Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 4 – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!

Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 4 – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!

Writers Write shares writing tips. In this post from our Let’s Talk Dialogue series, we discuss five ways punctuation makes dialogue perfect.

I was re-reading Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country the other day. I love the way he used an unconventional method to show dialogue. Other authors – like Nadine Gordimer or Frank McCourt – also break the rules when it comes to dialogue. But for most of us starting out, it’s better to use a tried-and-tested approach to laying out our dialogue.

5 Ways Punctuation Makes Dialogue Perfect!

Here are five ways that punctuation helps our dialogue and makes it easier for the reader to understand and enjoy.

1.  To show an interruption—or break—in dialogue

Tyler tightened his grip on his pen. ‘I think you’re being unreasonable in wanting—’
‘In wanting what?’ Michelle demanded. ‘I just want you to show me respect—’
‘You’ll get respect when you earn it.’

In the above example the long dash, or Em Dash, shows how the two speakers are cutting each other off. It adds pace and energy to the dialogue.

2.  To show a trailing off …

Caitlin stared wistfully the foam of her cappuccino. ‘I just wish I could find someone who gets me …’
Donna didn’t know what to say to her friend. She simply stirred her latte.
Caitlin sighed. ‘Do you think I’ll ever find love …?’

In the above example, the ellipsis, or three dots, shows that Caitlin’s dialogue trails off. It slows down the pace and shows the spaces in dialogue.

3.  To add some drama or to make a point

Dorothy stood with her hands on her hips. ‘Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone of voice!’

In the above example, we use the exclamation point to show Dorothy’s raised voice and the emphasis she is putting into the sentence. A word of warning: Don’t use more than one exclamation point – it can look amateurish.

4.  Don’t stop!

Often dialogue is still a part of a sentence and by using a full stop, we break the flow of the dialogue. This is a mistake many new writers make when using dialogue attributions and tags. We need to know when to keep the dialogue together.

Incorrect X: ‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Said Paula.
Incorrect X: ‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ Said Paula.
Correct √ : ‘I really need to go for a manicure and a massage,’ said Paula.

In the correct example, the comma is breaking up the dialogue so that it reads naturally. Keep in mind, in the other two examples we could have broken the dialogue using the dialogue tags differently.

We could have said:

Paula yawned. ‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’
‘I really need to go for a manicure and massage.’ Paula lounged back on the deck chair.

In these examples, we’re separating the action from the dialogue – so we’re creating a different structure for the dialogue.

5.  Close the door behind you!

Another thing to watch out for is this rule: If you open an inverted comma or speech mark, make sure you close it when your character is finished speaking.

Incorrect X: ‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days, said the therapist.
Correct √: ‘Our nail polish will keep a shine for fourteen days,’ said the therapist.

Oops. If we don’t close the dialogue off with the appropriate mark, the reader will be confused and assume everything after the first mark is speech. So watch out for this in editing.

Read Part 5: How Social Media Has Changed Dialogue

by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to know more about dialogue, you will love:

  1. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words
  2. Let’s Talk Dialogue – Do You Say It Out Loud Or Keep It To Yourself?
  3. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue
  4. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!
  5. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How Social Media Has Changed Dialogue

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Bethanie

    I promise I am not trying to be picky, but in the U.S., when using quotation marks, a double quotation (“) is used at the beginning and end in every dialogue part within the book. A single quotaton (‘) is used at the beginning and end of dialogue within dialogue. In other words, if the person who is speaking, quotes someone else within their dialogue, that is when the single quotation (‘) is used.

    An example– “Remember what Mike said, ‘Never say never.’ I really miss him.” A lump formed in Ronnie’s throat.
    Steve felt the same way, “How could Mike just disappear like that? It’s as if he doesn’t want to be found. Man, don’t ever do that. If something is wrong, tell me. I don’t want to lose my other best friend.”
    Ronnie and Steve sat on the deck looking into the woods hoping Mike would walk out of them, just like he walked in.
    Ronnie lightly punched Steve’s shoulder, “Don’t worry, man. I’m not going anywhere. We’ll keep looking for Mike tomorrow. It’s turned too dark tonight. It’s like the earth just swallowed him up.”
    Both sat wondering, not knowing that is exactly what happened.

  2. fereshte hashemi

    Thank you

  3. Writers Write

    Bethanie, we use UK English in South Africa. Our punctuation follows that style.

  4. Anthony Ehlers

    Hi Bethanie, thanks for the feedback. I think, more than anything, writers should be consistent. If we’re using double quote marks for speech, it’s fine as long as we use it throughout the book. I used single quotes because it leaves less marks on the page, and it looks cleaner. (Enjoyed your extract though!)

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