Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Writing Dialogue 101

Here’s something different for 2019. We’ve been chatting behind the scenes, and one thing that’s come up repeatedly is that grammar, usage, and mechanics—what I call “GUMmy stuff”—never goes out of style, so to speak. These basics of writing are not always taught as well as they could (or should) be, so we’re going to… [Read More]

Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for

Here’s something different for 2019. We’ve been chatting behind the scenes, and one thing that’s come up repeatedly is that grammar, usage, and mechanics—what I call “GUMmy stuff”—never goes out of style, so to speak. These basics of writing are not always taught as well as they could (or should) be, so we're going to offer a refresher, starting with Dialogue 101.

Now, don’t go thinking this column is going to become some kind of primer. That’s not the deal at all. However, I know there are certain topics that writers all grapple with, so I’ll be basing a number of this year’s posts on them.Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for

I get questions about internal dialogue (thoughts), indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, punctuating dialogue, splitting dialogue … you get the picture, I’m sure. To that end, I’ll start with the most basic of basics: what is dialogue?

Let’s Talk Dialogue 101

Simply put, it’s speech between characters. If only one is speaking, either for an extended time or as the entire work, we call it “monologue.” Standup comics perform monologues. Shakespeare’s characters sometimes have monologues, which are called “soliloquies” (apologies to those of you who just broke out in hives).

Note: The quotation marks around “monologue” and “soliloquies” are not marking speech, but rather what’s called “words as words.” It’s another standard use of quotation marks.

I Have Some Thoughts

Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comAll right then, if dialogue is speech, what’s this about “internal dialogue?” That’s just another term for “thoughts.” Other terms for it are “unspoken dialogue” (Chicago Manual of Style wording) and “articulated rumination” (the term used by Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House Publishing). When a character is thinking, and we’re being told those thoughts verbatim by the writer, that’s internal dialogue. Sometimes internal dialogue is set in italics, to differentiate it from the rest of the text. (You do know about roman and italics, right? Roman is what you’re reading right now. Italics are the slanted type, like this.) Internal dialogue is often not set off with quotation marks (but it can be!), so what you could end up with is something like:

That car’s been driving around the block for the last half hour, Sarah thought.

(Please do not add “to herself” after “thought.” Thoughts are always to one’s self, unless one is a telepath and is projecting them to someone else. I don’t know any telepaths, personally, so … no, except when you’re writing speculative fiction and need to tell us Sarah’s thinking at someone, not to herself.)

Thoughts Become Speech

Now, let’s take that internal dialogue and make it indirect speech. That means we’re being told what Sarah said aloud by someone other than herself. It would look like this:

Sarah said that that car’s been driving around the block for the last half hour.

Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comIt doesn’t matter who’s telling us, to be honest. Someone’s letting us know what Sarah said. Another form of this is “reported speech,” which looks like this:

“Sarah said that car’s been driving around the block for the last half hour,” said John.

Now we’re hearing directly from John (because we have the tag, “said,” and his name) what Sarah said about that car. We still haven’t heard it directly from Sarah, though.

“That car’s been driving around the block for the last half hour,” said Sarah.

There! That’s direct speech. Sarah said those words enclosed in quotation marks.

But Where Does the Comma Go?

Now we’re getting into mechanics. That’s a fancy term for spelling and punctuation, but mostly it’s used for punctuation.

Let’s look at that last direct speech example.

Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for“That car’s been driving around the block for the last half hour,” said Sarah.

The comma takes the place of the period we’d see if there wasn’t a dialogue tag (said X or X said). Declarative sentences, ones that normally end in periods, end in commas when they’re presented as dialogue followed by a tag.

Jane said, “I’m already sick of this.”

The comma follows the dialogue tag when the tag precedes the quoted speech.

And What About Periods and Things?

