LESSON WRITING The Mechanics of Dialogue

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Jorick, Feb 9, 2015.

  1. Writing dialogue is easy. Writing good dialogue is hard. This workshop is here to show you how to make proper use of quotation marks, commas, and other extremely exciting things to provide a solid foundation for your dialogue. Without these mechanics under control, even the most artful dialogue can be rendered a painful mess. Think of it like painting: the mechanics are the basic nuts and bolts of the trade, the canvas and brushes and containers of paint; the actual words used are the image that is formed by making use of those tools. If you want to create something nicer than a finger painting, then you're going to need the essential tools, and that's what this workshop will give you.

    There are a couple things I should clarify before getting into things. First, I am an American and as such I will be describing the rules and usage for American English. If anything in this workshop seems wrong and backwards to you, then you probably learned the English they use in England. A lot of punctuation rules differ on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, so this workshop might not make sense for some of you. Adding in alternate explanations for UK English rules would have been almost double the work, so I chose to forgo it. If there's much of a clamor for an explanation of that stuff as well, I'll probably add it in later. Second, this workshop is all about dialogue in roleplays and other forms of narrative writing, so there will be some rules for uses of quotation marks and other punctuation interacting with them that I won't bother going over. There are some things you just won't need to use for creative writing, like how block quotes work, so explaining them would be sort of pointless. Hopefully anything that appears to be completely missing from this workshop is something that I consciously chose to cut for that reason.

    Now, on with the grammar rules.

    Quotation Marks

    These things " are the core piece of punctuation used to mark dialogue. They're the marks that you use to show someone is speaking, so knowing how to actually use them is vital to writing dialogue. Luckily, there are only a few rules that you need to know and follow.

    • Use quotation marks to show when someone is actually speaking. Do not use them to refer to things that were previously said (unless a speaker is actually quoting something said in the past), only for things that are currently being said.

      Example 1: "You smell like a poorly maintained zoo today," said Mark.
      Example 2: Dear diary, yesterday Mark said "I smell like a poorly maintained zoo."
      Example 3: Dear diary, I am crushed. Mark said the most hurtful thing to me yesterday: "You smell like a poorly maintained zoo today." He's so rude!

      Example 1 is plain old dialogue, quotation marks placed around something a person said. Example 2 is an incorrect use of quotation marks; non-spoken references and paraphrases of things another person said don't require them. They are meant for active speech and direct quotes, not to indicate every time another person's words are being used in some way. Just saying that Mark said it is enough to make it clear, and that's not what Mark actually said, so the quotation marks are grammatically incorrect. Removing the quotation marks entirely would fix the problem and leave you with a correct sentence. Example 3 shows a correct use of quotation marks in a non-speech format: the words are exactly what Mark said, so the quotation marks are required.
    • When quoting something inside a line of dialogue, don't use another set of full quotation marks. That can get very confusing very quickly. The proper way to handle a quote within a line of dialogue is to use apostrophes (also known as single quotation marks, as opposed to the regular double quotation marks) instead. They act as a second level of quotation marks, so they're rather useful for keeping things clear.

      Example: "Jill just sent me a text that said 'I hate cookies.' I don't think we can be friends any more."
    • Quotation marks can be used to highlight technical terms that readers might not be familiar with and words used in unusual ways. When this is done inside of a line of dialogue you should use apostrophes instead, because avoiding confusion is always a good thing. Highlighting these kinds of words is not exactly required, but it can be a useful tool.

      Example 1: "Science is awesome. Astrophysicists have this cool term, 'spaghettification,' that they use to refer to what an object experiences when it's pulled into a black hole. The objects are stretched out, very long and very thin, like a spaghetti noodle."
      Example 2: "Martha got another visit from her 'friend' Tom last night and kept the whole floor awake until two in the morning.

      The first example is a technical term; the quotation marks call attention to the word, then the next sentence explains what it means. Slang can also be marked and explained in this way, if you think it's necessary. The second example is an unusual usage, specifically sarcastic usage, since the word "friend" is being used to mean something other than what it normally means. This usage is why people sometimes make motions like quotation marks (AKA air quotes) with their fingers when they're using a word in a sarcastic or euphemistic manner.

