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Punctuating Dialogue: The Wilder Shores

Last week I wrote about basic dialogue punctuation, and people wanted more, so here it is. If you aren’t up for XXXX Hot Ellipsis Action, bail out now.

In this post we’re going to do ellipses, em dashes, and the different impressions you can give of broken, hesitant, or simultaneous speech. Before we go any further, though, a reminder: Punctuation is not something handed down from on high. It is a convention by which writers attempt to convey the patterns of language—and language is spoken, not written. Punctuating dialogue is an exercise in making readers translate the marks on the page into dialogue that sounds the way you want in their head.

So don’t think, “I must make my dialogue punctuation correct according to CMOS*.” Think: “My punctuation must convey the way my characters are speaking.” And that has to be done within conventions (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy or whatever), because shared conventions are how writing works—but the aim, the goal, the point here is for you to represent your character’s cadences and meanings as accurately as possible.

*CMOS=Chicago Manual of Style, a collection of notes made by some people on how they thought American English should be written down. A style manual. Not to be confused with “an eternal and immutable universal truth”.

Break or trail?

An overview of basic em dash and ellipsis use and their different effects. I wrote on this subject in a previous blog post so I’m copying lots of it here to save my sanity.

… is an ellipsis (plural ellipses), and indicates hesitation or trailing off

— is an em dash and indicates a break or interruption

In the following string of examples, we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.

Em dash

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.

The dash here indicates Natalie shoving herself into Jenny’s speech, talking at the same time.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.

Here Natalie (OR IS SHE???) consciously interrupts to stop Jenny. We need the dash to show Jenny’s speech is broken.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”

There was a massive explosion and the roof fell in.

Jenny is interrupted by an external factor.

Ellipsis

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?

“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.

A phonetic transcript might render this as “Yooouuu’re” as Jenny drags the word out in a pathetic attempt to pretend she hasn’t forgotten the name.

“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.

“Natalie.”

Jenny has Romance Heroine Speech Impediment. There is no cure..

Action within dialogue

You can use em dashes to work action into a speaker’s dialogue. People often get tripped by this, but once you grasp what the punctuation is doing it’s easy to tell which to go for.

Read the following. In both, Frederick is telling Edith he knows she shot Mabel. What’s happening differently?

Example 1

“This”—he held it out to her as he spoke—“is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Example 2

“This—” he held it aloft then threw it onto the table with a clatter “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

 

 

*** pause for thought***

 

 

Example 1 is continuous speech. The action goes on simultaneously with the words. Therefore, the em dashes are outside the quotation marks because they are not part of the dialogue. In a playscript we’d represent it as:

FREDERICK:  This is the gun with which you shot Mabel. [He holds it out as he speaks]

Example 2 is interrupted speech, therefore the em dashes go within the quote marks to show a pause in the flow of speech. However, the action is part of a continuity of Frederick doing stuff (speaking or acting) so it’s all part of the same sentence. Thus there is no cap or full stop on the interpolation. In a playscript:

FREDERICK:  This [he throws it onto the table; she jumps] is the gun with which you shot Mabel.

You might think of it as “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel” vs “This! is the gun with which you shot Mabel” but we don’t punctuate like that outside Twitter.

Just ask yourself if the speech is continuous or interrupted and you’ll get this right.

A Digression: interpolations and point of view

If the interpolation is about someone who is not the speaker, you can risk confusing the reader. Be very wary. Here Frederick is speaking, but Edith is the subject of the interpolation.

“This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

That seems fine in isolation, but let’s have a look how it works in text.

Edith POV

She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?

Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Frederick POV

He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” she cried out as he pointed it at her “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

In Edith POV we could easily misattribute the dialogue to her. In Frederick POV, this risks looking like POV slippage. Frankly, I’d rewrite both, in the first example to clarify the dialogue attribution (probably ditching the break as overcomplicated), in the second to make Frederick the subject.

She wound her fingers together. Frederick’s face was set and angry. Could he know? Did he suspect?

Frederick turned, and she saw with disbelieving horror that he had a gun in his hand, that he was pointing it at her. She let out a hoarse shriek as he said, “This is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

Or

He tried to hold back his loathing. He was going to destroy her for what she’d done to her own sister, his beloved, and it was all the better that she didn’t see it coming. He drew the gun from his pocket. “This—” he pointed it at her and relished her shriek “—is the gun with which you shot Mabel.”

