Dialogue Mechanics: Punctuation and Attribution

Aside from actually figuring out the content of your character’s dialogue, you also need to know how to say who said what—dialogue attribution—and how to punctuate it. This post is all about these technical issues. It isn’t about how to write the content of dialogue, just how to express who is saying it.

Dialogue Punctuation

The current convention is to use double-quotes around spoken dialogue, so this post will be primarily about how punctuation should work within this convention. It’s worth noting that there are other options. For example, you can ditch the double-quotes, and instead use an initial em-dash to indicate speech:

—You’re not going anywhere, she said.

The em-dash for dialogue might raise eyebrows, but it is an option. Andre Alexis, for example, has used this punctuation for dialogue in his work. Another option is to ditch punctuation entirely:

You’re not going anywhere, she said.

If you ditch punctuation, you need to be extra careful with your writing to make sure it is obvious who is speaking. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two authors who have gone in this direction.

We’re going to go with the standard convention of double-quotes:

“You’re not going anywhere,” she said.

This is the standard: The quoted speech ends with a comma inside the double-quotes; the attribution is not capitalized unless it is a proper name; each new speaker sets off a new paragraph.

Those are the basics, so now we can look at different implementations, special cases, and how things might go wrong.

Dialogue attribution mid-sentence:

“And if frogs had wings,” she said, “they wouldn’t bump their ass when they hopped.”

The attribution comes in the middle of a quoted sentence, so we don’t need to capitalize the first word in the second piece of quoted dialogue, which is set off by a comma after the attribution.

This technique has the added effect of creating a subtle/implied pause in the speaker’s speech; the pause isn’t stated, but the reader feels it.

Dialogue attribution between spoken sentences:

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Gregor said. “Let’s go to the park instead.”

In this case, we end the attribution with the period. The second quoted dialogue starts with a capital, since it is a new sentence.

Dialogue attribution before spoken sentences:

Hagrid said, “Not in the fire-pit, you dolt!”

The quoted dialogue is a new sentence, so we get a capitalized first letter. The quoted dialogue is set off by a comma after the attribution.

Dialogue attribution with exclamation or question mark:

“Not in the fire-pit, you dolt!” she said.

For exclamation marks and question marks, just pretend that they end with a comma instead.

Implied attribution via action:

Sometimes, instead of explicitly attributing dialogue to a character, we have some action or event described in the same paragraph, and by that means imply who is speaking:

“That’s what I call a brew.” Hagrid stirred the cauldron. “Now where’s my eye of newt?”

For this implied attribution, you have to close the preceding dialogue. It is a mistake to leave the comma, as in the following erroneous construction:

✗WRONG✗ “Now that’s what I call a potion,” Hagrid stirred the cauldron. “Now where’s my eye of newt?” ✗WRONG✗

Dialogue interrupted by narrator:

“When I said I was hoping for a warm welcome”—passing laser-beams singed Darva’s helmet—”this isn’t what I had in mind!”

The interruption belongs to the narrator, and so the em-dashes are placed outside of the quotes. We can read this as a continuous spoken line, without an interruption, and the narrator only functions to add detail. You can use this same construction when the dialogue is actually interrupted, however…

Dialogue interrupted by action:

“Now this—” Darva fired her blaster and ducked behind the barricade “—is what I call a firefight!”

The break in the dialogue can optionally be represented by placing the em-dash within the quotes. This is not a firm rule. I have seen it both ways. It is acceptable to punctuate a break in dialogue using em-dashes outside the quotes, even if it is an action that causes a pause in the spoken dialogue (as in the previous example). The reader can tell from context whether the speech was interrupted.

Dialogue interrupted by another speaker:

“But mom, I just thought—”

“I don’t care what you thought!”

The interrupted dialogue is cut off with an em-dash.

Dialogue interrupting the narration:

Around the campfire, some of the warriors traded bravado—”I once killed two orcs with one swing!”—and others chewed their mutton.

You set off the interrupted narration the same way you would use em-dashes for an ordinary interjection, except that you contain the whole quoted dialogue within.

Dialogue that trails off:

“I just thought that…”

Ellipses indicate a speaker that trails off.

“speaker/attribution” versus “attribution/speaker”:

Should we go with:

“Sure thing,” Aspen said.

Or:

“Sure thing,” said Aspen.

Technically, both are correct. However, unless you have a reason for doing otherwise, you should probably go with the first formulation. The second can sound slightly archaic, which is easier to hear if we replace the named entity with a pronoun:

“Sure thing,” said she.