      If you don't like using quotation marks like this, you can always italicize the word instead. It can also be perfectly fine to not call any special attention to them with formatting, so long as the meaning is made clear in some other way.
    • There are some other uses for quotation marks that are less common for dialogue, so I'll go over them in short. Nicknames inserted into someone's full name usually have quotation marks around them. They can be used when referring to a particular word in a sentence. They can also be used to refer to a specific letter. They can be used to indicate titles of books and movies and so forth. They're also used to give measurements of length in inches.

      Example 1: Bobby "Cheeseball" Jones
      Example 2: The word "cheese" just sounds delicious.
      Example 3: My favorite letter is "C" because these examples are all cheese themed.
      Example 4: "The Wonderful World of Cheese" is my favorite documentary.
      Example 5: This cheese is 1'3" tall.

      Note that none of these are lines of dialogue. For the first four, you can simply replace the quotation marks with apostrophes if the thing is being spoken aloud. For #4, and for the use of the title of things like books and movies, you can use italics or underlined text to show that it's a title; they're all valid means of marking titles, so use whichever one feels right to you. #5 is a bit of an annoyance, because you can't actually change the punctuation without destroying the meaning. If you insist on using the numbers for the measurement even in dialogue, always use an apostrophe for the number of feet and always use a quotation mark for the number of inches. It's cleaner and probably looks nicer to switch to actual words for dialogue, but it's not grammatically incorrect to use the number version, so make your own choice on the matter.

    Other Punctuation

    The things that seem to cause the most confusion about dialogue are other kinds of punctuation used with quotation marks. What the heck do you do with an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence? What if someone is asking a question about something another person said, but the quoted text wasn't a question itself? This section answers those questions and more.

    • Periods are the easiest punctuation to use with quotation marks. Just put them at the end of your sentences as usual, then put the closing quotation mark to the right of the period when it becomes necessary. Nothing special or fancy about it, just throw the quotation mark after it.

      Example 1: "Periods are periodical."

      Also, since it's not worth making a separate tab for them since they work the same way, ellipses and dashes also go inside the quotation marks. Just remember that, as far as dialogue is concerned, ellipses indicate a long pause or trailing off and dashes indicate an abrupt interruption.

      Example 2: "You just made a joke about..." Zach shook his head slowly and walked away.
      Example 3: "That's kind of fu-" Sara cut herself off as she realized that commenting on a menstruation joke just wasn't worth the effort.
    • Commas can be a source of annoyance when writing dialogue, but there are some general rules to follow that can clear things up. Whenever you're using a variation or synonym of the word 'said' to indicate that someone is speaking, you'll almost always want to use a comma to separate it from the spoken words.

      Example 1: "I like walking," said Bob.
      Example 2: "Walking is great," exclaimed Shirley, "it's transportation and low impact exercise in one!"
      Example 3: As my mother always said, "Learn to walk before you run."

      #1 is a just the basic stuff. #2 shows that you need a comma before and after a quote attribution that is inserted into the middle of the text. You should be cautious with this method of cutting up your dialogue: only use it in places that would have a comma if the sentence was spoken as one piece, because otherwise you're creating a run-on sentence. If the second part of the separated dialogue should be its own sentence, use a period and make it so. #3 shows how quote attributions that come before the dialogue work with commas. It also displays another interesting little tidbit: if the quoted material is a full sentence by itself, it should be capitalized even through it comes after a comma. This is one of those things that most people don't seem to know, so common usage of grammar may not actually follow this rule, meaning that you can get away with not capitalizing such quotes and it'll be fine.

      You don't need to use a comma when you attribute the quote without using something like "he said" or when the quote is very small. These forms of quotes will probably not be very common in dialogue, but this rule is good to know for those rare occasions where it matters.

      Example 4: "The author went on to explain that 'mantis shrimp have been known to crack oysters open and break aquarium glass with their extremely fast and powerful claws.'"
      Example 5: "In conclusion on the subject of mantis shrimp, the author said they are 'fucking rad.'"

