Making sure that your dialogue is properly punctuated is one of the most important things you can do as a writer, because these are literally your characters’ words coming to life. Funny dialogue will fall flat if a comma in the wrong place breaks the emotion or creates confusion.
You want your reader to read the dialogue the way you imagined the character said it, and unless they are listening to an audiobook, the reader can only rely on appropriate punctuation and dialogue attribution words to clue them to how the dialogue is to be read.
The standard punctuation for dialogue is determined by the placement of the dialogue attribution (def.: any words that describe the way the dialogue was said).
If the dialogue attribution comes after direct speech, then the word following the closing quotation mark shouldn’t be capitalized, unless it is a proper noun.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” he moaned.
“Holy crap, was that a bat?” Andrew asked.
“Jesus, you scared me!” she screamed.
If the dialogue attribution comes before direct speech, then you capitalize the first word of the spoken sentence.
He moaned, “I shouldn’t have done it.”
Andrew asked, “Holy crap, was that a bat?”
She screamed, “Jesus, you scared me!”
If the dialogue attribution happens in the middle of the dialogue, then appropriate punctuation and capitalization depends on whether or not the dialogue itself is a full sentence or consists of two independent clauses.
When the dialogue is a complete sentence, the dialogue attribution is set off by commas, and the first word of the second part of the dialogue is not capitalized.
“Adam,” Nancy called, “can you grab the hammer on your way down?”
Here the dialogue is a full sentence that reads: “Adam, can you grab the hammer on your way down?”
When the dialogue consists of two independent clauses, the dialogue attribution is followed by a period, and the first word of the second part of the dialogue is capitalized.
“I don’t know guys,” Pam murmured. “If Carmen finds out about this she’ll be pissed.”
Here, attempting to separate the dialogue with a comma would result in a comma splice:
“I don’t know guys, if Carmen finds out about this she’ll be pissed.” Pam murmured.
By simply using the right punctuation and capitalization in the right place, your reader can better sense Pam’s trepidation, as the period makes the reader pause before discovering what Pam is afraid of (Carmen’s reaction).
What is the funniest dialogue punctuation error you’ve found in your own work? Tell me in the comments!