Some Tips for Quotations and Dialogue
Good narrative writing commonly involves dialogue – conversation between two or more characters in a story. Allowing characters to speak for themselves is a great way to reveal their personalities. It shows what a character is like rather just telling about him. It permits the reader to draw his own conclusions. As much as possible, let your characters be heard.
Mastering the mechanics of dialogue tends to be a problem for student writers, but this lesson will help you. It’s really not that hard to remember what to indent and where to put punctuation marks.
Quotation marks are used to identify the exact words spoken by a character. In American English, commas and periods are always placed inside the quotation marks:
Incorrect: “That is the ugliest hat I’ve ever seen”.
Correct: “That is the ugliest hat I’ve ever seen.”
Incorrect: “I don’t know”, said Wilma, “where I left my shoe.”
Correct: “I don’t know,” said Wilma, “where I left my shoe.”
Question marks and exclamation points require a little thinking. If you are quoting a question or an exclamation, the question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotes:
Tom asked, “What time is the dance?”
Tom yelled, “My sandwich is missing!”
If, however, a quote that is not a question or exclamation appears inside a sentence that is itself a question or an exclamation, put the appropriate punctuation on the outside of the quotation marks:
I told you never to say, “I don’t like oysters”!
Why do you think Elmer said, “My name isn’t Elmer”?
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Sentences in quotation marks, just like all sentences, should begin with a capital letter.
Most quotes are qualified by conversational tags. These tags explain who is doing the talking. Examples include: he said, she replied, the witness stated, the boy stuttered, etc. If a conversational tag comes before the quotation, use a comma after it:
Michael stammered, “I believe that’s my hat you’re wearing.”
If the tag comes after the quotation, place a comma, question mark, or exclamation point inside the quotation marks:
“I beg your pardon, but this hat belongs to me,” he replied.
It is common for the conversational tag to interrupt the words of a quotation. In this case, use commas before and after the interrupting tag. The first goes inside the quotation marks, remember:
“I am quite certain,” Michael insisted, “that the hat is mine.”
When writing dialogue, begin a new paragraph every time your speaker changes. This rule is designed to help the reader keep track of who is speaking.
The teacher paused and spun around. “Eric, what do you think you are doing?”
“Me?” Eric gulped, “I was just, um, looking for a pencil.”
Mr. Wilson was too quick for that one. “You appear to have a pencil behind your ear. Why would you be looking for it in Miss Randle’s desk?”
“Actually, Mr. Wilson,” the boy replied, “I wasn’t looking for a pencil.”
“No?” Mr. Wilson said with mock surprise.
“No, I was planting a miniature tracking device in Laura’s notebook. I’m actually an undercover CIA agent.”
Mr. Wilson didn’t find this amusing, but the class burst into laughter.
Writing realistic dialogue is difficult. It requires a keen ear for the subtleties of human speech. Good dialogue writers must be good listeners. They must be able to pick up on the expressions and rhythms of ordinary conversation and reproduce them in written form.
There is no easy way to learn how to write interesting, believable dialogue. It just takes practice. As you write dialogue, read your words aloud to see if they have the feel of real human speech. Is this the way people really talk to one another?
We appreciate comments! Leave yours below.
No, it was not intentional. I think it was a cut and paste error. Thanks for pointing it out. I have corrected the problem.
Hi there! Thank you for the post. I was wondering if you intentionally left out the quotations on two of the lins above? This really helps. I posted the the two lines. Slow. Perhaps it is just my iPad?
No?” Mr. Wilson said with mock surprise.
Mr. Wilson was too quick for that one. “You appear to have a pencil behind your ear. Why would you be looking for it in Miss Randle’s desk?