Image credit: Kevin O'Heron

Lauren Says, “Here’s How to Punctuate Dialogue Correctly.”

If you ever write something in which someone says something aloud, chances are you use quoted dialogue. (Or also if writing telepathic communication is your thing—like in Animorphs.) It’s possible that you’ve only ever written in script format or that you’re Cormac McCarthy. If either of these scenarios applies to you, then you’re excused as long as you promise you know how to write a sentence. The rest of you: read on!

Step One: Getting Started

I’m going to use the punctuation most American writers use. Different rules apply in other parts of the world. American writers use double quotation marks when someone speaks (“ ”), but the British use single quotation marks (‘ ’). I know I’ve read books where people get all fancy-like and use the em dash (—) instead of quotation marks to differentiate characters speaking from the description. Once you get the basics down, you can go in a different direction.

You will almost always start a new paragraph at the start of a dialogue section. If you’ve ever written an academic paper, you’ve probably heard the general rule that a new idea means a new paragraph. I find that there’s an adapted version of this rule for creative writing, but the phrase “new idea” doesn’t really work. Instead, it’s more like a change of focus, i.e., someone is now speaking, or is preparing to speak. Each character’s response gets a new paragraph.

My personal feeling is that at least 95% of the time it’s better to lead off your new paragraph with what’s being spoken. It signals to the reader now someone is speaking, a new voice is about to come through, and the story is about to impart information in a different way. In my experience, most dialogue is formatted so that the speech comes before any description. That’s the model I’m going to use in this article for simplicity’s sake, but there are multiple ways to write dialogue.

You’ve just hit “enter.” Now type the opening quote (“), followed by what the character says.

 Step Two: Declarative Dialogue

 “Hello,” said Bob. “I haven’t seen you for a long time.” He opened his arms to hug Jim.

As you can see, Bob has just greeted Jim, who he hasn’t seen for a long time. Notice the comma (,) that separates Bob’s “hello” from the closing quote (”). If what your character says is followed by a dialogue tag (e.g., “said Bob,” “he asked,” etc.), there are two rules: 1) do not end the dialogue with a period; and, 2) do not capitalize the verb. The dialogue tag is a continuation of the dialogue itself: it provides necessary context. You can remember to end with a comma pretty easily because the dialogue tag can’t stand on its own as a sentence. The following is totally wrong:

“Hello.” Said Bob.

If you prefer dialogue tags to be structured like “Bob said” instead, just mentally make the switch if you have trouble remembering this step. “Bob said” could be a sentence, but it doesn’t make sense for it to follow a standalone “hello.”

When you don’t have a dialogue tag, you should put a period (.) between the end of the spoken sentence and the closing quote. In the example above, Bob preparing to hug Jim moves their interaction forward, but it is a separate action rather than a continuation of his saying that he hasn’t seen her for a long time. This is called an “action beat.”

Sometimes the dialogue tag sits in the middle of the spoken sentence (below I’ve added a dialogue tag and an action beat together). If the spoken sentence is not yet finished, put a comma before the first closing quote and before the second opening quote.

“Sorry,” said Jim, crossing his arms, “but I never want to hug you again.”

Image credit: THOR
Image credit: THOR

So, in review: declarative sentences in dialogue either end with either a period inside the quotation marks, or a comma inside the quotes when followed by a dialogue tag.

 Step Three: Questions, Exclamations, and Interruptions

But dialogue would be boring, weird, and unrealistic if it were completely declarative. So let’s throw some questions and exclamations. We know that question marks (?) and exclamation points (!) both end sentences. But when using tagged dialogue, they follow the same rule as commas. Observe:

“Why won’t you hug me?” asked Bob. “What did I ever do to you?”

 “Don’t pretend like you don’t know!” said Jim.

Note that exactly like with commas, the verb in the dialogue tag is un-capitalized.

Alright, so we’ve covered the four major ending punctuations: periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points. But still, when people speak to one another, they don’t always get to finish their sentences.

“I really don’t know what—” said Bob.

 “Think!” Jim said.

“—you’re talking about.”

 “Think really hard, Bob.”

When one character interrupts another in the middle of a sentence, that interruption is shown with a long dash or “em dash” (—). Note that dialogue tag to Bob’s interrupted line follows the same rules as for commas, question marks, and exclamation points (i.e., it is an extension of the speech). If a character finishes the interrupted sentence (as Bob does here), then the em dash immediately follows the opening quote the next time he speaks.