It’s easily done, so keep an eye out.

Stopping and starting

After a break, you may go back to where you left off; or you may go into a new sentence. Punctuate the second part accordingly.

“I would tell you”—he shrugged—“but I’d have to kill you.”

“I would tell you, but…” He gave her a helpless look.  “Anyway, let’s talk about your mum.”

Equally, in interrupty dialogue, consider if the interruptions are new sentences or part of a single sentence (which may be shared between two speakers) and punctuate accordingly. Have a read of this and see how the different breaks work.

“The fact is—” Jim began.

“—you’re an alien,” Matt said over him. “We know, and—”

“We know and we don’t care!” Chloe interrupted. “We love you, Jim, only…”

She shot a desperate glance at Matt, who braced himself to say it. “Only, it’s the, uh, the…” he made waggly finger gestures “…tentacles.”

“But without the tentacles—”

“—which are kind of a big deal, if I’m honest—”

“—we wouldn’t even have noticed. Well, you know, the tentacles and the, uh… Well, we don’t need to talk about the smell.”

“The smell? But”—Jim was going red—“the smell is one of my best features.”

And, for your analytical pleasure, a breakdown. Kind of like the one this post is giving me.

speech analysis new

Note on ellipses: There is any amount of disagreement on punctuating ellipses. British use doesn’t put a full stop after an ellipsis that ends the sentence (on the grounds that the ellipsis is the punctuation), US does.

If you trail off with an ellipsis, and then have an interpolation, you can punctuate for a new sentence or for an extremely hesitant single sentence.

“Yes, but…” He made a face. “You’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, starts again]

“Yes, but…” he made a face “…you’re wrong.” [Trails off, makes face, trails back on again to complete sentence]

You don’t put ellipses outside the quote marks. See this wrongness:

X “Yes, but”…he opened his hands…”you’re wrong.”

It doesn’t work because punctuating dialogue like this, outside the quotes, shows us the action is simultaneous with the speech, and the dialogue itself is continuous (without the interpolation it reads “Yes but you’re wrong.”). There is no hesitation happening anywhere, therefore it makes no sense to use ellipses. Use em dashes or move the ellipses inside the quote marks, depending on whether you mean a break or a hesitation.

***

Is this all immensely complicated and making you sweat? Okay, look. The line of dialogue “You think I’m lying but I saw an alien” can be presented in the following ways, and this is not an exhaustive list. Exhausting, but not exhaustive.

“You think I’m lying but…I saw an alien.” [no space]

“You think I’m lying but— I saw an alien.” [space after em dash, new sentence]

“You think I’m lying but…” He trailed off, then made a face. “I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying but—” he thumped the table in frustration “—I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying but”—his eye was twitching violently now—“I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying.” He sounded exhausted, almost despairing. His voice dropped to a mumble. “But I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly, “but I saw an alien.”

“You think I’m lying,” he said bitterly. “But I saw an alien.”

All of those are grammatically correct. All of them have different implications as to the cadence, the pauses, the meaning of the speaker, the rhythm of the prose. (Exercise: go through that list and ask yourself what each one says about how the line is delivered—tiny pause, bigger pause, with simultaneous action, as two separate parts…)

Working with editors

One final note here, but an important one.

The author’s job is to be aware of what you want your dialogue to say, and pick the punctuation that supports it. If you aren’t sure you’ve done it right, ask your editor for help. The editor’s job is to ensure you’ve done what you want to do correctly within the conventions.

If the editor suggests changing ellipses to em dashes “because you use ‘interrupted’ as a verb, and this section appears to be broken speech”, that is helping you use punctuation to support your meaning. That’s her job. Equally, if the editor points out that you’ve broken two-thirds of your dialogue with dashes and asks you to consider varying your structure because it’s becoming really noticeable, she’s doing what she’s paid for.

