I’m in the middle of reading Stephen King’s On Writing at the moment and his perspective on writing with a writer’s toolbox intrigued me greatly. For those who haven’t read it, he claims that every writer needs a (metaphorical) toolbox at their disposal anytime they write. Having it close at hand whenever one might need it is important as a serious writer because you never know when you might need to know how to use an Oxford comma or correctly punctuate a heated exchange between two characters. He claims that there should be four levels to your toolbox, the first of which should include knowledge of grammar rules. It is in that vein that I start today’s post about dialogue attributes and other rules for punctuating dialogue that I didn’t already cover in Part I.
I’m going to start with looking at attributes again, but this time in order to look at when to capitalize the word that follows someone’s spoken phrase.
Consider the following example:
“Move over!” said Harriet. “There isn’t enough room in the back seat!”
Even though the first part of the sentence spoken aloud ends in an exclamation point (which you will notice is inside of the quotation marks), the attribute still starts with a lowercase s on the word said.
The same rule applies when you end in a question mark instead of an exclamation point:
“Are you coming?” she asked. “The bus is just about to leave.”
You will notice in both of these examples that the dialogue attribute ends in a period rather than a comma (see Part I about when to use a comma when the attribute interrupts the spoken line).
The basic rule to keep in mind about capitalization in dialogue attributes is this: Unless your attribute starts with a name (“Go!” Harriett said.) or if your attribute starts the sentence (She said, “Go!”), it should not be capitalized.
The other part of dialogue we haven’t discussed yet has to do with paragraphing. How do you know when to start a new paragraph?
The first rule (and probably the one you remember from high school English class) is that whenever there is a new speaker (or a new action by a new speaker), you need a new paragraph, like this:
“Do you think it will rain today?” Harriett asked, gazing out the window of the third-floor hotel room.
Forrest scowled. He wasn’t in the mood for rain. Not today.
“I should have brought my rain boots,” Harriett said. “I don’t want to get my sandals wet.”
“Something else has been bothering me,” he said, not willing to meet her eye.
We should also pay attention to paragraphing within dialogue when a character speaks for a long time. In that case, the rule is — in this writer’s opinion — less intuitive.
If a speaker has a line that spreads across multiple paragraphs, any paragraph that isn’t the final one ends without a quotation mark and only a period, exclamation point, or question mark. Then, subsequent paragraphs start without a leading quotation mark. The final quotation mark is placed at the very end of the last paragraph only, like this:
“Look,” Harriett said, fidgeting with the hem of her t-shirt, “I know what you’re going to say. I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately. I’ve just been worried about the rain and the farm and I know that isn’t an excuse. I just…I know that it’s been hard for you, too. I’m not discounting that, but I just can’t do this right now.
It goes back to when we were in New York and you didn’t want to go up to the top of the Statue of Liberty because you were afraid. I just don’t think I can be with someone who is scared of heights. It’s a deal breaker for me.
Don’t try to talk me out of it, either. I’ve made up my mind and I’m leaving at the end of the week. I was going to wait to tell you, but it was eating me alive. I’m sorry.”
If there are any other bits of dialogue and punctuation surrounding it that I haven’t addressed, let me know in the comments!
Sources referenced for this post:
- Hill, B. (2010, December 10). Punctuation in Dialogue. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/
- Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.