Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Punctuating Dialogue Tags

One of the facets of writing I’ve always found to be the most challenging is dialogue. Particularly in fiction, but also in history, faction, and some other nonfiction genres, the ability to create dialogue that convinces the reader they are witnessing real conversation is invaluable. A story can limp through a weak description; it won’t survive weak dialogue.

There are many skills involved in creating memorable dialogue, but today I’m going to focus in on just one of them: punctuating tags, because there is little that brands our work “amateur” as much as getting the punctuation wrong.

Most of our public education educations—if they taught English grammar at all—did not teach us how to punctuate dialogue. They didn’t teach me anyway. What I have learned, I taught myself (and much of that has been wrong), or drew from my reading. That works, kind of, but is really inefficient. Sometimes what we need is a set of rules.

Therefore I present rules for punctuating dialogue tags.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “dialogue tags” are the little notices authors use to let the reader know who is speaking. “Arf,” she said. “She said” is the tag.

Punctuated with a comma.

When the dialogue is punctuated with a comma that separates it from the tag that immediately follows, the tag should not be capitalized and the comma goes inside the quotation mark. If the tag immediately precedes the dialogue, the comma goes after the tag, outside the quotation mark and the first word of the dialogue is capitalized.


“I’m so tired,” she said.                           Correct.

“I’m so tired” she said.                             Incorrect.

“I’m so tired,” She said.                           Incorrect.

He said, “Come here.”                               Correct

He said “Come here.”                                 Incorrect


Punctuated with a question mark or exclamation point.

If the dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point and the tags immediately follows, you still do not capitalize the tag.

“Quit that!” she yelled.          Correct.

“Quit that!” She yelled.           Incorrect.


Punctuated with a period.

Sometimes a dialogue ends in a period, and the dialogue tag that follows is capitalized. Technically, these are not actually dialogue tags because they are physical actions rather than a description of saying something. These actions are called beats or description beats and they are complete sentences on their own, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period.

“I guess.” He nodded.          Correct.

“I guess,” he nodded.           Incorrect.

“I guess.” He nodded.           Incorrect

“Happy?” She smiled.           Correct.


Inserted into the middle of a sentence.

A bit more complicated is when a dialogue tag is inserted into the middle off a sentence. When this happens, the tag is set off with commas and the sentence is capitalized as if the dialogue tag weren’t there.

“Honey,” his wife called, “come here!”          Correct.

“Honey,” his wife called, “Come here!”          Incorrect.

However, should the speaker be uttering two complete sentences, rather than one, it is correct to have a period after the tag, followed by a capital beginning the second dialogue. It can be used to change the nuance of the scene.

“Honey,” his wife called. “Help him!”             Correct.

“Honey!” his wife called. “Help him!”             Correct.

When an action interrupts a quote, the tag is still set off by commas. The rest of the dialogue sentence is not capitalized.

“You really think,” he swallowed hard, “she did that?”       Correct.

“You really think,” he swallowed hard. “She did that?”        Incorrect.

Be careful. Only set a dialogue tag off with commas when it’s interrupting a single sentence, not just between two sentences. To tell the difference, remove the dialogue tag and punctuate the sentence correctly, then insert the tag.


Be sure what you’re using is really a dialogue tag.

Some words and expressions often seen in dialogue aren’t really dialogue tags, but are mistaken for them by less experienced authors. Words such as “nodded,” “smiled,” “grimaced,” “laughed,” and “grinned” are actions, not means of speaking. As such, they are beats, not dialogue tags and should be treated as such: separated from the dialogue with a capital at the beginning and a period at the end.

“I did it.” He beamed.       Correct.

“I did it,” he beamed.         Incorrect.

In more practical terms, first impressions do count, and we don’t want the first impression an editor, agent, or publisher receives when looking at our work to be “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” It doesn’t matter how groundbreaking our content is, if it isn’t read.

More than anything else, we need to want to do it right.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: the Placeholder

Often in the writing life, we’ll be cruising along in our story until we come to a place where the dialogue (or description or whatever) just doesn’t ring true at first draft. Suddenly the entire flow of your story comes to a halt and you’re faced with a dilemma: fix the flawed dialogue, but lose all the momentum of your story; or leave the flawed portion and continue with the story, hoping you’ll be able to fix it in re-write, (providing you can remember what, where, and how you originally wanted it).

How many fantastic ideas have been lost over the years because of this? I know I have lost many, mostly because I have a horrible time coming up with names. It doesn’t matter what kind of name I need: a character, a town, a business, even a rock band once. All have caused my creative flow to screech to a halt.

It was a problem.

The solution to this dilemma is so simple I find it amazing I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Just insert a placeholder into the spot in question and move on. A placeholder is something (a symbol of some sort, easy to remember later or to find in a search) marking the place for further attention, along with a brief sketch of what you want in the final product.

