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Punctuating Dialogue and an Exercise

Both my Creative Writing class and the two sophomore classes are writing short stories this week.  I want them to use dialogue, but dialogue is not a skill taught for any other kind of writing except for stories, and I realized I didn't have an exercise that addressed the punctuation problems.  So, in my unending pursuit of reinveting the wheel, I came up with this handout and exercise this morning.  I will undoubtably tweak it after you folks point out the glaring errors.  (I'm tickled by how my little example at the end turned out, by the way--I can see that it would be fun to play around with that, like rewriting it from Josh's point of view, or by having one of the characters furious at the other, or by having one of the characters trying to conceal a secret, etc.  Lots of possible variations)

I have several other dialogue related exercises, and, of course, a whole lecture devoted to the theory and practice of writing dialogue.

Punctuating Dialogue and a Dialogue Exercise


Punctuation rules:


-          Quote marks indicate that what is within them is exactly what the character said.

o   “Let’s go to the store for groceries!”

-          A quote mark introduces the quote and ends it, regardless of how long the character speaks. 

-          Ending punctuation marks go inside the quote marks.

o   “Larry is a great guy, but he can’t tell the truth.”

o   “Must you always invite your mother to go with us on a date?”

o   “I hope you brought the marshmallows!”

-          The dialogue tag is a part of the sentence that includes the quote. If the tag follows the quote, the first word is not capitalized. If the tag precedes the quote, the first word of the quote is capitalized.

o   “That’s a great car,” he said.

o   She said, “Would you put the cat out?”

-          A comma separates the dialogue tag and the quote. See previous examples.

-          A dialogue tag can interrupt a line of dialogue. When the dialogue continues after the interruption, the first word in the quotes is not capitalized. Notice the comma after the first part of the quote and after the dialogue tag.

o   “I wanted to see you,” Juliet said, “but my mom doesn’t like your family.”

-          In most cases, start a new paragraph when you change speakers, even if this creates very short paragraphs.

-          Do not put quotes back to back in the same paragraph so the quote marks are beside each other.


A Punctuation Exercise:

-          Choose a partner.

-          One of you will serve as a secretary.

-          Start a conversation:

o   Ask your partner a question.

o   The partner answers.

o   Follow up your question with another or a comment on the answer.

o   The partner replies.

-          Write down the entire conversation, punctuating it correctly but do not use dialogue tags or interrupting description, action or thoughts.  It might look like this:


“Are you practicing with the band tonight?”

“Yeah, we qualified for state, so we’re doing extra time.”

“Congrats! Where’s state this year?”

“Colorado Springs. The same place we did it last year.”


-          Now, rewrite it with interrupting description, action or thoughts before or after each line of dialogue. Be sure to punctuate it and paragraph it correctly. It might look like this.


Andrea tried to sound casual. “Are you practicing with the band tonight?” If Josh wasn’t busy, she would ask him for a ride home.

He smiled. “Yeah, we qualified for state, so we’re doing extra time.” His long hair had fallen across his eyes in a way that she found infuriatingly cute.

“Congrats! Where’s state this year?” She bit back her disappointment. He was always so busy!

Josh drummed his fingers on the table, probably tapping out the rhythm of one of their performance pieces, his mind clearly thinking about anything other than her.  “Colorado Springs. The same place we did it last year.” 


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 20th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
on theory and practice of writing dialogue.
Have to quibble with the lecture.

The question is, what would he or she say? The answer is entirely in language.

Eh, content matters too. Suppose one character forces another to help a third. The third character is grateful to them both. Regardless of language used, whether the first character reveals that the second one wouldn't have helped voluntarily is an answer to that question, independent of the language used.
Oct. 20th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
Re: on theory and practice of writing dialogue.
Probably a quibble on semantics. The advice, "the answer is entirely in language," is supposed to mean that the wording of her content is a language issue. How would this character word the answer? The content is, of course, vital, but different characters would word it differently.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )