I love writing dialogue but still feel muddled about how to present it to the reader.  I wrote this article over a year ago on my old blog but I still refer to it when I am editing to check I got it right.  I thought others may find it useful too so decided to share it again.  I hope you enjoy. 

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My mistake

I don’t want to even think about how many times I have edited my writing.  I am always looking to improve it and post my writing online to get feedback.  Nobody can be as brutal as I am about my own work, I never feel it is quite good enough.

"I am going to hate it."  I said miserably.  "This sucks!"  X

Recently, someone on Wattpad pointed out that I should have used a comma in the above dialogue.  I didn’t agree.  I felt it was a complete sentence so required a full stop. Plus, in all the years it has been posted online, nobody else had picked up on this.

If someone has taken the time to help me, I feel it important to firstly thank them and then consider the merit of their wisdom.  So, I got a second opinion from an ex-colleague English teacher and…

She agreed with the online feedback and provided a link to help further my understanding:  Oxford Dictionaries – Commas in direct speech

I am now dreading the edit of over 70k+ words looking for how many times I have made this mistake – this will be a painful task.

How to write dialogue

Firstly, normal sentence structure applies so place commas where required for clauses, statements, and lists.

New paragraphs

"Hello!"

"Who is there?"

"It's me,"  he said.

Every time the dialogue changes to a different speaker, you start a new line.  If you do this, it is incredibly easy for the reader to follow the conversation between the characters.

Also, if only two characters are present you can cut most the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ stuff which can get tedious and it will improve the pace of your story.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen new writers putting dialogue between two different characters within the same paragraph and it is confusing.  Please don’t do that.

“Speech marks”

The most obvious rule is to use speech marks to show the text that the characters say.

"Hello readers!" she said.

You will notice that the first speech mark (opening dialogue) does not have a space after it and the second speech mark (closing dialogue) does not have a space before it.

"Hello."   

"Hello," she said.

"Hello?"

"Hello!" she yelled.

The dialogue should always end with punctuation (i.e. full stop, comma, question mark, exclamation mark) and this should be before the closing speech mark.

How a comma should be used for dialogue:

"Hello readers," she said.   

She said, "Hello readers."

In the first example, the dialogue ends with a comma and the full stop is after you identify who is saying it and how it is spoken.

The second example means exactly the same but in reverse.  The comma appears after you’ve identified who is saying it and how and the full stop is at the end of the dialogue.

In both examples, the comma appears in the middle of the dialogue and the full stop only appears at the end.

Dialogue using a question mark or exclamation mark:

"Who is there?" she asked.

"Who is there!" she yelled.

The first example, is a question.  This is illustrated by the dialogue ending with a question mark.  The question mark is contained within the speech marks.  Normally, you’d treat a question mark like a full stop and start the next sentence with a capital letter.  In dialogue, you only do this if the next word is a pronoun (i.e. a name).

The second example, is of something exclaimed.  Exclaim means to cry out i.e. in pain, in surprise, or with sudden strong emotion.  You will notice it follows the same rule as the question mark.

She asked, “Who is there?”

She yelled, “Who is there!”

You will see in the reverse dialogue examples (where the speaker and how it spoken is given first), there is a comma before giving the dialogue.

Formatting broken dialogue:

"Hello," she called into the darkness, "is anyone there?"

"Hello," she called into the darkness.  "Is anyone there?"

"Hello!" she called into the darkness. "Is anyone there?"

In the above example the dialogue is broken into two parts.  You will notice the same rules apply.

The first section of dialogue ends with a comma, question mark or exclamation mark.  Then after the closing speech mark you give details of who spoke and how it was said.

Who spoke and how it was said should end with a comma or full stop.

The second section of dialogue will only start with a capital letter if the information about who and how finished with a capital letter (or if the word is a pronoun).  The second section of dialogue must end with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark.

Making it right

I am constantly learning and growing as a writer.  I’m not looking forward to the lengthy edit ahead of me but hopefully the experience will drum this lesson into my head once and for all.

"I am going to hate it,"  I said miserably.  "This sucks!" 

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Please share with me any issues you’ve had with writing dialogue and whether this article was useful.  Many thanks, Ally

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If you found this article useful, you may also enjoy:

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Ally plus text

2 thoughts on “Comma ‘gain!

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