January 16, 2020
Let's talk about the mechanics of dialogue, the nuts and bolts of putting it on the page. In order to write good dialogue that communicates clearly with the reader, it's helpful if we all start with the same base knowledge of the structure and punctuation of dialogue. So consider this tiny scrap of amazing dialogue as an example:
"Jan is an amazing teacher and writer," he said. "I'm glad to know her."
Got it? Now let's see what we can learn from it.
In this example, the dialogue consists of spoken words and a speech tag. A speech tag is the identifier that allows us to know which of the possible characters is saying the line. So in the above piece, the speech tag is "he said." Speech tags serve one purpose really. They tell us who said the words. Sometimes you can add the tiniest bit of characterization by varying the speech tag with something like: "he whispered" or "he bellowed." But these variations should be the exception, not the rule, and should be employed only when the additional information about the way the dialogue was spoken is helpful for the reader. Mostly you want the reader’s attention to stay on the spoken words, not the identifier. After all, we usually craft the dialogue pretty carefully and we want the reader to pay attention to that, so mostly we use "said" in our speech tags. Not always, but mostly. There’s no reason to be afraid to use a variant speech tag, but be sure you’re doing it for a story-related reason.
Not all dialogue needs speech tags at all. In an exchange between two people, sometimes it's really clear who is speaking, so you might want to drop the speech tags on some of the dialogue. Be cautious though. A long exchange with no speech tags will quickly confuse the reader, and a confused reader is only moments away from abandoning you. Clarity is king. So use the tags you need to keep the speaker clear. Also, the younger (or less fluent) the reader, the more speech tags are essential. So for emergent readers, you will see every bit of speech tagged to avoid confusion.
Finally, speech tags should always be modes of speech. You can ask, say, shout, bellow, and whisper, as they are all ways to speak words aloud. But remember, you can’t speak a smile or a grimace. Therefore, avoid sentences like “I can’t believe my car broke down again,” she grimaced.
But it is possible to identify the speaker of a piece of dialogue without a speech tag. You can identify speech with narrative action as easily as with a speech tag. And narrative action has the added value of showing us more about the speaker or the situation. Let's add some narrative action to the dialogue example and remove the speech tag.
He glanced nervously toward Jan, then looked quickly back at the audience. "Jan is an amazing teacher and writer." He paused and pulled at the neck of his t-shirt. "I'm glad to know her."
As you can see, there was no speech tag in the example, but the reader couldn't possibly read that and wonder who was speaking. So narrative action can both identify the speaker and show us more. It's a useful tool to reveal instances where the speech alone will not reveal everything we want the reader to know.
There are certain rules to dialogue capitalization and punctuation. You enclose the words and appropriate punctuation with quotation marks. The quotation marks are a signal that the words are being spoken aloud. You begin the speech with a capital letter. The speech tag is part of the dialogue sentence, but it is not part of the spoken section of the dialogue. Because the speech tag isn’t spoken, it's not inside the quotation marks. Also the speech tag can move around. It doesn't have to be in the middle of the speech as it was in the example. Look at the following three ways to place the same speech tag:
He said, "Jan is amazing, and I'm glad to know her."
"Jan is amazing," he said. "I'm glad to know her."
"Jan is amazing and I'm glad to know her," he said.
You'll notice that I removed the "and" in the second example. That's because you change the punctuation slightly if you interrupt the dialogue in the middle of a sentence:
"Jan is amazing," he said, "and I'm glad to know her."
With the "and" the dialogue speech is all one sentence, so it's punctuated without a period at the end of the speech tag. When I remove the "and," then the dialogue is two sentences. So I place the period at the end of the first finished sentence: "Like this," Jan said.
In contemporary publishing, the most common form of the speech tag is noun first, then verb. By that, I mean "Jan said." If you invert the order and put verb first and noun second, you give the speech an old-fashioned feeling. This is fine if that's what you're trying to convey in the whole story, a feeling of being old-fashioned, but if not, then it's best to use the noun-first structure and save "said Jan" as a rare variant.
A single piece of dialogue with its speech tag is considered one sentence. The speech tag is part of the sentence, and that's why there is a comma between spoken words and speech tag in the punctuation of the sentence. But if you are using narrative action to identify the speaker, that will not be part of the same sentence as the spoken words. Narrative action as an identifier is not the same as a speech tag (not in terms of punctuation anyway).
Consider these examples:
Joe shouted, "Move along!"
Joe waved on the traffic. "Move along!"
"Don't let him hear you," she whispered.
"Don't let him hear you." She held her finger to her lips.
"I hope you're ready for an adventure," he said, "and danger."
"I hope you're reader for an adventure." He paused, his face grim. "And danger.”