Terminal punctuation—whether it’s a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point—goes inside the closing quotation mark. In terms of punctuating dialogue, this is true for both American English and British English. Both Englishes also use the same double-quotes for dialogue in works of fiction. (The conventions for nonfiction and academic British English punctuation have been changing for some time. If you need to know about those, you’re best off checking the relevant style guide for the publication. For fiction, I can safely tell you it’s the same no matter which side of the pond you’re on.)

“Are we done yet?” asked Jane.

The question mark goes inside the closing quotation marks, and there is no comma. You don’t need one because there’s already a question mark. The same applies to exclamation points.

Jane asked, “Are we done yet?”

There, you need the comma after the tag. The question mark still goes inside the closing quotation marks. It will never go outside. Neither will a period or an exclamation point.

I’m not going to discuss the variations needed for academic and general nonfiction writing. That will only confuse the issue at hand, which is explaining the use of mechanics when punctuating dialogue in fictional work.

But Why Is It Like This?

The short answer is “because.” The longer answer is “because these are the agreed-upon conventions, arrived at over time, on how best to guide the reader through the printed text representing spoken words.”Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for

That’s right; these are conventions. For my money, that’s one step below rules, and one step above guidelines. You can choose to break with convention, but if you do, be ready for pushback from more than one direction. Your editor is likely to query you and strongly suggest adhering to the expected style; your readers are likely to become annoyed or confused and perhaps stop being your readers. And no one wants that. I know I’m not the only one who gets annoyed enough with poorly copy-edited work to not bother finishing a book. I don’t want that to happen to my clients or to you.

Don’t Try This at Home

There are a handful of writers who don’t use quotation marks, ever. Not even for direct speech. However, unless you’re Cormac McCarthy, E. L. Doctorow, or James Joyce, I don’t recommend it. It takes skill and mastery to lead readers through text without the signposts of quotation marks to indicate speech.

In Closing, Plus More on Dialogue 101 to Follow

Dialogue 101 by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comI think this is enough for you to chew on for this time around. By all means, ask questions! I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my ability.  Next time I’ll talk about how to use tags and beats in your dialogue, and what happens to the mechanics when you do.

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4 thoughts on “Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Writing Dialogue 101”

  1. Yeah, more please. Dialog conventions are pestilential things that we all need to understand. I note that in your example: “Are we done yet?” asked Jane., the tag is not capitalized despite following a full stop “?.” (okay, there’s another one, if a punctuation mark is enclosed in quotes should it have a period to end the sentence?) So more of this, take us up to a 500 level course if you would. We all need get better with quotation marks.

    1. Karen Conlin says:

      Hello, Christopher!

      I can’t even begin to create “wrong” examples to cover all the bases, so I provide only correct information. What you see is how the conventions are used. Capitalization and punctuation are as shown in what I’ve written, according to any of the major style guides. That’s because mechanics of this kind (dialogue) aren’t subject to “style,” because they’ve been agreed upon for decades already. Readers know what to expect; writers are expected to give that to them.

      If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s how it works.

      A 500-level course, eh? I don’t even have a master’s degree. 🙂 However, I’ll do my best to keep teaching.

      Watch this space, and thank you for your comment.

  2. Bravo for entertaining us as you share your wisdom!

    It is worth noting that the conventions you illustrate are US conventions. The Brits do things differently. They use single quotation marks where we use double, and vice-versa. I think they put punctuation marks inside quotes like we do for dialogue, but place them outside other times. I mention this in case you have readers from other parts of the world, and to alert people who read foreign authors.

    Other than that, as I understand, everything else is the same for all English speakers. I look forward to reading more of your expertise.

    1. Karen Conlin says:

      Hello, Sharon!

      Yes, I did mention the BrE conventions in the above blog post, but I don’t dwell on them because my clients are overwhelmingly AmE writers and I don’t like to confuse the issue. If you look again, you’ll see I mention having talked with Jeremy Butterfield (of Fowler’s English Usage) about the possible confusion.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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