I never studied English after high school, so maybe I can blame that. Or maybe it's because I'm an American who grew up in New Zealand: I read books written in both American and British English (and yes, the spelling, grammar and some punctuation are different).
But I've been writing for business for over ten years. And I'm good at it. It's just that fiction has its own rules and I didn't know a lot of them. And after doing a little research I've discovered I'm not alone.
So... I've accumulated some information and quotes from other sources for you to double check against your usage (NOTE: These are all in the American standard. If you're writing in the Queen's English, please double check):
When a character says something, the words are enclosed in quotes with a period at the end:
“Hi. It’s good to see you.”
When you attribute the speech, the final sentence of the dialogue ends in a comma:
“Hi. It’s good to see you,” Carl said.
EXCEPT when the attribution isn’t direct:
“Hi. It’s good to see you.” Carl smiled and held out his hand.
(If you aren’t sure, the litmus test is: can the attribution stand alone as a sentence? If so, the speech should end in a period).
In dialogue, when a character’s name is used, there is always a comma preceding.
“What’s your problem, Frank?”
“I told you, Frank, I’m not going to do that.”
When a character’s dialogue extends beyond one paragraph, the first paragraph(s) are open ended. Only the final paragraph has end-quotes.
“Yadda yadda yadda. Blah, blah blah blah. Yadda, yadda. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah, blah blah blah. Yadda, yadda.
“Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah. Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah. Blah blah blah blah, yadda. Yadda blah, yaddah.
“Yadda blah, yadda yadda. Blah. Yaddah.”
In broken dialogue only capitalize a new quote after a period.
“Hey there,” said Carl, “it’s good to see you."
“Hey there,” said Carl. “I didn't expect to see you here.”
GENERAL GRAMMAR AND SPELLING DO'S
Its, your and their are possessive (i.e. owned or held by the person they refer to).
It’s, you’re and they’re are contractions (i.e. two words condensed into one: It is, you are and they are)
Titles like ‘Dad’ and ‘Uncle’ are capitalized when used in place of the name, not when speaking in the possessive:
CORRECT: Dad told me he never kissed anyone before Mom.
CORRECT: My dad told me he never kissed anyone before my mom.
(Again the litmus test is, could "Dad" or "Mom" or "Grandpa" be replaced with a name without changing anything else? If so, it should be capitalized).
OTHER PUNCTUATION DO'S
The correct use of a dash in manuscript format is to use the dash twice.
Carl took me to his car -- the ‘little’ SUV, not the truck -- and opened the door for me.
(NOTE: MS Word and others not specifically designed for writers may automatically condense the dashes into one. Try changing your 'autocorrect' settings.)
The semicolon is a continuation: It must be followed by a complete sentence. It is NOT for use in a side thought – something that breaks a sentence – where you should use a dash.
These are some of the most common punctuation issues I've had or come across. For more extensive lists and detailed analysis, check out Natalie Fischer's Cheat-Sheet post.
Your Turn: Are there particular grammar, punctuation or spelling questions you have? Note them in the comments and I'll see what I can do. (Or, if you have tips on common problems, please share!)