I’m not a copyeditor, but I make a point of knowing certain things about the styling of the written word and so should you. Feel free to bookmark this page for reference.

Mind you, stylebooks evolve, not to mention that they don’t always agree, so this article isn’t going to replace The Chicago Manual of Style (on which it is based) anytime soon. But what I propose here is widely accepted in the industry, and will help your manuscript score bonus points with agents and editors.

Dialogue Tags

“I like singing,” George said.

(Comma inside quotation marks.)

“Yeah, and which kind of songs?” Mary asked.

(Question mark inside quotation marks.)

“Well,” George said, “I could sing to you if you like.”

(Note the position of the two commas when a dialogue tag interrupts a spoken sentence. Readers hear this kind of tag as a pause.)

Yes, please.

(Using italics for exclamation is still technically correct, but I’m told its days are counted. Use italics for emphasis and not too frequently.)

“Okay, here it goes,” George said, turning up his collar.

(Comma after “said” when you follow it up with an action beat.)

“Do you really want to hurt me,” he sang in a falsetto voice.

(No comma after “said”—well, “sang” in this instance—when you specify the kind of voice the character is using.)

“Stop! You’re making—“ she pulled out the microphone plug “—my ears hurt.”

(An em dash inside quotation marks indicates she broke off when tugging at the plug and resumed talking when the plug was out.)

“But-but-but Mary, you said”—George wrestled for the control of the microphone—“you like my singing.”

(An em dash outside quotation marks indicates no interruption of speech, only that an action takes place at the same time as speech. No spaces around the em dash.)

“Yeah, but…”

(Elipsis when the voice drifts off mid-sentence.)

“But what? Do you really want to make me—“

“I said stop.”

(Em dash to indicate the speaker is cut off or interrupted. Or when your mother enters the room, catching you mid-swear.)

“Alright.” George sat on the heavy stage loudspeaker.

(You don’t have to use dialogue tags all the time; You can use action beats instead. Remember to put the dot inside the quotation marks.)

Inner Thoughts

Not so long ago writers used to set thoughts in quotation marks, just like speech. But that made thoughts hard to distinguish from real speech; thus the idea of italicizing inner monologue was born.

“She doesn’t like me,” Goerge thought.

became

She doesn’t like me, George thought.

and after a while

She doesn’t like me.

because most prose written in the 3rd person drifted toward 3rd Person Limited, where there is only one point of view character.

Today most editors will tell you to set thoughts in roman, but even then you’re left with a couple of alternatives. Let’s start with the one that’s most clunky:

George realized she didn’t like him.

(Thought shifted to past tense, no “he thought.”)

Then there’s a more natural sounding:

She doesn’t like me, George thought.

(For when you want to quote your character thoughts verbatim and/or make them stand out from the rest of the narrative.)

And finally:

George considered her for a moment. She didn’t seem to like him.

(Thoughts blended in with the narrative.)

Always make your manuscript look sharp.

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