Punctuating Dialogue

I need to talk about punctuation dialogue again, because new stories are coming into our short story contest with improperly punctuated dialogue. If you’ve missed my previous blog posts about dialogue, you can read them here:

Here’s the thing: When punctuating dialogue in fiction writing, you only use dialogue tags plus a comma when the writing immediately before or after the dialogue (the part in the quotes) is actually related to the way a person is speaking, NOT when it’s related to a facial expression, action or description.

For example:

WRONG:

He smiled, “Hi. I’m Jim.”

In this case, ‘he smiled’ would be the tag that explains who is talking and how. You can’t ‘smile’ words. You can smile while saying words, smile before or after words, but you can’t actually smile the words.

RIGHT:

He smiled. “Hi. I’m Jim.”

Another Right:

With a smile on his face, he said, “Hi. I’m Jim.”

Now, in the last instance, we get to put both the description of what he’s doing and the dialogue tag ‘he said’ immediately before the statement, and this works. What wouldn’t work would be this:

WRONG:

With a smile on his face, “Hi. I’m Jim.”

Because the smile on his face doesn’t smile, he isn’t speaking to the smile, and he isn’t speaking with a smile (he’s speaking with his mouth, I hope).

So when there is a full sentence before a person speaks in your dialogue and that sentences isn’t specifically talking about HOW a person is speaking or tagging it to tell WHO is speaking, there should not be a comma between the descriptive and the dialogue. In fact, most of the time, the dialogue shouldn’t even be in the same paragraph as the descriptive. Traditional grammar rules require a new paragraph, unless the descriptive text is specifically related directly to the spoken phrase.

NO DIALOGUE IN THE MIDDLE OF PARAGRAPHS

Another quick dialogue rule, there shouldn’t be speaking in the middle of a long descriptive paragraph. The speaking part must start a new paragraph or come at the very beginning of a paragraph with descriptive pertaining to the spoken part after it, or it must come at the very end of the paragraph (ending with the .”) and the descriptive before it must pertain to the quoted spoken dialogue.

WRONG:

This is an example paragraph with lots of information pertaining to the dialogue I’m about to type. “Where are we going?” she asked. And this is more paragraph descriptor coming after the dialogue, which is the incorrect example of how to do dialogue.

RIGHT:

This is an example paragraph with lots of information pertaining to the dialogue I’m about to type. “Where are we going?” she asked.

And this is the new paragraph with more descriptor, started on the new paragraph line below. In a work of fiction, it would be indented with no spaces between the paragraph.

ALSO RIGHT:

This is an example paragraph with lots of information pertaining to the dialogue I’m about to type.

“Where are we going?” she asked. And this is the more descriptor coming after the dialogue, which is now correctly used in this example.

ALSO RIGHT:

This is an example paragraph with lots of information pertaining to the dialogue I’m about to type.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

And this is the new paragraph with more descriptor, started on the new paragraph line below. In a work of fiction, it would be indented with no spaces between the paragraph.

To learn more about punctuating with periods, exclamation points and question marks in dialogue, you should read this blog post about dialogue tags. I’m still seeing a lot of dialogue problems with the story entries I’m receiving, so I’m hoping this will help. If you don’t understand this or if you have other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments here on this blog or head off to the forum and ask there. The group there is happy to help, and I try to pop in and answer grammar questions when I can.

One last little thing: Every time a speaker changes, your dialogue should start on a new line, no matter how long or short the sentence is. Even a one word, “No,” should be on a line/paragraph all by itself if the next line is someone else speaking.

Any questions?

Keep writing!

Love and stuff,
Michy