The Craft of Writing

Grammar for Gremlins: How to Punctuate a Conversation, Part Two

June 24, 2017

Punctuate a Conversation

Aaaand we’re back.

If you’re just tuning in, you can find part one of How to Punctuate a Conversation here.

I already used my cute intro on last week’s post, so I’ll just pick up where I left off.

Multiple Speakers

We’ve covered internal and external dialogue, but it isn’t a conversation without at least two speakers. Using proper grammar and punctuation makes it clear which character is speaking.

In general, begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes:

“They’re coming.”

“We can hide over there.”

“Where?”

“There!”

You need a damn good reason to break this rule, and I can only think of two acceptable scenarios:

1. Multiple characters say the same thing at the same time, which can be more simply indicated using dialogue tags. (See the next section.)

2. One character mutters under their breath while another speaks. (See the last section.)

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is a small phrase which tells the reader which character is speaking.

For example:

“They’re coming,”  said Alisha. 

The dialogue tag in this sentence is “said Alisha.”

Here’s another example:

“What,”  I asked,  “are those things?”

The dialogue tag in this sentence is “I asked.”

Use dialogue tags to avoid redundancy.

If I wanted to write that Alisha and Mark said, “Aliens,” in unison, I could write:

“Aliens,” Alisha said.

“Aliens,” Mark said.

But I could also write:

“Aliens,” they said together.

This second example is more economical and avoids unnecessary repetition, which makes it preferable in most situations.

Everyone has an opinion about which dialogue tags are acceptable.

Many editors will tell you using the verb “said” is vague and monotonous.

I disagree. “Said” is a quiet, unassuming verb that blends into the surrounding dialogue. I can skip past it and focus on what the characters are saying to each other. See:

“They’re coming,” said Alisha.

“We can hide over there,” I said.

When writers use a new synonym for “said” to tag each line of dialogue, it distracts me. See:

“They’re coming,” Alisha spoke.

“We can hide over there,” I pronounced.

Worse still, the search for synonyms too often leads to one of my editing pet peeves—using non-speech verbs as dialogue tags:

 “We’re free,” Mark smiled. 

See how “Mark smiled” is punctuated like a dialogue tag? But it isn’t. “Smiled” isn’t a speaking verb. You cannot smile words.

(At least, humans can’t. There may be fantasy races that can, which is a terrifying prospect.)

Of course, it’s clear the writer means Mark is smiling while he speaks. But that’s not what they said.

Mixing Action and Dialogue

Whenever possible, sidestep the issue of whether to use “said” or a “synonym” by omitting dialogue tags altogether.

Use action and paragraph breaks to indicate which character is speaking, like this:

Alisha froze. “They’re coming.”

I pointed to the shed. “We can hide in there.”

In this example, it’s clear that Alisha is the character who says, “They’re coming.”

There are two keys to effectively using action in place of dialogue tags:

1. Place the speaker’s actions immediately before their dialogue.

Clear:

Alisha froze. “They’re coming.”

Less clear:

“They’re coming.” Alisha froze.

2. Whenever possible, only describe the speaker’s actions in the same paragraph as their dialogue.

Clear:

Alisha froze.

I pointed to the shed. “We can hide in there.”

Confusing:

Alisha froze. I pointed to the shed. “We can hide in there.”

Interruptions

There are two types of dialogue interruptions: A speaker can be interrupted by another speaker or by an action or event.

When One Character Interrupts Another

End the first character’s dialogue with an em dash (—) and closing double quotation marks. The interrupter’s dialogue starts a new paragraph:

“We can hide—”

“Where?”

Never use an ellipsis (…) when a character is interrupted. Ellipses are only appropriate when a character trails off.

When Actions or Events Interrupt Dialogue

I’m bored with this conversation between Alisha and the narrator. It would be much cooler if Alisha got snatched up by aliens as she tries to warn her friends.

As long as the interruption puts a permanent end to Alisha’s dialogue, it’s the same as the previous example. Just replace the second speaker’s dialogue with the action. In this case, there is no need to start a new paragraph:

“They’re—” A tractor beam lifted Alisha into the air, cutting her off mid-sentence.

But what if she continues speaking after the interruption?

This is where editors differ, and the Chicago Manual offers absolutely no guidance.

I’ve seen three options:

1. Treat the interruption like a dialogue tag:

“They’re,” a tractor beam lifted Alisha into the air, “coming.”

You already know I hate it when writers punctuate things that are not dialogue tags like dialogue tags.

Did a tractor beam lifting Alisha into the air say, “They’re coming”? No. UGH.

2. End the first part of the dialogue with an em dash and closing double quotation marks. Begin the second part of the dialogue with opening double quotation marks and an em dash. Treat the middle like its own independent sentence:

“They’re—” A tractor beam lifted Alisha into the air. “—coming.”

This is my preference. It’s a clear and elegant solution.

3. End the first part of the dialogue with closing double quotation marks and then an em dash. Begin the second part of the dialogue with an em dash and then opening double quotation marks. The middle is not its own independent sentence:

“They’re”—a tractor beam lifted Alisha into the air—”coming.”

Some editors like this option for actions that occur simultaneously with the dialogue but do not interrupt it. I guess I can see that point. But it would be clearer and easier to just place those actions ahead of the dialogue:

A tractor beam lifted Alisha into the air. “They’re coming.”


Your Turn

 

I shared the insignificant “error” that never fails to get under my skin. Now it’s your turn.

Do you have a grammatical pet peeve? Tell me in the comments.How to Punctuate a Conversation

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