Grammar Rules for Dialogue

One area of grammar on which many fiction writers appear to be unclear is the grammar between dialogue and dialogue beats/action beats, which I refer to as tags. If you’re not sure about what I mean with dialogue beats and action beats, two examples of beats are bolded below:

“I can’t do it,” she said. (Dialogue beat)
“I can’t do it.” She lowered her head. (Action beat)

The examples I have given above follow the grammatical rules found in published (and well-edited) books. In the example with a dialogue beat, ‘she’ is not capitalised, while a comma ends the sentence of dialogue. In the example with an action beat, ‘she’ is capitalised, while a period/full stop ends the sentence of dialogue.

In general, all dialogue beats and action beats follow these rules. A dialogue beat is any tag showing the reader how the character is speaking. An action beat is any tag showing what the character is doing while, before, or after speaking. Despite this, there are more complex grammatical rules for beats as well.

Dialogue Beats

  • Proper Nouns

“I’m not doing it,” Olivia said.

A proper noun is always capitalised, no matter whether it appears in a dialogue beat or action beat. If the proper noun is moved later in the sentence, the word following the dialogue is not capitalised, as according to the aforementioned grammatical rules for dialogue beats.

  • Full Sentences with Commas

“I can’t do it,” she said. “I’m not strong enough.”

This sentence follows the aforementioned grammatical rules for dialogue beats. The first complete sentence of dialogue ends with a comma, introducing a dialogue beat ending with a period/full stop and introducing a second full sentence of dialogue. When two full sentences of dialogue are separated by a dialogue beat, the dialogue beat ends with a period/full stop.

  • Full Sentences with Exclamation Marks and Question Marks

“Shut up!” she screamed. “I’m not listening! I’m not doing it!”

With this sentence, the first full sentence—“Shut up!”—ends with an exclamation mark. In the absence of the comma, the uncapitalised ‘she’ indicates this tag is a dialogue beat.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “What do you want?”

The rules for a question mark are the same for as an exclamation mark, with the ‘she’ uncapitalised.

  • Split Sentences

If the dialogue is composed of one full sentence split by a dialogue beat, the rules are different from those of two full sentences. One full sentence split by a dialogue beat will only ever have a question mark or exclamation mark at the end of the second segment—never at the end of the first.

“I’m sure,” observed Mason, “that Olivia will be here shortly.”

In this sentence, the beginning of the full sentence of dialogue ends with a comma, introducing a dialogue beat. This dialogue beat ends with a comma, introducing the second half of the one full sentence of dialogue. With a full sentence split by a dialogue beat, the sentence is often split at a logical place to put a pause.

Action Beats

  • Full Sentences with Commas

“I can’t do it.” She lowered her head. “I’m not strong enough.”

This sentence follows the grammatical rules for action beats. The first complete sentence of dialogue ends with a period/full stop, introducing an action beat. Action beats always end with a period/full stop when between two full sentences of dialogue.

  • Full Sentences with Exclamation Marks and Question Marks

“I’m sure!” He slammed the bench. “Olivia will be here shortly! You wait and see!”

When an exclamation mark ends a full sentence of dialogue, the first word in the action beat is still capitalised, as according to the rules of grammar for action beats.

“You’re sure?” She raised an eyebrow. “Really, really sure? ‘Cause I’m not.”

The rules for question marks are the same as those for exclamation marks.

  • Split Sentences

The rules for one full sentence split by an action beat, are quite different from those for two full sentences. As with dialogue beats, a full sentence split by an action beat will only ever have a question mark or exclamation mark at the end of the second segment—never at the end of the first.

“I’m sure”—Mason’s eyes darted—“that Olivia will be here shortly.”

This sentence has no punctuation in the first segment of dialogue. Instead, an em dash replaces a space between the quotation marks and the action beat. An em dash also follows the action beat, replacing a space and any punctuation, and touches the quotation marks of the second segment of dialogue. This construct gives the impression of a single action at one particular point in time rather than an action previous to or following the character’s words. With a full sentence split by an action beat, the sentence should be split where the character does the action.

The rules for split sentences, however, have a marked divergence from the usual action beat. In examples where a proper noun does not follow the beginning of the action beat, the first word is not capitalised.

“I’m sure”—his eyes darted—”that Olivia will be here shortly.”

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Author: Matthew

I'm a mustached New Zealander with an eye for detail, a love of grammar, and a motivation for excellence. Er, ahem, perfectionism.

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