It occurred to me I hadn’t done one of these in a while. Sorry about that. This installment is a simple one, but it came to mind because one of the students at the workshop was having difficulty with it. A poorly punctuated manuscript will be thrown out by an editor ASAP. No one will give you any leeway on this, so if you think you are shaky on your punctuation, make sure you know the rules.
We’re just going to focus on punctuation in quotes today.
Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Yes, there are exceptions, but usually that is in non-fiction, when the author is writing lists or quoting material or in similar constructions. But in fiction, punctuation goes inside quotations.
“Oh,” he said.
See where the comma is? Inside the quotes.
“Hello?” she said.
See the question mark? Inside the quotes AND you don’t need a comma after the question mark. Same thing goes for an exclamation point. No comma afterwards.
“Wait–” He stopped.
See the dashes, which will be turned into an em-dash by the typesetter? Yup, inside the quotes. Note as well that I upper-cased He but there’s no period after the dash.
“Let me tell you a story.” He paused. “It goes like this.”
Periods, inside quotations.
What if you have a sentence and then a statement?
Stavin grunted. “Lucky man.”
You don’t use a comma before the quotes start. You write your sentence, end it with a period, and then write your quoted statement. By the way, you don’t need to write
Stavin grunted. “Lucky man,” he said.
Because you have already established that Stavin is speaking.
If you have any doubts, pull down any of the contemporary books from your shelf and see how a modern author does it. This way you will not run into old conventions.
And here’s the thing. Punctuation, like grammar, is for the benefit of the reader and ensures that s/he understands your story. These elements of writing, while not as fun as the storytelling part, are essential. If you don’t have an understanding of the rules, go back to your Strunk & White.
No go forth and punctuate!