We saw already how you can insert a dialogue tag with or without an action beat in the middle of a character’s speech. But you can also interrupt their speech with just an action beat.

“Well, let me think. The last time I saw you was” Bob stroked his beard “that time I ran into you at Mary’s slam poetry performance. But I just can’t think what….”

Using an action beat in this manner is just a personal stylistic preference, but this type of interruption has a more abrupt feel to it to me. That beat between “was” and “that time” is the exact moment when Bob begins stroking his beard.

There’s another type of interruption used above, and it has a fancy Greek word: aposiopesis (APP-uh-SEE-uh-PEE-sis). Aposiopesis occurs when one of your characters leaves off in the middle of a sentence because they’re overwhelmed in some way, whether by anger, confusion, modesty, etc. In other words, the interruption is caused by something within the speaking character. This can be punctuated either with our old friend the em dash (—) for a sudden break or with an ellipsis (…) for a trailing off like Bob does above. There’s a period after the ellipsis to denote that Bob’s sentence is never finished. (If I’d wanted to include a dialogue tag, I’d use the same comma rule I’ve already discussed after the ellipses and the closed quote.)

Step Four: Quotes-Within-Quotes and Long Speech

Sometimes people quote other people directly when they speak. Or sometimes a character might use a word they normally would not use and need to set it apart. In either case, in order to differentiate what is being quoted within quoted speech, you use a second set of quotes. However, you do not use the same type of quotation marks as with primary speech. Instead you nest different types of quotation marks. Let me show you:

“You’re right,” said Jim, “it was at Mary’s slam poetry performance. Remember? You said,‘Come over here and give me a hug, Jim’?”

 “But don’t understand. I always say, ‘Come over here and give me a hug, Jim.’”

Notice how each character’s repetition of Bob’s previous statement is punctuated. In Jim’s case, the question mark goes outside the single quotes because Bob did not make the original statement in the form of a question. In Bob’s case, the period goes inside both sets of quotes because in American usage commas and periods always go inside all the quotation marks used. (The Brits do something different, which will be the topic of a whole other article.)

Here’s another key difference between the two countries’ styles: in American usage, speech is distinguished using double quotation marks (“ ”), but when the speaker is quoting someone else, that quoted speech is put inside single quotation marks (‘ ’). In British usage, speech is denoted with single quotes first, followed by double quotes. In either case, the author then alternates these punctuation marks with each quote-within-a-quote (“…‘…“…”…’…”), though these cases are rare. (I once wrote an academic paper in which I went down the quote-within-a-quote rabbit hole so far that my professor crossed it out for being simply ludicrous.)

But what if your character is long-winded or needs to tell a long story that lasts multiple paragraphs? That’s easy. Type the opening quotes at the beginning of each new paragraph, but do not close them until the speech is over (or if you pause to include a dialogue tag).

“I know you always say that,” said Jim, “but this time was different. I went over to hug you like I always do—well, always did before.

 “I noticed it as I was a good five or six feet away. Your cologne, Bob. You know I’m sensitive to colognes and perfumes. Even a couple of spritzes are bad enough, but it smelled like you practically took a bath in it. My eyes started watering before I even got to you. I spent the rest of the night sneezing. My nose hairs felt like they were on fire.”

Step Five: Remember How Dialogue Works

Alright, by now I’ve covered all the punctuation basics that I believe to be necessary to write correct dialogue. But there’s one important thing that underlies all of this.

Don’t just start a new paragraph every time you have to bust out the quotation marks. Remember that not all components of a dialogue consist of spoken language: it’s two characters constantly reacting to one another. Every time the focus changes to another character’s response merits a new paragraph, whether or not that response is spoken. Have you ever just kept your mouth shut and given someone a dirty look? That’s part of dialogue!

Bob looked down at the ground.

 Jim shrugged. “Look, I didn’t mean to explode at you. I should have said something at the time. I just wish you’d been more considerate.”

 Bob held out his palm to Jim. “I’m sorry, Jim. Mary had bought that for me as a gift and I wanted her to know I was wearing it. I had a really bad cold that night. I didn’t even realize how much I’d put on. It won’t happen again, I swear. Friends?”

 “Friends.” Jim took Bob’s hand and they shook on it. He folded Bob into a hug and clapped him on the back.