It’s grammatical, but it sounds archaic. One exception is if we are using a long description in place of a name. It can be awkward to wait for the end of a long description before reaching the attribution:

“It’s just not my day,” the tall man with the overcoat and the handlebar mustache said.

In cases like these, it would be better to put the attribution first, followed by the long description.

Alternative Dialogue Attribution:

The standard dialogue attribution verb is “said”.  Some people like to spruce up their dialogue by using alternatives like “continued”, “replied”, “stated”, “joked”, “answered”, and so on, or by adding adverbs, as in “said tersely”, or “said angrily”. As a matter of subjective taste, I would caution against such alternative dialogue attributions. They have their place, of course, but they are easy to overdo, and easy to do badly. If you want to give an overworked submissions editor a quick reason to put your story in the reject pile, excess or needless alternative dialogue attribution is a good way to do it. There are a few reasons for this.

For the most part, “said” is invisible to the reader, functioning more-or-less like punctuation. The reader passes over it quickly, and it doesn’t get in the way of reading. It keeps the pace quick. By contrast, synonyms like “stated” or “explained” or “answered” or “replied” add syllables and slow pacing without offering anything in return. This category of alternatives should be ruthlessly cut in edits. When you deviate from “said”, you should have a good reason for doing it, because it is always a trade-off with pacing.

Other alternatives attempt to add extra color. Words like “joked” or “pleaded” offer additional shades of meaning. In many cases, these should also be avoided. They are often redundant, since it should be obvious from the surrounding context and the content of the dialogue whether something is a joke or a plea, for example, so you aren’t getting anything by using these terms. They are also “telling” instead of showing—don’t tell us a character joked or pleaded; show us that it is a joke or a plea.

You also see alternatives that specify the manner in which something is said, like “shouted” or “whined” or “wheezed” or “screeched”. In many cases, these should be avoided. If you can’t tell that something was shouted, for example, that might be a problem with how the dialogue or the surrounding passage is written; write the scene and the dialogue so the dialogue sounds like shouting. As for wheezing and screeching, these sort of things can be useful for characterizing a manner of speech, but they need to be used in moderation. If your established baseline is “said”, and suddenly a character “screeches”, it will feel more screechy. Conversely, if you constantly use alternatives, the reader will begin to gloss over them, and they will have less effect. Your ability to use alternatives for effect depends on you using them sparingly and judiciously.

All of this applies as well to adverbial modifiers on “said”. You could write “said tersely”, or you could just write terse dialogue—the terseness should be in the dialogue, so explicitly indicating that it is terse is redundant, and it is also “telling” instead of showing. You could say “said angrily” or “said wearily”, or use any of a variety of emotion-laden adverbs on “said”, but in all cases this will constitute “telling” instead of showing; a better strategy is to write the scene in such a way that the emotion is shown instead of told. If the reader can’t tell that someone is angry or sad or happy without being explicitly told, this might indicate a problem with how the scene is written.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. The most important thing is to be controlled and judicious about your use of language. Developing craft is not about mindlessly following rules; it is about understanding the underlying rationales for the “rules” so that you can use whichever techniques are most effective for your story.

Final Words

Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this article on dialogue punctuation and attribution useful!

 

Guide to Submissions (Short Fiction and Poetry)

I’m assuming you have some finished products (fiction and/or poetry) that you are happy with and ready to send out. So let’s do that.

This is a completely separate skill-set from writing, but it’s one you should develop. A lot of it is organization and research. Knowing what tools to use really helps.

Keeping tracking of your submissions.

You need a system to keep track of your submissions. You need to know which stories/poems are out where, and how long they’ve been there.

I use a spreadsheet on Google Sheets. I keep all of my stories along one axis, and all the markets along the other axis. When I make a submission, I put the date of submission in the appropriate cell. When I get a form rejection, I put “form” in the cell; if I get specific feedback for the story, I paste that into the cell. (There are other services available for tracking submissions; I like this system because of the flexibility and control it gives me).

This allows me to see at a glance what stories are out where, and how long they’ve been there. I can easily see if a story is sitting idle, in which case I should be thinking about what I want to do with it (whether it needs to be reworked and then submitted somewhere, or just sent somewhere as-is). It is also an archive of past successes and failures.

Here’s the (deliberately blurred) spreadsheet I use, which I include in case it helps to visualize my system:

publication_spreadsheet_screenshot_blurred

Next to my stories, I include a word count. Next to the markets, I include notes for that market, including pay, a link to the site, what they’re looking for, and any other important information.

I use color-coding. The pink entries are rejections (you’ll notice there’s quite a few); light green are active submissions; yellow/gold is for acceptances. Bright green on the market listing indicates pro rates. Red on the market listing indicates a closed market. (There’s no need to do any of this color-coding stuff, but I like it.)

