Grammar and Punctuation Tips: Writing Dialogue

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Having dialogue in a story is great.  Dialogue allows characters to speak in their own voices and can quicken the story’s pace.  To some of you, the following tips will seem obvious, but to others they may be something you need to remind yourself of when you proofread your work:

1) Each new speaker needs to start on a new line.  For example:

“Where did you leave it?” John asked.

“In the shed.”

“Did anyone see you?”

2) Use double OR single quotation marks.  When writing for yourself, doing one or the other is simply about consistency.  Using one type allows you to reserve the other type for internal quotation marks (see below).  However, different publishers may prefer you to use a particular type of quotation mark – check what they want before sending anything off.

3) Put all sentence punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks)inside the quotation marks:

“I don’t think so,” Mary whispered.

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t think so’?”

“I couldn’t be sure.”

4) If you are adding a descriptor after the quotation marks, the final punctuation mark can never be a period, semi-colon or colon.  This is because what comes after the quotation marks should be considered part of the overall sentence (unless you are starting a new sentence).

A good practice is to read it out loud to yourself.  There shouldn’t be a long pause if you are describing what was said; a long pause only comes into play if you have started a new sentence (which is a sentence that, if you isolated it, doesn’t beg you to answer what?):

“What do you mean?!” he repeated.

“There was a man walking his dog, but I don’t know…” She swallowed.  “He might have seen me, but-” She cut herself off.

John picked up his keys.

“I’m going to collect it now then,” he said.

Here, ‘he repeated’ and ‘he said’ make you wonder – what did he repeat?  He said what?  Both are descriptors, not new sentences.  In comparison, ‘She swallowed’ and ‘She cut herself off’ make sense by themselves.  These are new sentences so require capitalisation and can come after a dash, an ellipsis – or a full stop.

Do you have any pesky questions about dialogue you’d like some advice on?  Please post them here as comments – just paste in your sentence and question and we’d be happy to give advice!

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