In this handy introduction I’m going to demonstrate the only five tips you’ll ever need for using punctuation in dialogue. If you’ve found this page, you’re probably a new(ish) writer looking for some hints on how to improve your writing. As we go through these tips, you’ll discover how easy it is to get the basics right.
Comma Placement Within Dialogue
- Wrong: ‘I want to write a book’, said David.
- Right: ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the instances above, the comma being placed inside the quotation marks is right. This rule holds true whichever punctuation mark you use — , . ! ?
Using Ellipses and Dashes Within Your Dialogue Punctuation
Many beginner writers think ellipses and dashes are interchangeable, but they’re not. Both serve a different purpose in your story. Ellipses are three dots placed thus … They indicate that speech has faltered.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies…’ David stared off into the middle distance.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies—’
‘I’m sure you did,’ said Susan.
In the first example, David’s speech tails off as he goes into his own daydream. In the second one, he is interrupted by Susan. Both of these give a different impression on what is happening in the story.
Capitalising Your Dialogue Tags
- ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the example above, you’ll notice I’ve used a comma and a small letter for said. “But,” you ask, “shouldn’t it be a capital letter?”
The rule for this is no - not if you tag your dialogue. If you use ‘said Mary,’ or ‘he said,’ or ‘she replied,’ and ‘they asked,’ etc. Using tags like these require a comma and a small letter.
Punctuate Your Dialogue With Action
Another way of writing dialogue is to provide an action with the words.
- ‘I want to write a book.’ David sat down at his desk and picked up his pen.
- ‘I want to write a book,’ he said, sitting down on his chair and drinking his coffee.
Now, although both of these are technically correct, example #1 is a better way of putting dialogue and action together. This is because sitting and drinking both imply a continuous action and we don’t usually do both at the same time. Talking, sitting and drinking coffee – we do one after the other.
Single or Double Quotations?
If you read mostly British authors, you will be used to seeing single quotations marks for dialogue i.e., ‘These are single quotes.’ American styles will use double quotes. “These are double quotes used for dialogue.”
Time Saver – Future Edits
Although you may write either single or double quotes depending on which way you have been schooled. If you use double quotes in your manuscript, you can always use the “search and replace” function to change the style if you have to. This doesn’t work the other way around because search and replace will change all of your apostrophes too.
Thanks for Reading This Primer on Dialogue!
This is the first in a series of articles about how to make your dialogue shine. You’ve learned when to use ellipsis and dashes and where to place your commas. You’ve learned how to tag your characters’ words and how to attribute dialogue to your characters without tags. You’ve even had a quick and dirty tip on how to use quotations that can be adapted for publishers both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Next time we’ll be looking at tags and actions in more depth. Visit our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some exercises. Post your completed exercise back into our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some staff and peer feedback. If you haven’t joined us yet, it’s totally free and you can sign up here.
We look forward to welcoming you in our forums.
I started and I didn’t want to admit it. I would lie in bed instead of getting up to write, my usual routine. I would distract myself with books or television, hoping to jump start something that would make me want to write, but it wasn’t working. Eventually, I had to admit it to myself, when I took out my pen and notebook after reading a line in China Miéville’s The Scar that almost inspired me, but the minute my book opened, I couldn’t get a single word down. I had writer’s block.
I tried a few things. I told myself it wasn’t real. Nevertheless, I needed a holiday. I had heard a few of my more eclectic friends talking about Croatia as somewhere to go, so I had a look online. It looked amazing. On the coast; lots of sands, sea and sun. It would either relax me, inspire me, and failing that at least I would get a good tan. I research some Croatian writers to read while I was there, to really get my head in the mood. I took The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic as my holiday read. Airport books are generally rubbish.
Croatia was everything I thought it would be and more. I stayed at the phenomenal Hotel Croatia at Cavtat. With the beautiful town on Cavtat on my left and the bright blue Adriatic on my right, I felt so relaxed. I stopped worrying about what I was going to write, and went out to explore.
Cavtat is like a dream destination, and not in the must do holiday sense. It’s like walking through a painting of what a holiday should look like. Terracotta roofs and cobbled streets wander down to the water’s edge, where fishing boats and yachts jostle for your attention. The food is wonderful, every bite like a never tried flavour, even vegetables tasted like ambrosia. I checked out the artwork of celebrated painter Vlaho Bukovac. I wandered the old town, the harbour, taking in the amazing sights and sounds. The Church of Our Lady of the Snow and the Church of St Nicholas were beautiful hideaways to get pen to paper.
There’s so much to see and do to be inspired by. I researched the siege of Dubrovnik while I was there, visited some of the places that were bombed in 1991. The harrowing history of the area, juxtaposed with the beauty of the town I stayed in. It was impossible not to pick up my pen and start writing again.
Writers Dock has a wonderful community of writers who love to share tips and tricks and advice and critiques and, and, and …
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Our warm and friendly community invites you to post your short stories and poetry, take part in writing activities, or generally hang out with a bunch of like minded individuals all pursuing that (more often than not) elusive literal excellence.
Don’t be put off. Take off your gloves, put your fingers to work. Sign up and enjoy.
I don’t know about comprehension rates, but I look forward to learning.
Comprehension rate – no idea, but looks as though it’s related to the sort of ‘reading ages’ of, for example, newspaper articles.
Okay, the definition of the term “comprehension rate” that I’m about to share with you, is an excellent measure that you stay mindful of when you are writing. (70%.) I’ve just performed a Google search for the definition of comprehension rate and I’ve discovered a curious thing. (82%.) Predominantly, the results from the search tend to mention “speed reading.” (89%.) This is not the definition that I am looking for! (90%.)
The comprehension rate that I’m referring to, is the percentage of people who comprehend a sentence after reading it just once. (78%.)
You have probably noticed the various percentages that I’ve scattered through the text above? (86%.) And the one just now? (95%.) I’ll stop dispensing them now. (95%.) Okay now. (98%.) Erm … Now? (99%) Grrr!
The percentages represent rough calculations of the number of people out of one hundred who comprehend a sentence after they have read it just once. Those who didn’t comprehend it the first time, well they’re the people who have to reread it. Just to make sure that you are with me: if 75% of people comprehend a sentence after reading it the first time, the other 25% didn’t.
Out of those 25% who didn’t comprehend the sentence, how many of them didn’t bother to go back and read it again? I don’t know, but from what I know of human nature, I’d say quite a few. This is even more true when the culprits are reading off of a computer screen, though who really is the culprit of this crime?
Well, let’s just say that it is up to the writer to try to keep the average comprehension rate of sentences higher rather than lower.
We are starting a new group initiative on WD called “Writing for the Internet and Promoting Oneself Online”. For any writer, this is a subject that is not to be ignored.
In the great age of the internet, the scope for writing and writers has grown bigger than at any other time in history. Of course, we know that the reason for this is obvious, but as a writer, are you taking any advantage of it?
Writing for the internet is different than writing for any other media. Your prose needs to look attractive as well as have great content. The language used needs to be as active and precise as hell. A reader will click away to another site at the writer’s first mishap.