Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submissions Pt 5, Dialogue Punctuation

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Welcome to the 5th post of Don't Let Errors Ruin Your Submissions!

You might think your manuscript's fascinating story potential should rise above any typos and poor grammar, but the truth is agents and publishers receive an onslaught of submissions. They give most of these submissions a few seconds before deciding whether to pass or keep reading. That means any red flags can prompt a rejection.

Poor grammar can be a red flag!

I say "can" because there will always be the exception to the rule. Counting on being the exception to the rule is NOT a good idea. You need to clean up your submission.

Don't let errors ruin your submission's chances!

This week, we're taking a look at Rule #6 which focuses on quotations.

Use proper punctuation to integrate a quotation into a sentence. If the introductory material ends in "thinks," "saying," or some other verb indicating expression, use a comma and quotation marks.

Let's take a moment to define the terms:

  • Quotation: something said by a character or something printed on a page (flyer, letter, etc) being read by a character
  • Introductory material: the tag that indicates who is speaking
  • Quotation marks: the punctuation that occurs at the beginning and end of a quoted piece of dialogue

I have written a LOT of posts about dialogue, so I'm pulling from a few of those previous posts. First let's look at the proper punctuation.

Punctuating Dialogue

The first thing writers need to learn is how to properly punctuate dialogue. I've discovered, over the years, that many don't know how.

Notice in the first example below, the dialogue starts at the beginning of the sentence, and the speaking tag (he said, she said, Paul said, etc.) follows it. 

A few points to notice:

  1. The first letter of the quotation is capitalized. What the person says is a sentence, so it must be capitalized.
  2. A comma comes directly after the quote and INSIDE the quotation marks. You can, also, have a question mark or exclamation point here.
  3. There is a space AFTER the closing quotation mark followed by the speaking tag and a period at the end of the sentence.

In the next example, the speaking tag occurs at the BEGINNING of the sentence.

A few points to notice:

  1. The first letter of the speaking tag (he said, she said, Angela said, etc.) is capitalized because it's the beginning of the sentence containing the dialogue.
  2. A comma follows the tag.
  3. A space is left between the comma and the opening quotation mark.
  4. The first letter of the first word of dialogue is CAPITALIZED because this is the beginning of the sentence said by the person speaking.
  5. The period ending this sentence is BEFORE the closing quotation mark with no space between them.

That's all there is to it for American English (Great Britain does it differently).

Three Tips for Smoother Dialogue

As I scanned through my posts on dialogue, I ran across this information and decided to add it to this post. It's not focused on punctuation, but it does provide some insight into the mechanics of dialogue.

Use the word "said" instead of synonyms for "said" such as hinted, grunted, exclaimed, etc.
This rule caught me by surprise when I started participating in writing workshops several years ago.  In high school (eons ago), we learned how to come up with different ways to say said.  I loved this exercise because I was good at it. The problem?  Today, we don't do that.  We use the word "said."  It's an empty word like "a" or "the," so the reader reads it without much thought.  The dialogue or scene context should show the reader how the character spoke.

Use dialogue beats instead of "said."
Although "said" works in dialogue, you don't want to overuse it.  What are dialogue beats?  Sentences showing the reader what the characters are doing while speaking. This is a great way to help the reader understand how the character sounds when they speak.

For example, which of the following examples helps us understand the character's emotions and behavior better?

  • "I will not," Adana said. "I don't care what Papa says."
  • “I will not.”  Adana crossed her arms and turned her back on the maid.  “I don’t care what Papa says.”

In the second example, the reader knows Adrianna is speaking because she's the one doing the action in the paragraph.  Plus, her actions--crossing her arms and turning her back--show us the scene as it happens and give us clues on how she sounds as she speaks.

Use separate paragraphs for each person speaking.
We learned this one in grade school, but many people have forgotten it.  In a dialogue, when the speaker changes, we start a new paragraph. In the above example, if the maid speaks or does something next, it will  be in the next paragraph.  Yes, even if she does something without speaking, it requires a new paragraph to separate it from what Adrianna said.

These three tips are just a few of the ways to improve your written dialogue. 

Previous Posts

If you've missed the first four posts in this series, never fear!

Part 1: an overview of the top 11 grammar rules to follow

Part 2a look at compound sentences and punctuation

Part 3: an exploration of proper comma usage

Part 4: an overview of the proper use of apostrophes to indicate possessive nouns

20 more posts on dialogue

Next week, we'll look at rules 7 & 8 that discuss how to make sure your verbs, pronouns, participial phrases, and appositives agree with the subject.

Questions? Leave them in the comments!


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