If, on the other hand, edits come back with ellipses changed to em dashes “because that’s house style” or “because CMOS says…” (rather than “because this is an interruption, not a hesitation”), that is not okay. CMOS doesn’t know what you meant in that sentence; house style is unlikely to cover every possible nuance of punctuation. Maybe house style will reflect your meaning as well as or better than your original, but maybe it won’t. You need to check this, and be sure that your meaning is the editor’s no.1 priority. (I’d like to say “a good editor won’t do this to you”, but there are publishers who enforce an inflexible house style on editors who would rather not, as well as plenty of places who hire people with no damn experience.)

The only real defence against bad advice is for you to be confident in your knowledge. I stet the hell out of attempts to change my punctuation in ways with which I disagree, but I have a lot of experience and an, uh, uncompromising personality. The more you learn, and the more you equip yourself with the tools of the trade, the more able you’ll be to say, “No, I know what I meant, and that’s how I want to express it.”

(I have Opinions on any form of editing that prioritises the style guide over the author’s voice, intent, or meaning. Buy me a pint some day and I’ll tell you all about it. Meanwhile, see here for the very useful word stet.)

______________________

KJ Charles writes, edits, and probably puts too much thought into punctuation. Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January, and don’t imagine for a second that comma was a casual choice. An Unseen Attraction, first in the new Victorian trilogy Sins of the Cities, follows in February, and before then there’s a short novella in a December horror collection. More on that soon!

 

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Punctuating Dialogue, and Other Interesting Things*

*I lied about the other interesting things. Sorry.

I talk a lot about the importance of cleaning up your own garbage in your MS before you send it to an editor. You need an editor, no debate. But there are some things anyone can do beforehand to save time and money: see my posts on self editing here on development edits and here for line edits.

One of the most common things I deal with as an editor is incorrectly punctuated speech. A lot of people apparently don’t know the conventions, or how to use them, and I see an awful lot of this in published books. (NB: Some authors are not native speakers, didn’t get the sort of education that teaches you this stuff, or are dyslexic or otherwise neurodivergent. No sneering, please.)

Speech punctuation is really important for clarity of reading. And if you consistently get it wrong in a MS, it creates literally hours of pointless, grubbing, repetitive work for an editor. (Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap. Change full stop to comma, remove cap.) That will be time for which you may be charged if self pubbing; the editor will doubtless miss some however hard she tries, so your MS will be riddled with errors; most of all, it is incredibly distracting. Editors are only human. If we become focused on the detail work of tidying up your speech punctuation we can easily miss bigger problems.

speech 1

Speech punctuation is something you can learn to get right. It will support your meaning, and free up your editor to do better things.

I’m now going to go over the real basics in mind-numbing detail. Some may think this is Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious; feel free to move on. I can only say, I have spent weeks and months of my life fixing this stuff, and read (paid for) far too many books in which it has not been fixed.

An X will indicate an example that is wrong diddly wrong.

***

Standalone speech

A speech unit can stand on its own, ending with a full stop, exclamation mark, question mark, ellipsis or dash.

“Here is the gun.” [statement]

“He’s got a gun!” [exclamation]

“Where is the gun?” [question]

“I did have a gun, but…” [broken speech: tailing off]

“I did have a gun, but—” [broken speech: interruption by self or other]

Any of these can act as a complete sentence by itself. If that’s the case, the next sentence is a new sentence and begins with a capital letter.

“Here is the gun.” The man held it out.

“Where is the gun?” He looked baffled, as well he might.

***

Speech with speech tag

Let’s say you want to add a speech tag to the speech. That turns the standalone utterance into one part of a single sentence (in which the sentence is made up of utterance plus speech verb). You may have to change the punctuation to indicate this.

Statement

“Here is the gun,” he said.

Here, the full stop has changed to a comma because the unit “utterance plus speech verb” is one sentence. For avoidance of doubt, it’s just the last sentence in the dialogue that needs amending.

“Here is the gun. Please shoot Edith,” he said.

This is how it works for any speech tag, not just ‘said’.

“Here is the gun,” he snapped.

What you will very often see is this:

X “I have the gun.” He said.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, handing it to her.

That’s wrong. “He said” is not a complete sentence. It needs either an object (see below) or the speech to make a complete sentence.

Either you punctuate these as one sentence, utterance plus tag:

“Here is the gun,” he said, handing it to her.

“I have the gun,” he snapped.

Or you set as standalone utterances followed by standalone sentences that tag the speech—that is, two sentences.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her as he spoke.

