What reader doesn’t appreciate a well-told tale, witty repartee, gripping courtroom testimonies, lovers’ quarrels, or dramatic monologues delivered by impassioned characters? Most, wouldn’t you say? So how do readers recognize when a character is tongue-lashing a sibling or hitting on his wife’s best friend?
Some authors occasionally (or always) eschew commas, semi-colons, quotation marks, and other or all punctuation—William Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Kate Grenville, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, Marcel Proust, Ali Smith, Gertrude Stein, to name a few. However, rather than risk confusing readers with such a stylistic choice (some would argue an affectation), most of us view these standardized marks as trustworthy tools in crafting narratives. Even if you do decide to shun punctuation, it helps to understand the rules first, so you can break them well and with deliberate effect.
Direct vs. Indirect Speech
Direct speech, recording when someone is talking, requires quotation marks. Indirect speech, when a character is reporting or recalling another character’s words, does not.
Direct: “Where did Sam disappear to?”
Indirect: She wondered if she had heard him correctly when he said [that] he would be gone all afternoon.
Indirect: She remembered [that] he said he would be gone all afternoon.
Direct: She recalled his saying, “You won’t see me again until dinner time.”
Note: Indirect speech often uses subordinate clauses introduced by a direct or an implied “that.”
Quotation Marks and Dialogue Tags
In American English, double quotation marks enclose and denote a person’s speech. Single quotation marks indicate words being quoted within someone else’s speech.
“Open the door, Sam. I know you’re in there.”
“Why does the sign say, ‘Enter at your own peril?’”
“Would you please shut the gate before Cutie-Pie slithers out?”
“What does ‘pusillanimous’ mean?”
Note: Terminal punctuation marks (periods, question marks, exclamation points) go inside the closing quotation marks.
If a character embarks on a particularly long speech, opening quotation marks appear at the beginning of each new paragraph, and a closing quotation mark is placed at the end of only the final paragraph.
“Did you know that my cousin was bit by a snake in Arizona? We were camping at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and he was gathering wood for our fire. I was inside the tent trying to find our flint. It’s darn hard to start a fire without one you know. Anyway, the sun was about to set, and my stomach was rumbling—we hadn’t yet grilled our burgers—when a scream ripped through the air.
“I froze. I didn’t know at first if it was an animal or person. My cousin has a high-pitched voice for a guy, but I thought it could’ve been a coyote. Whatever it was screamed again. I ran outside the tent and there was my cousin hopping up and down and gripping his wrist. His right hand was already red and swollen. He said it felt warm. I was going to suck the venom out, but my cousin said that was a waste of time. Venom floods the body’s tissues and suction won’t do any good.”
A dialogue tag, also known as a speaker attribution, is a short phrase that identifies the speaker. When a tag appears at the beginning or end of a sentence, punctuation for the dialogue itself remains inside the quotation marks.
“Cutie-Pie ate three mice for lunch,” she said.
He said, “Let’s call Sam, so he’ll come out of hiding.”
Because it is part of a complete sentence, “she” remains lowercase. Similarly, “Let’s” is uppercase because it begins a complete sentence spoken by “he.”
Equally important, each paragraph signals a change in speaker. In dialogue, begin a new paragraph for each character, even if that person doesn’t utter a word.
“When was the last time Sam petted Cutie-Pie?” she asked.
“I certainly can’t see the harm in stroking her lovely scales.”
He pounded on the door. “Sam! You can come out now.”
When a tag comes in the middle, quotation marks enclose the dialogue, and commas separate the tag from the spoken words.
“I hope,” she said, “he’ll get over his ophidiophobia before I adopt another pet.”
“That’s as likely,” he said, “as Cutie-Pie’s growing wings.”
Notice that the first comma goes inside the closing quotation marks, while the second comma follows the tag and precedes the opening quotation marks. The period remains inside the closing quotation marks. Since they are part of complete sentences, “he’ll” and “as” are lowercase.
When action interrupts the dialogue, punctuation remains inside the quotation marks for speech, while a comma immediately follows the tag.
“Medusa needs a bell,” Sam said, stepping out of the garden shed.
“Or maybe you need a backbone?” his friend said, grinning and slapping Sam’s shoulder.
“Her name is not Medusa!” Ivy said, as Cutie-Pie drowsed in her pen.
When a question mark or exclamation point appears in the middle of a sentence, the tag remains lowercase, since it is still part of the same sentence.
Em-dashes and Ellipses
Dialogue may be interrupted by thought or action alone, without a tag. Em-dashes (—) indicate an interruption and set off the speech from the rest of the sentence.
“What I can’t understand”—she grabbed the garden hose and aimed it at the roses—“is how you can like spiders but not snakes.”
“Spiders don’t kill you as often”—at least he didn’t think they did—“and they’re smaller too.”
No spaces appear between the dashes and quotation marks or between the dashes and the action or thought.
If a character becomes immediately distracted or sick or is choked or interrupted by someone else, use an em-dash before the closing quotation mark.
“If you would just let me—”
“Let you what? I already said it’s not that bad. You always—”
“But you’re bleeding all over the carpet!”
When one character interrupts another, use an em-dash immediately after the interruption and then another dash immediately before her words resume.
“God, I feel so—”
“I told you it’s not good.”
“—stupid for believing you instead of him!”
Pay attention to where the interruption occurs and how it appears on the page. It’s best to adhere to the rules of syllabication.
“I can’t be—
“I can’t bel—
An ellipsis (…) shows speech that is faltering or trailing off.
“Ivy, I don’t feel so good. I think I might …” Sam slumped to the floor.
“You’re being ridiculous, impossible, incorrigible …” She frowned, trying to remember another suitable word.
“I think maybe he should … Uh, is that a python hanging from the drapes?”
When used properly, punctuation marks and dialogue tags fade into the background so that the content of the conversation appears center stage—right where readers can enjoy it.