It’s all talk: Part II – How to use paragraphing in dialogue and when to capitalize attributes

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!

Happy writing!

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It’s all talk: Part I – How to punctuate dialogue

Dialogue punctuation is another topic I get asked about all the time because it seems there are a lot of rules surrounding it. Learning where to place punctuation marks can sometimes be overwhelming, so I’ll try to give you some basic rules to follow.

Let’s look at punctuation. There are three basic dialogue situations with specific punctuation rules associated with them:

The first is when the character’s speech is followed by the attribute (sometimes also called a speech tag, the attribute refers to the part of the sentence that tells us who is speaking). In the example sentence below, the attribute is Harriett said:

“I don’t want to scare you, but the door was unlocked all night,” Harriett said.

A couple of important rules are applied in the example above:

  • The part being spoken aloud must be completely contained within quotation marks.
  • A comma should be placed inside of the final quotation mark.

 

If we change that up a little bit, the second situation occurs when the character’s speech is preceded by the attribute.

Harriett said, “I don’t want to scare you, but the door was unlocked all night.”

A few things change here:

  • There must be a comma after the word said.
  • The first letter of the sentence inside the quotation marks should be capitalized.
  • The ending punctuation (in this case, a period) is inside the quotation marks.

 

The third situation is when the character’s speech is interrupted by the attribute.

“I don’t want to scare you,” Harriett said, “but the door was unlocked all night.”

We need to add to what we’ve just learned when we interrupt speech like this. Here are the two new rules that apply:

  • A comma must be placed after the attribute (in this case, after the word said).
  • The first letter inside the second set of quotation marks should NOT be capitalized (in this example, the word but).

BUT, there is another situation when this interruption changes these rules. If the dialogue before the attribute forms a complete sentence, the punctuation changes slightly, like this:

“I don’t want to scare you,” Harriett said. “The door was unlocked all night.”

Because I’ve removed the coordinating conjunction but, I’ve created two complete sentences, so the rules change a little bit. Now:

  • Instead of a comma after the attribute, we need a period to end the sentence (after the word said).
  • Because of this, the first letter inside the second set of quotation marks needs to be capitalized (in this example, the word The).

 

Once you know the rules above, you can play around with your attributes, adding in descriptions or movements the character is making while they talk. This is where your texture and writing style come in and you can have some fun while giving the reader some insight into the scene’s dynamics.

In Part II, which I’ll post later this week, I will be addressing Dialogue Attributes (Should you say said Harriett or Harriett said? What about shrieked or bawled or another descriptive attribute?) and Structure (Where do I start a new paragraph? What if my character’s speech is really long?), so please subscribe to updates if you’re interested in learning more!

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: My best suggestion for learning the grammar of any part of writing is to read! Pay attention to how other author’s do things. The quickest reference you’ll ever have for grammar, punctuation, and spelling is any book on your bookshelf. 🙂

Do you have any other questions about dialogue or any other bit of grammar or usage? Leave them in the comments below or use the contact page and I’ll try to address them in future posts!

Happy writing!

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commas

What is a comma splice, anyway? A quick look at commas, comma splices, and Oxford commas.

Commas are by far my favorite bit of punctuation. They serve so many purposes and can easily fix misunderstandings or be the bane of your existence. Hopefully, this post will help you to understand how to identify some common problems and learn how to fix them.

While this might be a fairly large topic, I’ll try to cover it as succinctly as possible. I know that writers are a busy lot and reading about commas for too long might make your eyes glaze over.

Let’s start with some general comma rules. It is incredibly easy to overuse commas because it seems like we should put one anywhere we might take a breath or naturally pause if saying the sentence out loud. Sometimes this rule works, and sometimes it leads to sentences that have more commas than Mark Zuckerberg’s paycheck.

Keeping the following comma rules in mind as you write will help you avoid losing your reader in a sea of unnecessary punctuation:

  1. Use commas after introductory phrases or words that come before your main thought.
    • Introductory phrase: When Harriett looked outside, she saw that it was raining.
    • Words that come before you main thought: Unfortunately, Harriett did not own rain boots.
  2. Use commas around phrases that are not vital for your sentence to make sense. If you can take the phrase out of your sentence completely without changing the meaning,  it needs commas around it. This also applies to appositive phrases (phrases that give a description of the subject in different words).
    • Phrase with nonvital information: Instead of rain boots, which would have been better, Harriett had heels.
      • You can double check this by deciding if “Instead of rain boots, Harriet had heels” still makes sense with the phrase taken out.
    • Appositive phrase: Harriett, a relatively short girl, usually wore heels.
  3. Use commas to separate items in a list (we will get into the Oxford comma below), or multiple adjectives describing the same noun.
    • Items or actions in a list: Harriett had to pick up her sister, go grocery shopping, and make it back in time for her daughter’s dance recital.
    • Adjectives describing the same noun: Harriett went outside into the cold, dark rain with a determined look on her face.
  4. Use a comma before someone is called by name or is referred to with one word (like a pet name or titles like grandpa or mom).
    • Harriet called her sister and said, “Amy, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
    • Her sister replied, “Sounds good, love!”

 

Now that we know the basics of the comma, let’s move on to the comma splice. What exactly is it and how do we avoid it?

A comma splice occurs when two complete sentences (known as independent clauses) are separated by only a comma.

Here is an example:

There were lots of people at the party, some of them even looked like they were having fun.

One of my fellow teachers explains it like this: “That poor comma in the middle is trying to do the work of a much stronger punctuation mark.” Because both the clause before the comma and the one after the comma are complete sentences, they should be separated by something more than a period.

So, how do you fix a comma splice? You have a few options:

  1. Change the comma to a period. Easy peasy!
    • There were lots of people at the party. Some of them even looked like they were having fun.
  2. If the two sentences are closely related, change the comma to a semicolon.
    • There were lots of people at the party; some of them even looked like they were having fun.
  3. Add a coordinating conjunction to give your comma some support. A quick trick for remembering coordinating conjunctions is to use the acronym FANBOYS, which stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.
    • There were lots of people at the party, and some of them even looked like they were having fun.

 

Moving on to my favorite application of my favorite bit of punctuation: the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma (also known as a serial comma) refers to the comma that is used after the second-to-last item in a list.

In order to explain why this comma is so important, I give you my favorite example:

My role models are my parents, Gandhi, and Moana. With the Oxford comma in this sentence, we have a list of role models. But…dropping the Oxford comma changes the meaning drastically.

My role models are my parents, Gandhi and Moana. In this sentence, I am saying that my parents are Gandhi and Moana. It changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

 

Well, that’s all the comma goodness I have for you today! Leave a comment with something new you learned!

As always, if there’s something specific you’d like me to address in my posts going forward, please visit my contact page to let me know about it!

Happy writing!

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Welcome to Ink Draft

There are many reasons I’ve wanted to start a writing blog. I think the most useful one to you that I can think of is to make my blog not only a place for my own fiction writing and author profile, but also a resource for you.

I plan to make this space somewhere you can find everything from grammar, punctuation, word usage, and writing tips, as well as a place where you can request specific content that you’d like to see addressed (never learned how to use hyphens properly or want to know how to build a fictional world? Tell me about it and I’ll make a post addressing your topic!).

I’m a high school English teacher during the day and I have always been passionate about grammar and usage and writing. I hold an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Education (well, almost! I graduate next month!), so this blog is a place to share both of those things with you, for your benefit and for mine. To learn about me, my journey to writing, and my credentials, click here.

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