      Since I haven't shown it anywhere else, take note of the punctuation at the ends of those sentences. When a quote inside a line of dialogue runs to the end of the spoken thing you just close it off with the period, then place the apostrophe for the secondary quote, then the full quotation mark to end the spoken line. The quoted words lie fully within the spoken line, so their ending punctuation comes first to show that it's totally inside the line of speech.
    • Question and exclamation marks share a tab because they work in the exact same way. When it's just a line of dialogue that happens to be a question or exclamation from whoever is saying it, use the appropriate mark just like a period. When a line of dialogue is quoting someone else and a question or exclamation gets involved, then it can become tricky. If the quoted thing is a question or exclamation and it comes in the middle of the dialogue rather than extending to the closing quotation mark, then include its original punctuation and end the dialogue as appropriate for whatever is being said. Same goes for quotes in the middle of dialogue that aren't questions or exclamations but the speaker is making one: give the quote its natural punctuation, then end the dialogue with the appropriate mark.

      Example 1: "The line 'Et tu, Brute?' was just a Shakespeare line, not something the Julius Caesar actually said."
      Example 2: "Of course it was, lots of famous quotes are attributed to the wrong person. Do you think 'I came, I saw, I conquered' was something Julius Caesar truly said?"

      The real fun starts when quotes run to the end of a line of dialogue and questions or exclamations get involved. If both the speaker and the quoted line are asking a question or exclaiming something, then just the proper mark followed by the closing of both sets of quotation marks is fine; context should make it clear that the speaker is also asking or exclaiming without the need for doubling up on the punctuation. If the quoted thing does not have a question or exclamation mark but the speaker is asking a question or exclaiming, then put the appropriate mark outside of the secondary quotation marks but inside the primary ones, in order to show that the mark applies to the speaker's words but not the quoted words.

      Example 3: Linda scrunched up her face in confusion. "Did John just ask 'how are babies made?'"
      Example 4: "Yes, he's awful. Yesterday he said 'midgets are just advanced babies'!"

      Things get kind of awkward when you have totally incompatible punctuation at the end of a piece of dialogue. Asking a question about an exclamation, exclaiming about a question, and quoting something that ends with a question or exclamation mark when the speaker's sentence should end with a period are all goofy. Luckily, these awkward constructions are quite rare. If you ever encounter one in your writing, you should probably try to restructure the sentences to remove it because they're awful and American grammar conventions say you should never ever double up end of sentence punctuation. You can make a stylistic choice to do so, but that's all on you..

      Example 5: "Did that kid just yell 'crap-ass!'?"
      Example 6: "Oh my god, that sounded like someone yelling 'bees?'!"
      Example 7: "I believe it was in fact a single cry of 'bees? crap-ass!'."

      See how awkward that looks? That's why the American English way of doing it is to change the sentence entirely, or be lazy and just pick one piece of punctuation to use.
    • Colons can be used to introduce a quote instead of a comma in some circumstances. If the colon is just somewhere in the middle of the quoted material, meaning not just before the quote or at the end of it, then it just operates as usual. If used to introduce a quote, it should look like this.

      Example: "My father always gave me the same inspirational speech whenever I was feeling down: 'Shut up and stop being a crybaby, you damned pansy.'"

      Remember that part of the Commas tab that mentioned capitalizing a quote if it constitutes a full sentence unto itself? Those are the places where you can use a colon instead of a comma. Whether or not you have to use a colon for such quotes is sort of a grey area, so you can be fine using a comma instead, especially if you choose not to capitalize the quote because nobody else is doing it and reverse peer pressure is strong.

      If you're somehow ending up with a colon at the end of a piece of dialogue, you're probably doing something weird and should reformulate the sentence. Same thing goes double for semicolons, while I'm on the subject. There's no good reason for dialogue to end with a semicolon, so don't try it. There can be some weird instances where something quoted inside a line of dialogue might end with a colon or semicolon, but again, you can almost certainly work the sentence around in another way and avoid the headache entirely. Work smart, not hard.

    Other Rules

    The above sections give the specific rules for where exactly punctuation is supposed to go when writing dialogue or quoting someone. There are a few other rules that keep things clean and concise, but they're more stylistic suggestions than hard rules for punctuation use.

    • Each new speaker should have their own paragraph, even if it's just a short interjection. This is purely for ease of reading. Dialogue can get horribly cluttered if you shove multiple speakers into one paragraph, so avoid doing it. This is especially important if you're not using "he said" or similar to attribute every spoken line.

      Cluttered Example: "I love fish," said Anne. "Does that mean you love manatees?" asked Ted. "No, manatees are aquatic mammals." "I thought fish just meant things that live in the water." Anne sighed. "No, they're a specific type of creature. Manatees can go on land, you know." "Oh. I just thought that since they're called sea cows..." Anne sighed again. "You're an idiot, Ted."

