Resource Review · writing

[Writing] Dialogue – The Basic Mechanics

[Writing] A Byers Editing Blog Series for Writers, Inspiring confidence and imparting the skills for success

I have previously admitted to having some issues with dialogue, and I thought it would be useful to have all my reminders in the same place, so why not share those with you? My problem mostly comes with capitalization, and it gets tiring to keep looking these up. Frankly, while there are some sites I like, I don’t like having to sort through a bunch of places to find what I’m looking for.

Most of my own issues come with capitalization–specifically, when the dialogue is split.

Below are the generally-accepted ways to punctuate and capitalize dialogue. Much like other parts of writing, some styles may [purposefully] differ.

Below I’ll give some examples of dialogue as it appears in fictional text, as well as what I hope will be a helpful explanation (below) as to how it is punctuated/capitalized. Please know that this is not an exhaustive listing of all ways to possibly write dialogue, but some of the most common that I encounter in my work.

In creating this article, I’ve also discovered something that I may have known on a basic level, but just never really thought about. Unless the action is happening at the same time the person is speaking, it should be part of a different sentence.

“Dialogue.”

“Dialogue,” he said.

He said, “Dialogue.”

“Question?” she asked.

She asked, “Question?”

“Dialogue,” she said, brushing her hair.

Brushing her hair, she said, “Dialogue.”

“Dialogue,” she said as she brushed her hair.

As she brushed her hair, she said, “Dialogue.”

“Dialogue,” she said, “continued.”

“Dialogue.” She brushed her hair. “Continued.”

“Dialogue,” she said. “More dialogue.”

I’m going to try to break it down

Let’s start with the basics. Dialogue is the exact speech of a character, marked by being enclosed by quotation marks. Terminal punctuation and commas go inside the quotations.

“Dialogue.”

Often times, dialogue is accompanied by a speech tag (asked, said, questioned, interrupted–the list is long, but remember: it must describe how speech is said, words are not smiled, giggled, or sneered. Those are beats, and should be used with a tag -OR-in a separate sentence). There are some people who are 100% against using speech tags, but the nice thing about keeping with “said” is most readers don’t notice it. It’s like a punctuation mark. When the tag comes before the dialogue, it is followed by a comma. When the tag comes after the dialogue, a comma is included in the quotation marks.

He said, “Dialogue.”

“Dialogue,” he said.

Notice that even when the dialogue begins in the middle of a sentence, the first word is still capitalized. When the tag happens in the middle of the sentence, it’s not.

When the speaker is asking a question (?) or exclaiming (!), the punctuation goes in the quotation marks. Even though there is a terminal punctuation mark in the quotation, if the tag follows the dialogue, it is lowercase.

She asked, “Question?”

“Question?” she asked.

When a sentence containing dialogue has an accompanying action in the form of a participle [participle, participle phrase], a comma follows the tag.

“Dialogue,” she said, brushing her hair.

A comma follows the participle phrase if it precedes the dialogue, as well.

Brushing her hair, she said, “Dialogue.”

However, when a sentence containing dialogue has an accompanying action as a subordinate clause [subordinate conjunction, subordinate clause], no comma is necessary.

“Dialogue,” she said as she brushed her hair.

A comma follows that same phrase if it is at the beginning of a sentence with dialogue.

As she brushed her hair, she said, “Dialogue.”

And here’s where I begin to have trouble.

If dialogue is interrupted by a speech tag, and no new sentence is begun, the second quoted material does not need to be capitalized. Comma rules still apply.

“Dialogue,” she said, “continued.”

If there is dialogue that is interrupted by an action and a new sentence begins, the dialogue is capitalized, comma rules still apply.

“Dialogue.” She brushed her hair. “Continued.”

And,

“Dialogue,” she said. “More dialogue.”

Check out these sites for more in-depth information:

Grammargeddon

The Editor’s Blog

Writer’s Digest

Katie McCoach Editorial

 

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