressed to think of a situation where a tag would be worthwhile in this position. A beat, yes. A tag, not so much.

With the em dashes, it’s a little trickier; if the dash belongs with the speech, whatever follows it needs to begin with a capital (unless it’s an actual dialogue tag, but see my previous paragraph). If the dash goes with the intrusion, what follows will begin with a lowercase letter.

Beats that interrupt dialogue begin with lowercase letters. Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters.

*The astute among you will notice spaces around the em dashes in the Paris example. I have deviated from Chicago style for that paragraph because there’s a glitch in WordPress that causes the opening quotation mark following the second em to be a closing quotation mark. (I use straight quotes in my draft, but they become curly in the final. The draft looks correct. The final, not so much.) Inserting a space around the em dashes results in the correct curly quotes. I’m not thrilled about it, but it works.

6 thoughts on “Beats following dialogue begin with capital letters

  1. In your example beginning “In Paris, as I was saying . . . ” shouldn’t an opening quotation mark appear after the second em rather than a closing quotation mark since the speaker’s sentence is being completed after the beat?

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      1. Strangely, when I’m entering the text the quotes are straight but when they appear in the published post they’re curly. I’ve tried several ways to correct the issue, none of which has worked. Just know that you are right, Mark, and I did enter it correctly. There’s a glitch somewhere that I can’t fix.

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  2. Hi Karen, I love all your postings. I am a little confused. I come here regularly to look things up and read your examples. With this example “In Paris, as I was saying…” because the beat is sipping whiskey, shooting a glance and nodding, he can’t be doing that while still talking , I am referring to the sipping whiskey, so in my head I can’t get past this. I know you are the guru and you will be correct but I think I need it explained to me. How come it isnt written like this.
    “In Paris, as I was saying, I was standing on my balcony, gazing up at the Eiffel Tower—” he sipped his whiskey sour, shooting a glance at the bartender and nodding thanks. “—and I felt a hand on my shoulder. But I knew I was alone!”

    If he wasn’t sipping whiskey as part of the beat, in my head I can see how you wrote the example and agree, because shooting a glance and nodding can still be action while talking.

    So, um, I keep trying to wrap my head around it with the sipping of whiskey included in the beat. I know you will be correct but I think I just need it straight in my head. Thank you. 🙂

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    1. You’re right! I’ll edit that to read “he tapped his empty rocks glass, shooting a glance at the bartender and nodding thanks” so it makes better sense.

      Even editors need editors! Thanks, Emma!

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