I first used placeholders (consciously) in my most recent novel for character names. As I’ve said before, I have an awful time coming up with good names and the story will often languish for days while I try to decide what to call my main character’s best friend. This time, I smartened up. I just typed XX or AA where the name should be and moved on.

It was a wonderfully liberating development. Now I could just move on as fast as the story would come to me without worrying about it. After all, this was just a first draft and the most important goal here was to get the basic story down on paper. The time for anguishing over a character name is during re-write, not while you’re constructing a first draft.

However, the placeholder is not just a tool for managing our character names. It can be used wherever an imperfect part of the story threatens the story as a whole. Dialogue, description, even plot problems can be marked for further work and then left for later while you continue with the momentum of your first draft intact.

I also used placeholders (unconsciously it turns out) in the dialogue of the new novel. One of my beta readers pointed this out after reading an early draft. Her exact words were “everybody sure is nodding a lot.” Really? I hadn’t noticed. As it turns out, I had someone nodding six hundred thirty-five times in one hundred thousand words, about one nod every hundred and fifty words.

A tad excessive.

So I examined the usage more closely and discovered I wasn’t so much saying that the characters were actually nodding as that they weren’t responding immediately to whatever the other character had said. It was about the rhythm and pace of the conversation. The word “nod,” as I was using it, was place holding for some other form of activity. During the next re-write I fixed that, replacing “nodded” with what I really wanted to show them doing.

In both cases, I used an easily-found symbol (XX, “nodded”) to mark a passage for more detailed work in revision. In ongoing projects, I am continuing to do something similar. I am still using the XX to mark character names I don’t know yet. The “nodding” thing I’m not sure of yet, but that is always a possibility.

In my opinion, the momentum of a story is too important to jeopardize over some detail you can always fill in later. Face it, we’re going to re-write the whole thing anyway. So use a placeholder and keep the flow going.

Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part Two

Last week, I went over some of the notes I’d taken during the workshop I attended at the South Coast Writers Conference on dialogue, taught by Tess Thompson, author of seven romantic suspense novels. Much of it is refresher, but we all need to be reminded time and again, right?

This week, part two of dialogue, some of which I hadn’t actually put a name to, though I instinctively tried to use it in my own work.

But enough of my prattle. On with Notes on Dialogue, Part Two.

What to Avoid?

Dialogue is not a source of facts. This is not to say that there are no facts presented in dialogue, just that any facts presented are of less importance than the characterization. The primary place to reveal facts is narration/exposition.

Dialogue should not be used to describe people, places, or objects. Unless it’s in the context of characterization, (so what’s said may or may not be true).

Dialogue is not a substitute for narrative.

Dialogue is not used to express the extended brooding of a character. This almost never happens in real life (most people wouldn’t put up with it). Instead, this brooding type passage should be dealt with in internal speech or narrative.


Dialogue is not always grammatically correct. In fact, it usually isn’t. Most people, even the most highly-educated, seldom speak in complex or complete sentences. This gets worse in times of stress. Dialogue should reflect this, but not so tied to reality as to be boring.

Vernacular or Dialect

It is out of fashion these days to phonetically spell how people speak. It slows readers down and makes the dialogue hard to understand. Instead, suggest the difference through word and vocabulary choice, syntax, and content to render the dialect. Or you could just say she spoke with a deep southern drawl and leave it at that.


In ninety-nine percent of all cases, use the simplest attribution possible: he said, she said, etc. All you’re trying to do is show the reader who is talking where it can be confusing. Beyond that, “he said” is nearly invisible. Using clever attributions like “she surmised” or “he inquired” is amateurish and falls under the category of telling, not showing.

The other one percent forms the exception to the rule and should be limited to an occasional “whispered” or “groaned,” something that works.

This next portion is what I found particularly interesting, the non-vocal part of dialogue. I have been instinctively reaching for that aspect as my skill level increased, but never had a truly intellectual grasp of the subject before now. Now there it is, written in simple phrases, silence and subtext and how to use it to add richness and depth to our dialogue.

Other parts of dialogue (besides speaking).


It can be a method of conveying how something is said. If you show a character shaking his fist in someone’s face as he speaks, saying “he shouted” is unnecessary.

It adds realism and authenticity to the dialogue because it is how we experience conversation in real life. People talk with their hands, they slump back in their chairs, or lean forward over the table. Conversation is never a sterile exchange of words.

It adds subtext to the dialogue, such as when the gesture or body language does not match the words being spoken. A cliché’s example is the couple arguing. The woman finally says “Fine.” But everything about her body language says everything is not fine.


