“Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”
Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”
“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”
— Nero Wolfe and Lucy Valdon in The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout
I’ll admit it, I didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue when I started writing. I thought I knew, but there’s more to writing dialogue than putting quotation marks around the stuff characters say. My punctuation would let people know which parts were spoken and which were not, but, like Mr. Wolfe would tell me about my scrambled eggs, an editor would tell me that I didn’t know how to do it. I’ve learned a lot about punctuating this dialogue stuff, and I’d like to share it. I’m going to keep the explanations brief and provide some links for more information. This is more like a cheat sheet than an extensive guide.
The Most Simple Case – Dialogue Only
All the punctuation goes inside the quotes. That’s all there is to it. Exclamation points and question marks work exactly the same.
Speaking Attributions and Actions
However, dialogue usually has other stuff with it that tells you who is speaking. Something that tells you who is speaking is a speaking attribution. It can also be mixed with actions that don’t tell you who is speaking, but still makes it obvious who is.
The verb in the speaking attribution has to be something that produces the words in the dialogue, so the verbs will be things like: said, shouted, asked, replied, yelled, whispered, grumbled, so on and so forth. It’s an easy mistake some actions for speaking attributions like smiling in the action above, but Sue’s smile isn’t making those words so it’s an action and needs to be punctuated as such.
Dialogue with a Speaking Attribution
When the attribution follows the quotes, then use a comma. The ‘he’ shouldn’t be capitalized since it isn’t the beginning of the sentence.
When the attribution leads the quotes, then use a comma. However, treat the beginning of the quoted section as the beginning of a new sentence so ‘This’ is capitalized.
When the attribution is in the middle of the quoted words, then use commas to offset the quotes. The first comma should be in the quotes and second should be before the quotes.
Dialogue with Actions
When you combine the quoted speech with an action. The action should be placed into its own sentence instead of being a clause attached with a comma. Likewise the dialogue is all in it’s own sentence as well. Like stand-alone dialogue all the punctuation for the quoted speech is in the quotes.
But what if you want the action in the middle of the sentence? In this case the action is like a parenthetical phrase and should be offset with commas like such. It ends up being exactly the same as a speaking attribution, but for different reasons.
Another way to interrupt speech with action is to use em-dashes like such. The dashes should both be outside the quotes.
Exclamations Points and Question Marks
The rule for exclamation points and question marks is that you may use them in place of commas when appropriate.
So when used with a speaking attribution, remember to not capitalize the attribution when the exclamation point or question mark is replacing a comma.
Sometimes a speaking character will get interrupted or will trail off. There is punctuation for both cases.
In the event that a character is interrupted or otherwise ends his or her dialogue abruptly, use an em-dash to indicate this.
If the speech ends because the character trails off, then use an ellipsis to indicate it. When this is followed by a speaking attribution, then put a comma after the ellipsis.
If the ellipsis is followed by an action attribution, then the sentence should simply end as normally done with an ellipsis. If the fragment is not grammatically complete, then the terminal punctuation is omitted. However, if the fragment is grammatically complete, then the terminal punctuation should proceed the ellipsis.
This is a straightforward rule. When you change speakers, start a new paragraph. The snippet that opens this blog post is an excellent example.
Multiple Paragraphs in a Single Quote
In this case, you start each paragraph in the quote with a quotation mark, but only end the last paragraph with a quotation mark.
Quoting Inside Quotes
Use single quotes for when a character is quoting someone else and put a space between the single quote and double quote when they run together.
Check out this link with loads of good information about how to quote dialog: http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/
Please let me know if anything is wrong. I want my guide to be as accurate as I can make it, and I’m not a grammar expert. I can go back and add or edit it as time permits to make it even better–like a manuscript.