“Say What?”–Where Do I Put the Quotation Marks?
This will probably be review for all of my readers, but we can’t talk about dialogue without talking about the technicalities of it.
Where quotation marks come in relationship to other punctuation can be rather tricky, especially if you’re like me and you read not just American-published stuff, but British and Australian as well. If you’re outside of the U.S. reading this, please understand that the rules I will refer to apply to standards of American publishing. Also, this will focus on the use of quotation marks in fiction/prose writing.
As 99.99% of fiction writers already know, spoken dialogue is enclosed in quotation marks. A change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph:
“I’m sure they treat you like a celebrity down in Atlanta.”
“Hmm.” The author grimaced. “Yeah—and that’s one of the reasons I’m here now.”
A thrill of excitement rushed up Kirsten’s spine. “Are you here to research a new book?”
“No, but I’m sure this place and its history will give me some ideas. I’m moving here—to teach English and journalism at Boone College.”
“Oh—those lucky students! I’m sure you’ll be their favorite professor.”
“Thanks.” Ms. Hebert sipped the latte. “This is really good. How much do I owe you?”
Kirsten held her hands up in protest. “A visitor’s—or newcomer’s—first cup is always on the house.”
Periods vs. commas. A period is used when what comes after the closing quotation mark is a new sentence (all of the examples above). A comma is used when what follows is part of the same sentence—most often seen with “said/asked” dialogue tags or when an action beat comes in the middle of a line of dialogue:
“If you’ll just look at this,” she held the report out toward him, “I think you’ll understand.”
“I don’t want to look at it,” he said, turning away from her. “Just tell me what it says.”
When the sentence is complete, but you’re using a said or asked-type tag, you would use a comma and keep the attribution lower cased (as in the above example). If you aren’t using speaker attribution but action or introspection as your tag, you would end the dialogue with a period and capitalize what follows:
“I tried to convince myself it looked good.” He shook his head. “But it looked like baby puke.”
Interrupted speech. An em dash is used to indicate an interruption:
“What in the—”
“Look out!” Jeremy tackled her just before the bus hit her.
“How could you possibly think”—she jumped to her feet—“this wouldn’t upset me?”
(Yes, the first em dash comes outside of the quotation mark.)
The em dash is also used for interjections/parenthetical elements in the middle of a sentence. These are often what they refer to in drama as “asides.” Like parentheses, you must remember to close your em dash:
“When we went to the Grand Canyon—remember, the family trip back in high school—we went through Santa Fe on the way back.”
The em dash, as you’ll notice, does not have spaces on either side of it. It is achieved in MS Word by typing two hyphens – – (with no space between them) after the word where you want it. The keyboard shortcut is [ctrl][alt][number-pad minus sign] in the PC version of Word and [option][apple][number-pad minus sign] in Word for Mac.
One formatting problem Word has when using an em dash is that at the end of a piece of dialogue, it turns the quotation mark around the wrong way. There are two ways to eliminate this problem. In the PC version of Word, after your em dash, hit [ctrl][‘](apostrophe) then [shift][“]. This should turn the quotation mark the right way (this works for getting the apostrophe to face the correct direction at the beginning of a word, too). Or you can do it the cheap way: type your two hyphens followed by any random letter, followed by the quotation mark, then delete the random letter.
Faltering/Fading speech. An ellipsis is used to indicate when someone’s thought trails off, or to indicate that they’ve gone on and on and on but you’ve saved the reader the tedium of reading something you’ve either already shown before, or that it’s not important (shown through the other character’s bored reaction):
She shrugged. “Well, you know what they say . . .” Her voice drifted off.
“No, what do they say?”
Ellipses can be used at the beginning of a line of dialogue when a character has walked into a conversation in progress.
Quotations within quotations. When you are including a quote within a quote (such as a Bible verse), it goes in single quotation marks:
“When he said, ‘by any means necessary,’ I don’t think he meant bribery.”
(Notice, the comma goes inside the single quotes.)
“I think I know what he meant when he said, ‘by any means necessary.'”
(Like the previous example, the period goes before the single quote mark—because a period won’t change the meaning of the quote.)
“What did he mean when he said, ‘by any means necessary’?”
(Now the punctuation comes after the single quote, because the quoted statement isn’t a question. If I’d put the question mark inside the single quote, it would have changed the meaning of the quote.)
All punctuation would come after an apostrophe at the end of a sentence:
“How’re you doin’?”
The general rule for closing quotation marks and other punctuation, according to CMS 6.8, is that periods and commas always come before the closing quote mark. In standard dialogue, a question mark, exclamation point or other punctuation all come before the closing quotation mark (not after the speaker attribution if you’re using a said/asked dialogue tag).
When you have dialogue that’s a question or exclamation followed by a said or asked tag (though we’ll talk about eliminating those in another post), the attribution is not capitalized:
“How much is that blanket?” she asked.