“I have the gun.” He sounded irritable, as though he thought she should have known.

.

Exclamations, questions, interruptions, hesitations

These don’t need the punctuation changing when speech tags are added. The speech tag becomes part of a single sentence as above, utterance plus tag, lower case.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

“Where is the gun?” he asked.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” he said.

“But the gun—” she began.

If the tag is a standalone sentence, punctuate as such.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words and heard them echo off the cathedral walls.

“Where is the gun?” He asked the question with a bored detachment that gave her chills.

“Well, there was a gun somewhere…” He shuffled his feet as he spoke.

“But the gun—” She snapped her mouth shut at his look.

 

***

Speech Tags that Aren’t

There is a tendency for authors to use things that are not speech verbs as speech tags. So we see, e.g., ‘smiled’ or ‘nodded’ or ‘grimaced’ used as speech verbs.  Please watch out for this. If it isn’t a thing you do with your mouth (or fingers, in sign language) that produces words, it isn’t a speech verb, because nodding and smiling don’t create words. If you would like to argue with me about this, carry on, as long as you do so only by means of nodding, smiling, and grimacing.

X “Here is the gun,” he smiled.

Try the following instead:

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling.

“Here is the gun.” He smiled.

We also see this usage extended to action markers.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

That is two sentences—a standalone utterance followed by a new sentence. Don’t punctuate it like a speech tag if it’s not one.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

***

All this excruciating detail adds up to one simple question: Is it one sentence or two? Is it a standalone utterance followed by a standalone sentence, or is it one sentence consisting of an utterance plus a speech tag? Easy way to check: read the second sentence alone and ask yourself if it works as a complete sentence in English.

The following aren’t English sentences:

X He said, and handed it to her.

X He said.

Therefore punctuate as one sentence along with the speech.

“Here is the gun,” he said, and handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun.” He said, and handed it to her.

The following are English sentences

He handed it to her.

He smiled.

Therefore punctuate as two sentences with the speech.

“Here is the gun.” He handed it to her.

X “Here is the gun,” he handed it to her.

Notice that it makes a difference if the speech verb takes an object. This frequently trips people up. In the following examples using “she shouted”, I’ve marked the object of the speech verb in bold italic.

Here the speech verb doesn‘t work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

Without speech:

X She shouted.

Here, the speech verb has an object and thus does work as a sentence on its own without the speech:

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

Without speech:

She shouted the words.

Therefore, you need two sentences if the speech verb has a separate object, or one sentence if it’s referring to the speech itself.

X “He’s got a gun!” she shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” She shouted the words.

“He’s got a gun!” she shouted.

***

Oh, and if you know all this and you mean to type, “Hello,” she said, but you accidentally type a full stop instead of a comma, Word will autocorrect to “Hello.” She said anyway, despite your best intentions. So that’s good.

***

MASSIVE APPENDIX KLAXON

Anna Butler in the comments reminds me that dialogue tags can be tricky the other way around. A brief summary, then:

There are three basic forms of tagged speech as above: simple tag, tag with action, non-speech marker.

“Here is the gun,” he said. [simple tag]

“Here is the gun,” he said, smiling. [tag with action]

“Here is the gun.” He smiled. [Marker, not a speech tag]

If presenting these the other way around, i.e. tag first, just remember that the speech unit doesn’t alter.  If the speech unit is a sentence with a capital letter, it stays that way–there is no reason for it to change. Here the unit is “Here is the gun.”

He said, “Here is the gun.”

He said, smiling, “Here is the gun.”

He smiled. “Here is the gun.”

And therefore

He asked, “Where is the gun?”

He said, “Well, there was a gun somewhere…”

She began, “But the gun—”

***

Okay? Right. Something more interesting next time, honest. [Edit: Sorry, also a lie. Next time: how to break speech!]

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KJ Charles just finished an enemies-to-lovers story about a fraudulent spiritualist with murder, plots, hate sex, Victorian sensation, and the most bastardy hero she ever wrote. She felt you’d rather hear about the minutiae of dialogue punctuation because she is a marketing genius.

Her next book is Wanted, a Gentleman, which is about, among other things, an 1805 Lonely Hearts bureau and an unexpected road trip to Gretna.  It is also more interesting than this post. Although, almost anything would be.