Think about it. Few real conversations involve non-stop talking. Real conversation is a collage of our own vocals, our conversation partner’s vocals, reaction to the other person’s speech, interactions with the physical environment, and memories awakened or associated by the experience.

The object of dialogue is to create an illusion of real conversation, not a faithful copy of real conversation. (Real conversation is boring for the most part.)

How to evoke the silences.

A descriptive passage of the setting.

We see this often (in real life) as people engaged in conversation enter a new room or building. Their conversation pauses as they acquaint themselves with their new surroundings. Dialogue mimics this by inserting a quick sketch of a new location, then the conversation resumes.

Provide an unspoken thought or memory as a reaction to something said.

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Someone in a conversation says something that triggers a memory. For a moment or two, we may even be concentrating on the memory so much we miss part of what is being said.

Provide an association related to the dialogue.

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or profound. Her dinner partner says something about the parking garage at work and she wonders whether she remembered to close her garage door.


What characters don’t say is as important (often more important) than what they do say. Using body language, gestures, and oblique references, the character will signal what they really want, even when it’s at odds with what they say they want.

Think of the age-old courtship rituals of the teen-aged human. She really, really wants him to ask her to the prom, but will go to great lengths to pretend it isn’t important to her. The boy will do the same, agonizing over the mixed signals he’s receiving, but pretending to not care. It would be so much easier if both would just admit what they want. But it would also be much less interesting.

That’s what we’re also shooting for in our fictional dialogue.

The best dialogue conveys what is being said as well as what is being implied.

Consider this passage from the master of understatement, Ernest Hemingway, in his story “Hills Like White Elephants:”

“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl looked at the beaded curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

The passage absolutely oozes unspoken tension between the couple, though nothing is actually said about the subject. In fact, they seem to be actively avoiding the subject of their disagreement as well as the disagreement itself.

It’s why I call him the master, because he is very, very good.


Characters need to be constantly saying (literally and figuratively) no to each other. This is what causes tension in the scene. Without it there is none and the scene should be cut.

The whole subject of non-verbal communication in fiction reminds me of a semi-famous quote from the jazz great Miles Davis. He was speaking about music, but the idea applies to the literary arts also.

“Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Great dialogue is not about the words our characters say; it’s the ones they don’t say.

Just something to think about.

And thanks again to Tess Thompson for providing these insights.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Registration Now Open For the South Coast Writers Conference

One of the many hats I am prone to wear (other than writer of fiction and blogger) is that of a member of the organizing committee of the South Coast Writers Conference, an annual event we hold in my hometown of Gold Beach, Oregon on the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. It is in that role that I am pleased to announce the lineup for the 2015 Conference, February 13-14, 2015.

The Presenters are:

Kim Griswell (keynote):
Developmental editor of children’s books for Portable Press and former coordinating editor at Highlights for Children.


Hey, Kid! Have I got a Story for You!— the craft of narrative nonfiction.
It’s All About Character—characterization

Stevan Allred:
Author of A Simplified Map of the World.


Exploring Point of View—Friday intensive workshop
Dixon Ticonderoga—pencils as inspiration
Creating Convincing Characters Across Gender—characterization of those not like us.

Mark Bennion:
Teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Author of two poetry collections: Psalm and Selah, and Forsythia.


Close Observation and Resonant Sources (twice)

Dan Berne:
Author of The Gods of Second Chances, his debut novel.


Market Trends You Need to know About
Build Your Marketing Plan

Mark Graham:
Musician who has performed at The Newport Folk Festival and The Prairie Home Companion.


Art of Satiric and Comic Song

Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
Stoker and Nebula Award winning author of fiction.


Find Magic in Your Own Backyard
Setting is Character is Setting

Elena Passarello:
Her debut collection Let Me Clear My Throat won the Independent Publishers Association Gold Medal for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Oregon State University.


Research in Literary Prose
The Ol’ Collage Try
—collage story telling

Liz Prato:
The author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories.


Perfect Your First Two Pages—Friday intensive workshop
Master Your Point of View
The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Lit Journals

Jeffrey Schultz:
The author of the National Poetry Series Selection: What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other. He is the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program at Pepperdine University.


Voice, Personality, and Perspective
Metonymy and Experience
—alternate literary devices

Tess Thompson:
Bestselling author of romantic suspense.


Conquering Dialogue—Friday intensive workshop
Dialogue for Page-turning Fiction–(condensed version of the Friday workshop)

Once again, we have invited some of the best writers of the Pacific Northwest to guide you in an exploration and celebration of the many facets of writing. Participation in workshops is limited to 25 students for each of the three, intensive, Friday workshops and to 30 for the Saturday workshops. Participants are urged to register early to secure a seat in the workshops they want.

The South Coast Writers Conference. Gold Beach, Oregon, United States. Friday February 13, Saturday February 14, 2015.