      Tidy Example: "I love fish," said Anne.
      "Does that mean you love manatees?" asked Ted.
      "No, manatees are aquatic mammals."
      "I thought fish just meant things that live in the water."
      Anne sighed. "No, they're a specific type of creature. Manatees can go on land, you know."
      "Oh. I just thought that since they're called sea cows..."
      Anne sighed again. "You're an idiot, Ted."

      See where there might be some confusion in the cluttered example? That's why you move to a new line for each speaker. Even if there would be no confusion, it still looks cleaner to separate speakers, so try to make a habit of it.
    • When quoted text rolls over into a new paragraph, you don't need to throw a closing quotation mark at the end of it and start a new set for the new paragraph. Just stick a quotation mark at the start of the new paragraph, a sort of reminder to readers that a quote is still happening, and it'll be fine.

      Example: "I'm the strongest and coolest teenage ninja ever. I'm so strong that I can cut down a tree with a single karate chop. I can run straight up the side of a building without falling off. One time I sneezed and flipped a car, because I'm just that strong.
      "I'm the coolest because I have magic eyes that let me mind control anyone I want. I-" Strongcool the Teenage Ninja was fatally interrupted by a bullet to the brain. How very sad.

      If you happen to not like how this looks, you can absolutely get away with using an extra quotation mark. Only extremely anal retentive jerks will care one way or the other.
    • A lot of people have trouble deciding whether or not to capitalize whatever comes directly after something in quotation marks, but it's pretty simple. If the quote ends in a period, capitalize whatever comes next; if the quote ends in a comma, don't capitalize. The confusion tends to come in where a quote ends in a question or exclamation mark, and for those it'll depend on whether or not the quoted thing and whatever comes directly afterward should/can be their own complete sentences. The easy test is to mentally replace the offending piece of punctuation with a comma or period and deciding which one makes the most sense.

      Incorrect: "Have you ever eaten alligator?" He asked.
      Correct: "No, that's barbaric!" she replied.

      Simple quote attributions like "he said" are not complete sentences on their own, so they should never be capitalized. However, if you turn the attribution into something less direct, oftentimes they'll require capitalization.

      Example 1: "Have you ever eaten alligator?" He eagerly awaited her reply.
      Example 2: "No, that's barbaric!" She shook her head in disgust.

      Those versions are both correct, because the lines of dialogue are full sentences and the indirect attribution are also full sentences.
    • Sometimes you'll want to avoid using quotation marks altogether. Referring to something another person said in a form that doesn't require quotation marks is known as indirect quoting or paraphrasing. What this boils down to is rephrasing the quote without changing its meaning. This is predominantly used in academic papers, but it can be very useful for roleplaying too. For the examples, let's say the previous poster had his character Strongcool (the strongest and coolest teenage ninja got better after the fatal brain injury, don't worry) ask "Hey, wanna go stab someone?" The examples are possible ways for the player to deal with that question in a roleplaying post.

      Example 1: Strongcool looked over with a grin on his face. "Hey, wanna go stab someone?"
      Mightyawesome thought about it for a second, then shrugged. "Sure, I like stabbing."

      Example 2: Mightyawesome was not surprised by his friend's invitation to go stabbing. "Okay, sounds like fun," he said as he pulled out his two diamond-edged katanas.

      Example 3: Mightyawesome shook his head. "I'm busy, I have to go wash my hair."

      The first example is someone directly quoting exactly what was said in the other person's post. This is not wrong to do, but it can look awkward. The second example is a paraphrase in which they acknowledge the question by rephrasing it. The third example shows someone skipping the quotation entirely, because they both know what Strongcool asked so there's no need to repeat the information. All of these are valid ways to respond, so consider mixing it up. I've seen some folks quoting huge portions of dialogue from another player's post, and it's just unnecessary the vast majority of the time.

    And there you have it. If you can follow all of those rules and suggestions, then you've got the mechanics of dialogue totally figured out. Go forth and amaze your roleplaying partners with your ability to use proper grammar.

    Also, I finished up The Art of Dialogue, which goes over the non-punctuation parts of dialogue, so maybe check that out as well.
    #1 Jorick, Feb 9, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2015
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