Monday, March 18, 2013

Let’s Get the Dialogue Commas Right for Crying out Loud! by Linda S. Glaz

Yes, I’m crabby and yes, I do make the same mistake from time to time, just ask my editor, but please, try and be consistent even if you’re going to do it wrong.
Okay, let’s not do the Oxford or CMOS version; let’s just do a common sense rundown on dialogue and commas.
For starters, if through the conversation you don’t need a dialogue tag to begin with, then get rid of it. All it does it interrupt the point of view. But if you feel you need it? Here you go:

First: Basic comma with dialogue tag.
Sarah was frightened. “Do you think we’ll get out of this mess?” she asked.
Keeping  your tags as simple as possible are best. They don’t interrupt the pov as much as whining, growling, barking, etc., but if you do use others, use them correctly. Side note, I prefer to read: he said, she asked, he whispered, murmured or an occasional, she shouted, but I’m not a big fan of barking, snarling and other tags that could otherwise be deleted and simply strengthen the writing itself for us to feel the growling and barking, or heaven help us, purring! I can’t wait to meet the female who purrs because I’m going to toss her a catnip mouse and sit back and laugh.
Second: Dialogue tags need commas, exclamation points (sparingly) or question marks, not periods.
Wrong: “We’re almost safe.” She whispered. “We’re almost safe.” she whispered.
Correct: “We’re almost safe,” she whispered.
She is speaking here, so this is a dialogue tag and needs a comma, not a period.
Third: With physical tags instead of dialogue tags.
“I’m afraid.” She shivered with fright. “I want to go home.”
Now you need a period. This sentence doesn’t indicate a dialogue tag, but rather action between the two sentences. You need a period (no comma) and to capitalize She.
Fourth: You can interrupt a sentence of dialogue with action if the action interrupts a whole sentence. “I think,” she swatted at the fly, “we have found a bloated body.”
Now  we have a complete sentence, “I think we have found a bloated body.” that we have interrupted with an action related to the dialogue. So…we need commas after the first break AND after the action.
There are wonderful free sites available that can direct you to correct usage of commas with quotations…with dialogue tags.
Check out Suzanne Hartmann’s Write This Way:  Slide down the right side and you’ll come to labels for different posts. There are ten on commas. Read through them; she explains much better than I do.
Commas are the bane of my existence. I have so much trouble with them myself, but lately, I’ve noticed just how abused they are with quotations.
So PLEASE get those commas right in dialogue. At the very least, be consistent so your editor or readers can make more sense of them.
Happy writing!


Davalyn Spencer said...

How simple life (writing) would be if we didn't have to use commas. But then we'd run into the old "Let's eat Grandma," or "Let's eat, Grandma."

Thanks for the great tips.

Marlene Banks said...

Guilty, guilty, guilty but I learned to do it right after being talked down to by a publishing editor. It was humiliating. Pride will make you learn fast and get it together. Oh, did I just use the commas

Linda Glaz said...

The hardest part, Marlene, is that many editors do it differently. I believe the key to being recognized as doing a good job is to be consistent. They they can "consistently" correct you if they choose.