In this last part of Dialogue Dilemmas we’ll look at some more aspects of the technical side of dialogue – the correct use of punctuation. Things like dialogue tags and question marks continue to confuse some writers, simply because they don’t always know exactly where they should go.
Then of course, there are different ways of expressing quotation marks, depending on whether you’re writing for the US or UK market, so there are lots of things with dialogue structure that can still trip you up.
One of the areas of uncertainty for many writers is the use of the type of quotation marks when denoting speech. This is where things become less clear, because there are some differences between British and American formats.
American convention usually prefers double quotation marks “ ” to show dialogue, whereas British convention likes the use of single quotation marks ‘ ’.
Neither is incorrect, however, it is worth checking with any publication or publisher to find out what their preferred requirements are before you submit work to them.
Question and exclamation marks
Questions marks and exclamation marks should never prove difficult, once you know where they are placed within dialogue, but another thing that seems to baffle writers come through the of question or exclamation marks, and whether the dialogue tags that follow the punctuation should be capitalised.
Firstly, question or exclamation marks should be placed within quotation marks, not outside, as the example below shows.
‘Where does it go?’ he asked.
As you can see form the example above, dialogue tags, (he said/she said etc), when used together with question marks or exclamation marks, are not capitalised. That’s because they are still a protraction of the speaker. For instance:
‘I guess you won’t want that envelope then?’ she asked, suspicious.
As you can see, the tag, ‘she asked’ should not be capitalised because it is a continuation of the whole sentence. Capitalising the tags will make a potential editor think you’re an amateur. Tags should only be capitalised if a full stop ends the sentence.
The one thing you should never do is use double exclamation marks or question marks in order to make the effect more dramatic.
‘Something like this!!’ she said.
The dialogue doesn’t need it. Whether it is narrative or dialogue, use one question mark or one exclamation mark only.
Quotations within Quotations
Sometimes you may be presented with the need to highlight a character quoting from something or someone else with dialogue, and this might present you with a moment of head-scratching or even panic.
How quotes within quotes are presented would depend if you are working with single or double quotation marks (depending on US or UK styles).
If, therefore, you are using double quotation marks for dialogue, you would use single marks to denote the quote.
If you are using single quotation marks for dialogue, then you would use double quote marks to denote the quote.
Using single quote marks to denote a quote within US style double quotation marks would look like these examples:
“I saw John today. Have you read his new article, ‘All the Pretty Flowers’?” David asked.
She looked up. “He said, ‘I hate you’.”
Now here are the same examples, but with UK style single quotation marks:
‘I saw John today. Have you read his new article, “All the Pretty Flowers”?’ David asked.
She looked up. ‘He said, “I hate you”.’
Dashes in Dialogue
Sometimes, when characters are in conversation, one may be cut off by another character or might be interrupted by something. It’s a useful way of showing a dramatic cut off while a character is speaking.
In order to show this, writers use what’s known as an em-dash (–) which is so called because it is roughly the width of the letter m. This is a slightly longer dash than the n-dash, which is the width of the letter n (often used with dates e.g. 1989-1999, or between two words, e.g. machine-filled).
When a line of dialogue is interrupted, however, we use the em-dash:
‘I thought you better than that, you have no–’
‘Shut up, Jason,’ she cut in. ‘You’re so full of cr–’
Use of Thoughts in Dialogue
You can use thoughts in dialogue. And, as narrative, it is a useful way of showing some details of character to the reader without obvious character interaction. That means the reader can be privy to some things that the characters in the story won’t know.
Also known as interior monologue, it can be structured in same way as narrative. You don’t have to use italics to denote internal thoughts, but whatever you choose, just make sure it’s consistent throughout the story.
‘I told Dad we’re moving house,’ she said.
‘Was he pleased?’ John asked.
‘He was really happy for us,’ she said.
There is a lot more than meets the eye with dialogue structure, but once you know how to construct it and punctuate it properly, it should not pose any problems.
Next week: General rules for formatting your MSS