Image credit: Kevin O'Heron
Image credit: Kevin O’Heron

Step Six: Do Not Fear Repetition

And now a lesson that applies to dialogue at large: repetition is not bad. You want your dialogue to be clear and you want it to stand out.

In a piece of prose, dialogue is relayed through characters, but from the narrator’s perspective regardless of whether your story is told in the first person or in the third person. Dialogue is important because it gives characters unique voices with which they can communicate information either directly or indirectly. Dialogue gives readers access to characters they might not otherwise get. Dialogue also allows readers to weigh what they know versus what other characters may not know (e.g., when one character lies to another). In general, I don’t think the narration should compete with the dialogue for the reader’s attention. (Not in all cases, mind you, but usually the dialogue is what you want the reader to pay attention to.)

You want to make the dialogue clear. Don’t forget to check in with your characters every once in a while. Not every segment of dialogue needs a tag, but remind readers periodically who is talking. And don’t worry about repeating the names too often: what’s worse is reading a dialogue tag such as, “said his bearded friend.” Your reader doesn’t want to have to pause and think about which character has a beard.

You also want dialogue to stand out. My creative writing professor in college forbade us from using any verb except for “to say” in our written dialogue.(“To ask” was negotiable, but not his preference.) In his class, we could not use anything but those two verbs when writing dialogue. At all.

I’m long out of college, but this rule has revolutionized the way I write. Using verbs more beyond “to say” just pull focus away from what your characters say. More often than not dialogue tags the use words like “yelled,” “stammered,” etc. are redundant. My dialogue is much stronger now because I know that I have to write dialogue that shows the reader a character’s emotional state, tone of voice, etc. This method has prevented an overuse of adverbs and encouraged me to come up with unique action beats. I will never look back.

If using this rule sounds like something that would ruin your writing, I advise you to take one piece of writing and just try it. Or else you run the risk of sounding like a Tom Swifty novel (or worse, a Tom Swifty pun).

In closing, here’s the whole dialogue together in the correct format so that you can observe how it works uninterrupted and without complicated dialogue tags:

“Hello,” said Bob. “I haven’t seen you for a long time.” He opened his arms to hug Jim.

 “Sorry,” said Jim, crossing his arms, “but I never want to hug you again.”

 “Why won’t you hug me?” asked Bob. “What did I ever do to you?”

 “Don’t pretend like you don’t know!” said Jim.

 “I really don’t know what—” said Bob.

 “Think!” Jim said.

“—you’re talking about.”

 “Think really hard, Bob.”

 “Well, let me think. The last time I saw you was” Bob stroked his beard “that time I ran into you at Mary’s slam poetry performance. But I just can’t think what….”

 “You’re right,” said Jim, “it was at Mary’s slam poetry performance. Remember? You said,‘Come over here and give me a hug, Jim’?”

 “But don’t understand. I always say, ‘Come over here and give me a hug, Jim.’”

 “I know you always say that,” said Jim, “but this time was different. I went over to hug you like I always do—well, always did before.

 “I noticed it as I was a good five or six feet away. Your cologne, Bob. You know I’m sensitive to colognes and perfumes. Even a couple of spritzes are bad enough, but it smelled like you practically took a bath in it. My eyes started watering before I even got to you. I spent the rest of the night sneezing. My nose hairs felt like they were on fire.”

Bob looked down at the ground.

 Jim shrugged. “Look, I didn’t mean to explode at you. I should have said something at the time. I just wish you’d been more considerate.”

 Bob held out his palm to Jim. “I’m sorry, Jim. Mary had bought that for me as a gift and I wanted her to know I was wearing it. I had a really bad cold that night. I didn’t even realize how much I’d put on. It won’t happen again, I swear. Friends?”

 “Friends.” Jim took Bob’s hand and they shook on it. He folded Bob into a hug and clapped him on the back.

Image credit: CarbonNYC
Image credit: CarbonNYC

Come back next week when I’ll delve even further into the nerdy abyss by discussing the grammar community’s contentious debate over logical punctuation. It’s much more exciting than it sounds, I promise.

Have any questions? Any bones to pick? Let me know in the comments!

Lauren Seegmiller

Lauren Seegmiller

Assistant Editor at The Renegade Word
Lauren Seegmiller has a B.A. in English Literature and isn't afraid to use it. She currently lives in Denver, CO, trying to give enough time to reading, writing, knitting, and maybe even decoupage every once in a while. She helps other writers improve their craft as a creative writing coach.
Lauren Seegmiller

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