The difference in the punctuation all grows from the one idea: a speech tag is part of the same sentence as the spoken words. Because narrative action isn't a speech tag (as it's not a mode of speech), it must be punctuated as a separate sentence from the spoken words. If you'll remember that, you'll struggle less with how to punctuate your dialogue.
Why Are We So Fond of Said?
First, I'm perfectly willing to use verbs other than said. I do it all the time when the situation specifically calls for it. If Joe is bellowing his appreciation for Jan, I'll cheerfully use "bellowed." And if he's looking down at his toes and barely managing to get the words out, I'll use "whispered" or "muttered." I'm not afraid of variation when it adds something specific and helpful to the reader's understanding. But words like "uttered" or "expressed" or "intonated" or "vocalized" will not be used as they're simply attention-getting direct synonyms for "said." I'm not trying to pull the reader's attention to the speech tag. Everything about the speech tag must aid the reader; that's all it's for. It doesn't aid the reader to distract him or her from the words of a speech and onto the speech tag (unless the speech tag includes extra information the reader needs). Because of all that, I’ll use the speech tag verb (said) that is so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible. When you use “said,” all the reader really processes is who said the speech.
What if it's unspoken?
Sometimes a character is thinking, but he's doing it as if it's something he's saying. So it's his words, but he's not saying them out loud. In that case, you do not use quotation marks because the words aren't being communicated to anyone. They're being contained in his head. And if you use quotation marks, you can confuse the reader into thinking he said those words. So how do you punctuate to make that clear? With italics. Consider the following mix of spoken and unspoken words from one character:
"Jan is an amazing teacher and writer," Joe said. How will I ever remember all her vast wisdom? "I'm glad to know her." I know! I’ll take notes.
The use of italics makes it easy for the reader to know when Joe is making his gushing speech, and when he's coming up with his rebuttal in his head. Consider the following:
Joe sat silently as her ranting washed over him like never-ending stormy waves. Then his lips raised in a slight smile. "I hope you die soon," he thought.
Joe sat silently as her ranting washed over him like never-ending stormy waves. Then his lips raised in a slight smile. I hope you die soon.
In the first example, we really had to add a speech tag of sorts so the reader is clued in that Joe didn't just tell the ranting woman that he hoped she died soon. In the second, we don't need that tag, because the italics signals that Joe is only thinking. As we are generally opposed to wordiness in all things, the second is the cleaner, clearer way to render the thought. And it's the way generally preferred by publishers for readers middle grade and above. There are a few publishers that render direct thought in quotes with thought tags, but that is definitely rare. So go ahead and save your quotation marks for communicated speech.
There are other moments when you might wonder about quotation marks. Let's look at two. Both involve no spoken communication. First, if you're quoting something, you use quotation marks. So if you’re having a character write something or read something, you will generally use quotes. For example:
She sat down and rooted through her purse for her rather chewed blue pen and a rumpled Shakey’s napkin. She flipped the napkin over and wrote, "Sorry I missed you. I'll call later."
In the above, I’m quoting something written, so I punctuate with quotation marks. But what if you have a character who communicates in some way other than spoken words? What if you have a character who is signing or a character who is communicating telepathically? Both of these instances lack an absolute rule for how to handle them. But for signing, what I've usually seen is quotation marks (probably because it is communicated dialogue as opposed to thoughts), with a bit of narrative detail to help the reader understand that this communication is signed and not spoken:
Violet held up her hand for Joe's attention. Then she began signing furiously. "Where is Penny? I can't find her."
And for the telepathic communicators, I've seen it rendered with quotation marks, and I've seen it rendered in italics. I've even seen it rendered in all caps (which makes it feel like screaming when read). So make a choice for how you'll handle this in your book and stick with it. Keep in mind that italics are attention getting and slightly harder to read so they are wearying in large quantities. So if you're writing a book where the bulk of the dialogue, or even a good bit of the dialogue will be telepathic, you may want to use quotation marks and simply signal the telepathic element with speech tags and narrative action. However, if the telepathic communication is really rare, then italics might be the way to go. All caps is usually chosen when the telepathic communication is especially jarring and disruptive to the receiver, and italics is used when the communication is more of a normal thing. So your choices would look like this:
Awana's place face never shifted in expression as she communicated her plea to Brian. You must help my people.
"But I don't know what to do," Dan said. "Help me understand."
Hide us. Her thoughts passed through his head softly, but he felt the urgency behind them.
"I'll do what I can," he said. Then he screamed and grabbed his head as a new voice boomed. YOU'LL DO NOTHING!
So, I hope this has given you some tools to help you tackle some of the tricky bits in punctuating dialogue. And if you make a mistake, don't beat yourself up about it. Most people struggle with formatting dialogue. But on the up side, if you get it right, you'll stand out in a good way among submissions. And we all like that!
More posts on dialogue:
Dialogue and Humor
Three Steps to Writing Better Dialogue
Creating Quality Dialogue
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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