For more information on the conference, contact the Gold Beach Center of Southwestern Oregon Community College at 541-247-2741 or visit the conference website at http://www.socc.edu/scwriters.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

5 Dialogue Mistakes

It can be argued that nothing is more important to modern fiction (and to a lesser degree memoir, history, and biography) than dialogue. Dialogue shows character, can heighten drama, and it moves the story along at a faster pace than description or exposition. Face it, gone are the days of Dickens and Hardy when readers were willing to wade through pages of prose describing springtime in Scranton, or the interior musings of a character as they weed their garden. Maybe modern readers have shorter attention spans. Maybe we are all truly over-scheduled. Whatever the reason, the modern reader wants a story that moves along, and moves along quickly. Dialogue serves that purpose well, but it must be done right.

Following are the five most common dialogue mistakes I’ve seen among apprentice writers.

Using dialogue for exposition.
This mistake is most common in beginning writers. Putting exposition in dialogue does not make it more interesting, or faster paced than exposition. Generally speaking, it makes it less believable.

Consider an example:

A man greets his wife/girlfriend:
“Hey, honey. How did the interview at the University go?”
“Good. I think.”
“Did they give you the Assistant Professorship?”

Now, realistically speaking, one must assume that both the man and woman knew beforehand what the interview was all about. A more realistic depiction might go like this:

“Hey, honey. How did the interview go?”
“Good. I think.”
“They give you the job?”

The fact that she was interviewing at the University for a job as an Assistant Professor should be revealed in exposition.

Being too creative in attributions.
While “he said” and “she said” can seem terribly boring, for ninety percent of all dialogue it’s what works best. Attribution is used primarily to avoid confusion in the reader about who is speaking. As such, “he said” or “Sally said” works just fine and will pass along the information the reader needs while remaining almost invisible. When the writer starts using attributions like “he opined,” “she volunteered,” and “he stated,” it draws attention away from the story and to the mechanics. Not a good thing.

And please, please, avoid modifying your attributions. “She said sarcastically” is an immediate red flag. The dialogue itself should demonstrate that the statement is sarcastic. The writer shouldn’t have to tell me. As Stephen King says in On Writing, one of the first parts of revision is to go through your manuscript and eliminate all words ending in -ly. They’re unnecessary.

Characters give speeches, rather than have conversations.
Writer’s have to be great (and unobtrusive) listeners, because in dialogue we are trying to create the illusion of people talking. If you pay attention and really listen to how people converse, you’ll quickly realize that real people seldom talk in multiple complete sentences. Most of the time they don’t speak in complete sentences at all. Most of our conversations consist of one or two word questions and responses. People interrupt and talk over each other. Really good friends can often communicate with a single key word or facial expression. Dialogue should reflect that.

Dialogue is written like a play, rather than fiction.
This is something of a stylistic choice, so take it for what it’s worth, but many inexperienced writers create long passages of nothing but dialogue, words within quotation marks, the attributions and nothing else. To my eye, this reads like a play. There’s nothing wrong with drama, mind you, but when I want to read a play I read a play; when I want to read fiction, I want to read fiction.

The key to fixing this lies in the writer’s imagination. She has the dialogue nailed, but the conversations seem to take place in a vacuum. The truth is, people don’t generally just sit there and speak with each other. They are shifting their position, fiddling with items on the table, fussing with their hair or clothing. It’s what the theater people call business. In a play, the actors and director add “business” to the dialogue in the play; the reader of fiction expects the writer to do this. (And it’s another great way to reveal character.)

All characters speak alike.
Perhaps the hardest part or writing dialogue is learning that all people do not speak the same way; neither should your characters. It’s difficult to do. As we imagine the scenes in our stories, we, naturally, fill in a lot of the characters in question with ourselves, which is fine. It’s the only way to write a novel, or story, to imagine how someone would react to a situation. The danger is that all your characters begin to sound like you. Sometimes, we need to step back a bit and take a lesson from the world around us.

We human beings are more alike than different, but there are differences, social differences, political differences, economic differences. Those differences are often reflected in how we talk. A twelve-year-old girl from the suburbs will talk differently than a logger. A philosophy professor will talk differently than a gas station attendant. A police officer from a small town in Iowa will speak differently than a police officer from Brooklyn. Different generations have different slang. Different regions of the country have different idioms, different pronunciations of the same word.

So keep your characters’ backgrounds in mind as you write their scenes and adjust their speech accordingly.

The way to correct all of these mistakes is to pay attention to your work as you create it. (The easiest manner is seldom the best). Also, pay attention to the people around you. Actively listen to how they speak. Listen to how their conversation flows back and forth between them and practice re-creating this. Pay attention to their mannerisms and nervous habits. It’s all material to help you create your fiction.