Writing dialogue is a great way to build characterization and in your writing. However, dialogue punctuation can be tricky.
You aren’t alone. Many writers struggle with the specifics of when and how to punctuate dialogue. The good news is that even if this is a struggle for you as a writer, a good copyeditor (cough cough ME cough cough) will correct it and your readers will be none the wiser.
Before I get to the actual punctuation rules for dialogue, it’s good to know when to use dialoge punctuation and when it isn’t needed.
Dialogue requires punctuation when words are quoted verbatum. The actual words. Word for word.
Mom said, “You need to stay home to watch your sister.”
“Put the eggs into the pot of cold water and then bring it to a boil,” Sherry instructed.
“Put the groceries away,” Dad said, “so we can start dinner.”
We do not use dialogue punctuation when we write that a person said something. When we don’t use the specific words spoken.
My mom said that I have to stay home to watch my sister.
Sherry said to put the eggs into the pot of cold water, then bring it to a boil.
Dad told me to put the groceries away so that we can start dinner.
As a U.S.-based editor, I often reference the Chicago Manual of Style. Chapter Thirteen is all about quotations and dialogue, with over 70 subsections. When in doubt, look it up there.
Dialogue Punctuation – Double or Single Quotations
This is a common dilemma, and it has a pretty easy answer. Double quotation marks are used in the U.S. while single quotation marks are used in the U.K. I work primarily with authors in the U.S., so we use double quotes. When working with authors from the U.K., we use single quotes.
A good rule of thumb is to remember that quotation marks generally come as a set of two. So, if you are using a double quotation mark to begin the dialogue, you need to end the quote with a double quotation mark. This closes, or ends, the quote.
If you don’t end the quote, your reader will not understand where the dialogue ends. Be kind to your reader.
Punctuation for Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are the parts of the dialog that tell the reader who is speaking. Some common dialogue tags use the words: said, asked, told, answered, etc.
When we write dialogue with dialogue tags, we are writing a sentence within a sentence. The dialogue tag is part of the overall sentence, while the spoken words are the sentence within.
The U.S. standard is that punctuation goes before the quotation mark. The U.K. standard is opposite, it goes after the quotation mark. Because I am U.S. based, I generally work with the U.S. standard, so my examples will be standard for the U.S.
Notice in the following example, I use a dialogue tag, she said. The comma is placed before the beginning quotation.
She said, “I don’t like pizza anymore.”
When the dialogue tag is placed after the spoken words, I replace the period with a comma like this.
Example: “I don’t like pizza anymore,” she said.
So what about questions or exclamations?
Well, it’s similar but different. When the dialogue tag comes before the quote, it is similar. What about when the dialogue tag is placed after the quote? This is where it’s different.
Below are some examples of how to punctuate questions.
He asked, “Why don’t you like pizza?”
“Why don’t you like pizza?” he asked.
“Why don’t you like pizza?” Mom asked.
There are a couple of important things to notice in the second example.
- The question mark remains.
- No comma is added
- The word after the quote is not capitalized, unless it is a proper noun/pronoun.
The same applies to exclamatory sentences.
She screamed, “Get out of the way!”
“Get out of the way!” she scremed.
“Get out of the way!” Harry screamed.
What about when the dialogue tag is in the middle of the dialogue? Well, remember the rule to treat the spoken words as a sentence within a sentence.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said, “when the bus left without me.”
There is no need to capitalize the second part of the quote because it is still part of the spoken sentence.
I think you get it!
Punctuation with Action Beats
Wait. What is an action beat and why do you care?
An action beat takes the place of a dialog tag and includes an action. It is treated as a completely separate sentence, though, so the punctuation is a little different.
Ben placed the box on the sofa. “Lauren, this box is for you.”
“Lauren, this box is for you.” He placed the box on the sofa.
You can see the differences in punctuation compared to a dialgue tag.
- The period remains and is not replaced with a comma.
- The word ‘he’ is capitalized.
- It’s two separate sentences, not a sentence within a sentence.
Good writers use both dialogue tags and action beats. Using a variety will keep your reader’s interest and add to the flow of the story. This allows you to use dialogue to keep the story moving, add to the setting, and create more interest.
Punctuation for Quotes within a Quote
When your character quotes someone else, it calles for a mix of double and single quotation marks. Remember the tip about quotation marks coming in pairs? This is where it becomes even more important to remember.
Remember that U.S. and U.K. use quotation marks in an opposite way. I will be talking about the U.S. standard which uses double quotation marks for the speaking, and adds the spoken quote in single quotation marks.
She questioned, “But why did you ask her what she meant when she said, ‘I’ll make you pay for that!’ Do you think she means pay with money… or your life?”
“My mom always said, ‘Don’t go to bed angry.’ I never understood what she meant until now,” the woman stated.
“My friends asked, ‘why can’t we play at your house?’” she told me.
Some important things to note about quotes within a quote. These are essentially sentences within sentences within sentences. No wonder people get confused!
My simple tip is to remember to close each quotation mark, single or double.
Punctuation for Long Dialogue
As always, English has rules that don’t follow the rules.
When your character is speaking for a long time, you may need to create new paragraphs for the dialogue. Don’t add end quotes until the speaker is completely done talking. At the beginning of each new paragraph, add quotes which will indicate that the character is still talking.
“I tried all day to get the car to start. But for some reason it just wouldn’t. I didn’t know what to do, so I went over to Angla’s to see if she had a set of jumper cables.
“When I got over there, she didn’t answer the door. No one was home. Again, I didn’t know what to do. I decided to head to the house across the street to see if they could help me.
“No one was home. What in the world? It’s as I am the only person at home in the afternoons anymore.”
You can tell that this is one character speaking because there are no end quotes in the first and second paragraphs. The end quote indicates to the reader that the character is done speaking… for now.
Punctuation for Interrupted Dialogue
Speakers often interrupt each other, have speech that trails off, or is interrupted by an action.
When characters interrupt each other, we use an em dash inside the quotation marks.
“Chloe, I told you that you need–“
“Got it, Dad.” She picked up her purse and checked for her wallet.
Let’s look at an example of speech that trails off. This is a pretty easy to properly punctuate. Simply use an elipses inside the quotation mark.
“I thought my shoes were…”
When speech is interrupted by an action, we also use the em dash. But this time, we use it outside of the quotes.
“I have a ton to do”–she waved her hands in the air–“but I can take a break.”
Punctuation for a New Speaker
Whenever a new person speaks, begin a new paragraph whether you are using dialog tags, action beats, or no tag at all. This cues the reader to virtually turn to each person as they speak.
“That car is so nice!” Hannah’s mouth dropped as she said it.
Adam beamed with pride. “Yeah. I still can’t believe I get to drive it every day. I love this thing!”
“So is it really yours?” She couldn’t believe that he owned this beautiful red Mustang.
“Oh, it’s mine! Want to go for a ride?” He pressed the unlock button on the key fob and motioned for her to get into the passenger seat.
You want your reader to know who is speaking. Tags aren’t needed for every line of dialogue, though. Sometimes less is more. But when you do use tags, be sure that they propel the storyline. By using tags that have purpose, you can use dialogue sections to show the setting while moving the storyline along in a meaningful way.
Proper dialogue punctuation brings your story to life.
While there are a few rules for punctuation, they are pretty easy to remember with a little bit of practice. Remember that your editor will make sure that your dialogue is properly punctuated. So go on, write that dialogue!