I’ve had questions about punctuating dialogue. Actually it’s fairly easy. I think we all know that you must have quotation marks around your dialogue. The confusion I see most as an editor is what punctuation mark to use with your tag or attribution.
I apologize in advance for this article, as it is a bit longer than most. But since there are several ways to attach or insert tags and attribs into dialogue, I wanted to try to cover all the basics. So I’m going to give examples of each.
Questions first. If it’s a question, you use a question mark if the tag follows the dialogue:
“So what are you going to do?” Slap asked.
However, if the tag is first, you use a comma to separate the tag from the dialogue:
Slap asked, “So what are you going to do?”
Use the same pattern for exclamation points.
(There are some writers and editors who have varied opinions on the use of said vs asked/shouted/yelled – I’m not going there. At least not for this article. I’ll heap even more confusion on you at a later time.)
If your character is not asking a question or shouting, you will wish to use a comma between your tag and your dialogue:
“Well, I hope we don’t have that sort of fun too often,” Slap said.
Slap said, “Well, I hope we don’t have that sort of fun too often.”
Easy, huh? Now, putting a dialogue tag or attrib in the middle of dialogue is a bit tricky, but hopefully we can get it easily sorted. If it’s in the middle of a sentence, use commas:
“Hm,” Kane said, “we can help you out with that. What sort of ship?”
“The point is,” Tristan said, looking Slap in the eye, “that force shield is safe.”
“Nothing is completely foolproof,” Tristan said, “but I agree, the banks are very secure. Especially the out-systems banks.”
If it’s between sentences, you’ll need a period after the tag, before you begin dialogue again:
“That’s where you come in, boy,” old man Russell said. “You’ve fought them. You know them. We want you to be our Chefe.”
“That’s close enough,” Myers said when Tristan was about twenty-five feet from him. “I wanted to clearly see your face when you die.”
Now, if you are using beats, then you do not use a comma.
“I said I wouldn’t try to kill MacCay.” She brushed a curl off her forehead. “For now, anyway.”
“You too? That’s all everyone in the city is talking about.” Tanya set her cup down. “We’ve never needed a government on Zenos.”
I hope the examples above give you some guidelines. If you have questions, corrections, or want clarification, please post in comments.
(If you are confused about beats, tags, and attributions, check out this old article: “Say What, er, I Mean, How?” )