If this big chart looks imposing, just remember it is built up over time. You start with one story and one market. You add stories as you complete them, and you add markets as you submit to them.

Being alerted to open submission windows

Often when researching markets you will find submission window openings several months away. It’s impossible to remember all these things, so you need to use an organizational tool.

I use Google calendar to alert me to open submission windows. I put the submission window opening as an event in my calendar, and I get a notification when the window opens up. If I have a suitable story, I can submit it then.

I paste the link to the website for that market in the event information, so I don’t have to track it down again when the market opens up.

Setting these reminders allows me to free up a lot of mental energy.

Researching markets

You need to know the markets.

Ralan.com is a great resource for finding out about anthologies.

Submission grinder is a great resource for searching markets -both poetry and fiction. You should check out the advanced search function, which allows you to narrow your search by genre, length, pay, and other criteria.

The Horror Tree is a good place to find markets for horror and dark speculative fiction.

Poetrymarkets.com is a good resource for researching poetry markets. Here is a ranking of poetry magazines, if you want to submit to markets by order of prestige.

If you happen have Facebook, you can join “open call” groups, so you can get tips that way.

Understanding Guidelines

Make sure to carefully read the guidelines for any market you plan to submit to. Not following guidelines is a quick way to get your story rejected. Often, not adhering to guidelines will mean an auto-rejection. Even when it doesn’t get your story auto-rejected, it still looks bad.

Besides the obvious things, like submitting stories that are the right length and genre, you also want to watch out for:

  • Formatting. Most places ask for manuscripts submitted in Shunn Standard Manuscript format. Here’s a template you can use if you want (.doc format): @STANDAD_MANUSCRIPT_FORMAT_TEMPLATE
  • Font. Annoyingly, despite the implication of “standard manuscript format”, font is not really standard across various markets. It seems like most markets ask for Times New Roman or Courier, but Arial sometimes shows up as well. If a market doesn’t specify, you can safely submit in Times or Courier, but if they do specify a font, then take thirty seconds and change it to suit their preference.
  • Anonymity. Standard Manuscript Format includes your name in three places on the document. But some places ask for anonymous manuscripts for the purpose of blind judging. In that case, make a copy of your manuscript and scrub all identifying information. If a market asks for an anonymous manuscript, and you include any identifying information, your submissions will be auto-rejected, guaranteed.
  • “No Simultaneous Submissions”. This means that the editor is requesting that you not submit the same manuscript to any other markets while it is under consideration at their market (your story should only be out to this one place). If you ignore this request, you risk burning bridges in a very small community of editors who absolutely talk to each other. Sometimes it can seem unfair to newer authors, who have to sit for long stretches of time while they wait for what is in all likelihood going to be a rejection. If this bothers you, consider markets that allow simultaneous submissions. Also, keep in mind that you are not sitting idle while your story is out, because you should be moving on to writing the next story.
  • “Multiple Submissions”. If “multiple submissions” are allowed, this means you can send multiple stories at once to the same market. This is pretty rare. Most markets request that you only have one submission sent to them at a time. Send your best work, then wait for a response.
  • Pasted in the e-mail. Some venues ask that you post the work in the body of the e-mail, instead of including an attachment. This is more common for flash markets and poetry markets.

Form Cover Letter

You don’t want to type the same thing a thousand times.

I use a form cover letter, copy and pasted, and changed to suit the specifics of the market.

A cover letter should be really simple. My template looks like this:

To/Dear [The Editors],

Please consider [story title] for publication in [Publication Name].

[line for third person bio (optional)]

[line to address specific guidelines (optional)]

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

You can find the name of the editor(s) on the website for the market you are planning to submit to.

The bio line, where it appears, might look something like this:

[Your name] writes from [Someplace], where [pronoun] also works as a [profession]. [Pronoun’s] work is featured or forthcoming in [list of publications].

If you don’t have any publications, just don’t mention it. The first sentence of the bio is enough in that case. If you have special experience or expertise relevant to the story, you can mention it.

The “specific guidelines” section might look like this:

As suggested in your guidelines, the poems appear in the body of this e-mail.

Finally, if the guidelines ask you to specify word count, you can do so following the mention of your story’s name:

Please consider [story title] (2000 words) for publication in [Publication Name].

If the guidelines request particular information in the cover letter, make sure to include it wherever it makes sense to do so. (If they ask for a one sentence summary of the story, for example, you can put that in a sentence following the first mention of the story.)

That’s it.

Final Words

Good luck! I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and I look forward to hearing about your successes with publication!