Writing strong, believable dialogue is a skill all writers of stories need to master. But even the most skillfully penned dialogue can miss its mark or confuse the reader if it’s not punctuated correctly.
Where do the quotation marks go? Should that be a comma or a period? Let’s take these questions one at a time and see how easy it is to master a few simple guidelines.
Placement of quotation marks:
Quotation marks enclose a speaker’s actual words. They are not used when the words are indirect or when people are thinking to themselves.
Examples: My mother said, “I’m always the last one to know.” My mother said that she was always the last one to know. My mother thought, Now that’s a fine predicament I’ve gotten myself into.
Also, be sure there is no space between the quotation mark and the first or last word of the quote.
Punctuation with quotation marks:
General Rule #1 – Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks.
Examples: “Dr. Kim is sure Sally will make a full recovery,” said Bill. Bill said, “Dr. Kim is sure Sally will make a full recovery.”
General Rule #2 – A comma is needed right before or right after the tag (identification of the speaker). See the examples above for placement of the comma.
General Rule #3 – If the tag comes in the middle of a quotation, then use a comma when the sentence continues. Use a period and a capital letter when the first sentence is followed by a second sentence.
Examples: “Once she regains consciousness,” Bill stated, “you’ll be able to talk to her.”
“She’s looking better today,” said Bill. “The medication must be taking effect.”
These are the basics of correctly punctuating dialogue. Be consistent applying these tips and you’ll eliminate most, if not all of your problems. To easily check for consistency in your manuscript, use the search tool in your Word program and search for all examples of quotation marks. Then correct the ones that are inconsistent with these guidelines.
I’ll be happy to field questions or hear from anyone who has other tips to share! And if you’d rather not worry about details like this and are looking for a reliable editor/proofreader, check out my home page for more information about Finished Right.