Punctuating dialogue seems to be a bête noire for a lot of fiction writers. Never mind what word you should use for describing your character’s utterance – he said, she yelled, it whispered, I answered – the real question seems to be, do you capitalise it or not? Which punctuation mark goes on the end of the sentence, inside the quotation marks, and what goes outside?
It’s not really that hard. Dialogue in fiction, I told the Offspring when we were homeschooling, is like speech bubbles in comic strips (I made them transcribe lots of Garfield comics to practise, poor things). The quotation marks are the speech bubble (somebody is saying something); the text is what goes inside the bubble (here’s what they’re saying); and the little pointy tail on the bubble is the speech tag (this is who is talking).
So if you picture your scene as a comic strip (or call it “graphic novel”, if that makes you feel more grown-up), all you need to do is put those speech bubbles in place and write down what you see.
The thing to keep in mind is that the speech bubble, pointy tail and all, is one unit. What that means is that speech and speech tag are one sentence, and you punctuate them accordingly: the speech tag is in lower case, because it’s the middle of the sentence. It’s easy to figure out: “he said” can’t be a sentence in its own right, ever – so you don’t capitalise it when it comes after a speech.
So here’s an example:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” said Steve the Bear.
Easy speech tag, lower case. Question marks and exclamation marks stay just as they are, at the end of the sentence inside the bubble, so we know that the speaker is asking a question or exclaiming.
One slightly tricky case, however, is the period at the end of a speech. Because the speech and the speech tag are one sentence, English punctuation converts that period into a comma inside the quotation marks, and puts the period at the end of the speech tag instead.
“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird,” she said.
If you want to expand the speech tag, the period goes on the end of the expanded part, because it’s a part of the sentence:
“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird,” she said, frowning at him.
This is the thing that trips people up the most, that comma/lowercase convention. The thing is that if you capitalise the word after the speech, you’ve started a new sentence – you’ve chopped off the pointy tail. A lone “He said” is just as disconcerting as a free-floating pointy speech bubble tail.
You are, of course, free to start a new sentence after a speech – often, a speech tag isn’t necessary; it’s clear who speaks without the pointy tail. And in that case, you want to keep the period as a period. Here, for example, I could say:
“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird.” She frowned at him.
Another thing that’s a bit tricky is interjected speech tags – the speech tag in the middle of that sentence package. You read the first part of the speech, then look at where the tail is pointing, then read the rest of the text in the bubble. But once again, we’re dealing with one sentence here, so the speech tag is set off with commas, and what comes after a comma is always a lowercase letter.
“You’re right,” he said, “it was a silly idea. Never mind.”
If you break up the sentence inside the bubble with a speech tag, lowercase the letter in the second part of the quotation. If, however, your speech tag comes between two complete speech sentences, the second sentence still starts with an uppercase letter, just like it does inside the bubble:
“You’re right, it was a silly idea,” he said. “Never mind.”
And there you have it. Punctuation of direct speech, caps and lowercases, and Steve the Bear waxing Shakespearean on me.
“I can only blame the heat of the day for it,” she said, wrinkling her forehead, “it’s pretty toasty today.”
“You just can’t take compliments!” yelled Steve from the back of the couch. “Besides, bears don’t mind the heat.” His voice got quieter as he rolled down onto the couch cushions. “Have you seen my notebook? I’m sure I left it somewhere around here…”