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Formatting dialogue

One of the most common issues encountered on Lush Stories, even among the most talented and experienced writers, is improper formatting of dialogue and reported speech. All too often, good pieces of writing are ruined by the lack of this basic skill. The topics covered in this guide are:

Quote marks

Dialogue and reported speech are set off by punctuation marks, 'either single ones', "or double ones". Either form is acceptable, but usage should be consistent throughout the story. Quotation marks set off direct speech in dialogue. Without it, some sentences would make no sense at all:

The dog said Susan is on the couch.

vs.

"The dog," said Susan, "is on the couch."

Punctuation and capitalisation

The comma is used extensively when punctuating dialogue and reported speech. Direct speech should always begin with an upper-case letter and end-of-speech punctuation is always contained within the speech marks, not outside it. If dialogue occurs more than once in one sentence, then subsequent dialogue may begin with either an uppercase or a lowercase letter.

"Stuart," she yelled, "Don't go! I need you, baby."

Alternatively:

"Stuart," she yelled, "don't go! I need you, baby."

Both forms are acceptable. Note the comma after "Stuart" goes before the closing speech marks. Also, the "she" is not capitalised. In this type of sentence, the dialogue tag ("she yelled") following the speech should not be capitalised unless it employs a proper noun. The same applies to question marks and exclamation points:

"Where are you?" he called out, whirling in the cavernous space.

When addressing people, always precede or surround their name with commas:

"Good morning, Stuart. How did you know that I was here?"

"Well, it was Lisa who told me."

"Sit down, Stuart, and start eating."

Proper punctuation is important and can save lives! The excited request to be fed:

"Let's eat, Grandma!"

is very different from the cannibalistic:

"Let's eat Grandma!"

Proper dialogue punctuation also serves to clarify matters. Consider this badly-formatted dialogue:

"you were told to come home before midnight weren't you?" She said, I nodded "well then what excuse do you have for being so late?"

It should be written and punctuated as follows:

"You were told to come home before midnight, weren't you?" she said. I nodded. "Well then! What excuse do you have for being so late?"

Paragraphing

Always make a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. This is a rule that cannot be compromised under any circumstances. Failure to do this only causes confusion, lack of clarity and break in flow as the reader tries to figure out who is speaking to whom. Here is a properly-formatted exchange:

He smiled and asked, "How was your day?"

She tossed her jacket onto the couch and looked directly at him.

"Tough," she responded. "They had giraffe on the menu."

"Yum!"

Even though these sentences are very short, a new line is absolutely necessary every time the speaker changes. A second line of narrative can go between the dialogue in a separate paragraph or could have been combined with the third line.

Quotes within quotes

If you quote within a quote, for whatever reason, use the other speech marks in order to set it apart, i.e., if you ordinarily use double quotes then use single quotes and vice-versa:

"You know what? Linda once said, 'If anyone goes near my husband, I'll claw her eyes out', and I have no doubt she would."

Pat doubted that she would "claw her eyes out" but was well aware of Linda's mean streak.

Notes:

  • In the last line, although nothing is actually being said, speech marks are used to indicate a direct quote.
  • The comma goes outside of the quoted quote 'If anyone goes near my husband, I'll claw her eyes out' because the comma is punctuating the entire sentence and is not part of the quoted dialogue itself.

That last point also applies when quoting a question:

"Is it right that she said, 'John called Dan a liar'?"

and also for inline quoting:

Upon reading John's text message, she was feeling "burned out" herself, and was more than ready to be whisked away to "somewhere hot and sunny".

It's clear from the way this sentence is constructed that the text in quotes is taken directly from the aforementioned text message. Notice the final period falls outside the speech marks again because it's not part of the quote.