Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 1, Quotation Marks

Why write yet another series of posts about dialogue, when there are myriads out there already for the reading (if one bothers to search)?

Because a) many folks don’t bother to search, and b) I always have a slightly different take on subjects, a take that many people seem to appreciate. So, I’m tackling this subject from the chair of a freelance editor who sees things. Terrible things.

(All right, not always terrible things. Sometimes I see amazing things, uplifting things. But there’s plenty of terrible to go around.)

Let’s get down to business.

I’m breaking this into a series because, let’s face it, there’s just too much to cram into a single entry. There are too many variables, too many options, too many ways to correctly punctuate depending on other active factors. And I’m still deciding, as I write, just how to tackle this in the most meaningful, useful manner. Bear with me; we’ll get there.

I think I’ll begin with the most obvious punctuation for dialogue: quotation marks. I’m a US editor, and while I have experience with UK style, I am writing from a US perspective and using US rules and guidelines. If you need UK rules, you can find them with an Internet search or in any number of style guides readily available at libraries and online. (Tip: They’re not as different as many people seem to think they are. Most of what I have to say here will apply equally to both sides of the pond.)

Part 1: Quotation Marks

“But Karen, we already know this part!” If that were true, I’d not be seeing errors in manuscripts.

Quotation marks enclose direct speech. In the first sentence of this part, I used them to enclose what I hear my thousands of followers saying, as if they were actually saying it. (As if my thousands of followers actually care what I say.) Notice that the terminal punctuation, in this case an exclamation point, goes inside the closing quotation marks. Notice also that there is no additional terminal punctuation outside the closing marks. That exclamation point punctuates the sentence.

Here are a few examples with different kinds of punctuation: some incorporate beats, some use tags. I did not create any examples of interrupted speech. I’ll be covering beats/tags and interruptions in detail in their own dedicated parts.

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing,” Mary said.

(Mary’s statement is a declarative sentence that would normally end with a period. Because it’s in dialogue, and because there’s a tag [Mary said], the period becomes a comma. The terminal punctuation for the entire sentence is the period following “said.”)

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary snorted and shot him a dirty look.

(Here I’ve used a beat—an action—rather than a tag. It’s an issue of personal preference for me. Saying “asked” when there’s a question mark already letting us know someone is asking something is redundant, if you think about it. Why not tell us what the speaker does after she speaks? In this case, Mary’s pretty ticked off about whatever her companion is doing, so she snorts at him and gives him a nasty look. The question mark serves as terminal punctuation for the dialogue, which is contained in quotes as usual. The beat gets its own terminal punctuation in the form of the period at the end.)

“Get out, now!” he shouted as he ran down the stairs.

(The dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation point inside the quotation marks. “He shouted” is a tag, and it’s followed by a modifier in the form of two prepositional phrases [as he ran and down the stairs]. Notice that there is NO COMMA following “shouted” in this construction. There’s no requirement for one, and if I see one there, I will delete it. Now you know. However, look at the next one:)

“Get out, now!” he shouted, running down the stairs.

(The dialogue is exactly the same, but the tag is different. This time, “shouted” is followed by a different kind of modifier—the participle running. The rules require a comma after “shouted” in this construction, and if I don’t see one, I will insert one. Again, now you know.)

What about nested dialogue? You know, as in when someone’s reporting exactly what someone else said? It’s not all that difficult, either. Look at this.

“That’s when he said, ‘Mary, I could throw you off this cliff if I really wanted to.’”

(Mary’s telling someone exactly what was said to her. Therefore, that speech needs to be enclosed in quotation marks as well. We use single quotes for this purpose. In typesetting the final version, it’s often suggested that a thin space be inserted between the final single and double quotes to improve readability. Notice, too, that there’s a comma after “said” and before the opening single quotation mark just as there would be if this were not nested dialogue. The rules don’t change.)

However, sometimes the speech is paraphrased or indirect. Then it looks like this:

“That’s when he said that he could throw me off this cliff if he really wanted to,” sobbed Mary.

(I assume she might well be sobbing, given the threat in the reported speech. Again, as with the first example, Mary’s speech is a declarative statement so the period that would otherwise be there becomes a comma before the closing quotation marks, and the period at the end punctuates the entire sentence. It’s the same concept we use for reported speech outside of dialogue. John said that he’d throw Mary off the cliff. No quotation marks at all, see? Cool.)

All right. This entry focused on quotation marks and terminal punctuation. Enclose direct speech within quotation marks. If direct speech contains quoted direct speech from another character, enclose the speaker’s words in double quotes and the quoted speech in single quotes. If the direct speech is a declarative statement and you’re using a tag after the speech, put a comma before the closing quotation marks and end the entire sentence with a period. If the direct speech is a question, put the question mark before the closing quotation marks. (And if you’re using a tag with that speech that’s a question, put a period at the end of it; that becomes the terminal punctuation for the sentence.)

Next time I’ll discuss more about tags and beats. See you then!