Writing a good story is hard enough without having to worry about your dialogue punctuation.
Our goal in this post is to answer any questions you might have about punctuating dialogue.
One of the main issues with this is knowing the difference between a dialogue tag and an action beat.
With the widespread confusion between the two, it’s high time we spell out some clear rules for commas in dialogue.
When you’re done reading this, you’ll know what belongs where and why.
And your editor will love you for it.
How Do You Write Dialogue Correctly?
First of all, there are two reasons why you need to know the rules for punctuation in dialogue:
#1: Incorrect dialogue will distract your reader and detract from your story.
And while a good editor can fix those mistakes, it’s better to recognize them yourself.
As a writer, you’re always learning how to hone your craft. Correct punctuation is part of that.
#2: How you punctuate your dialogue affects how that dialogue sounds in your reader’s head.
Think of ellipses and dashes. Aside from how they’re used, the presence of each of these makes a character’s words sound different.
And when they’re misused or in a way that creates awkward or artificial pauses, they’ll pull your reader right out of the story.
Much depends on how you punctuate your dialogue. Keep in mind the following benefits of getting it right:
- Your editor will sincerely appreciate your grasp of dialogue punctuation.
- Your readers will also appreciate the lack of distracting punctuation errors.
- Your characters will sound as you intend them to sound in your reader’s head.
How to Punctuate Dialogue: 11 Essential Rules
Look through the following 11 scenarios with their rules and examples to better understand punctuation for each dialogue situation you’re likely to face.
1. Action Beats
Let’s start with the distinction between two things often confused with each other:
- Dialogue tags — like “they said”
- Action beats — like “they laughed/smiled/glowered, etc.”
The two are not interchangeable. While you can link together dialogue and a dialogue tag with a comma, action beats are separated with a period.
Since action beats often come after a piece of dialogue, the distinction becomes clearer when you try to move it to the front:
- Incorrect: “Of course, you didn’t,” he laughed.
- Incorrect: He laughed, “Of course, you didn’t.”
- Correct: “Of course, you didn’t.” He laughed
- Correct: He laughed. “Of course, you didn’t.”
2. Ending Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags tell the reader who’s talking and, sometimes, how they’re expressing the words (e.g., shouted, whispered, droned, etc.).
Anytime you put a tag after a piece of dialogue, place a comma (or question/exclamation mark) inside the ending quotation marks, as you’ll see in the examples below.
- Incorrect: “You’ll never know more than that.” She said.
- Incorrect: “You’ll never know more than that”, she said.
- Correct: “You’ll never know more than that,” she said.
3. Beginning Dialogue Tags
When the dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, separate them with a comma placed after the tag.
- Incorrect: He smiled and said. “I knew it.”
- Incorrect: He smiled and said “I knew it.”
- Correct: He smiled and said, “I knew it.”
Notice the capitalization in dialogue doesn’t change even when it comes after a tag. Inside the quotes, each sentence is capitalized independently of the rest of the sentence.
4. Mid-Sentence Dialogue Tags
When the dialogue tag comes between two pieces of dialogue, your punctuation will depend on the sentence or sentences being separated by the tag.
- Incorrect: “I should have known,” she said, “He did warn me.” (Run-on sentence)
- Correct: “I should have known,” she said. “He did warn me.”
- Correct: “It’s up there,” he said, “in the treehouse.”
- (Technically) Incorrect: “It’s up there,” he said. “In the treehouse.” (Fragment)
In the last example, most readers won’t mind if you put a period after the tag. The rules for sentence fragments are more relaxed when it comes to dialogue since people speak in fragments all the time.
5. Dialogue without Tags
Dialogue without tags is punctuated just as you might expect — with all ending punctuation staying inside the quotation marks.
- Incorrect: “I’ll be waiting outside”.
- Correct: “I’ll be waiting outside.”
- Incorrect: “You’ll never catch me”!
- Correct: “You’ll never catch me!”
- Incorrect: “Are there any treenuts in this”?
- Correct: “Are there any treenuts in this?”
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6. Speaker Changes
Create a new line (or paragraph) each time the speaker changes. Make sure the previous line of dialogue ends with a quotation mark.
Incorrect: She turned and said, “I’m not going with you.” “Why not?” he asked.
She turned and said, “I’m not going with you.”
“Why not?” he asked.
7. Multiple Paragraphs of Dialogue with the Same Speaker
When a speaker’s dialogue spans multiple paragraphs, leave off the ending quotation mark until the dialogue comes to an end.
Begin each new paragraph of continuing dialogue with a quotation mark, as you see in the example below:
She sat down at the table. “You know why I have to do this. After everything I’ve done, there’s no other way to fix it.
And it’s on me. I’m the one who wrote that letter and sent it. That’s why we’re in this mess.
“And yes, there’s a risk. This could go very badly, especially for me. But who more than I should pay the price if it does?
Just promise you won’t follow me, all right? Promise! I need you here with the others. I need to know they’ll be safe.”
8. Indirect Dialogue
Indirect dialogue is dialogue quoted or referenced by someone else. In this case, you’ll only put that dialogue in quotes if the narrator or speaker is quoting it verbatim.
If they’re paraphrasing another’s words, quotation marks aren’t necessary.
- I knew exactly what he meant when he said he’d be back with an old friend.
- I knew exactly what he meant when he said, “I won’t come back alone. I’ll bring someone we both trust.”
9. Quotes within Dialogue
When you have a quote within dialogue — i.e., one speaker is quoting another — the correct way to set off the quoted words is with the opposite type of quotation marks:
- Single quotes if the parent quote is in double quotation marks
- Double quotes if the parent quote is in single quotation marks
- “She’s in the shower right now, singing, ‘Mad World,’ off-key.”
- “He left a note that said, ‘I’m so sick of hearing you say, “Not my problem”!’”
When a question mark or exclamation point appears outside a quotation mark, it applies to the larger sentence or quote.
- “I cannot believe she said, ‘He’s better off without you’!”
- “Did he really say, ‘I’m going without you’?”
10. Internal Dialogue
Internal dialogue refers to dialogue happening inside a character’s head. There are two distinct types:
- Indirect — with no quotation marks or other formatting changes
- Example: “He stood at the top of the stairs watching her collect her things from her locker. In just a few seconds, she’d be heading up, and he’d have the perfect opportunity.”
- Direct — as if the speaker’s exact thoughts were being broadcast to the reader — with italics to set it apart from surrounding text.
- Example: “He stood at the top of the stairs watching her collect her things from her locker. Just a few seconds more, he thought, and she’ll be heading up. I’m ready for this. I can do this!”
11. Ellipses and Dashes
Some punctuation has more to do with the mood you want to set than with obeying a set of rules.
While commas can help create brief pauses by breaking up a sentence, sometimes you want a longer pause. And sometimes, you want to speed things up.
This is why we have ellipses and dashes, which, when carefully used, can make your dialogue sound more natural and convey a specific mood:
- Ellipses (…) show pauses or lapses in thought.
- Dashes ( — ) show an interruption and can convey a sense of urgency.
How you use these will affect how the dialogue sounds in your reader’s head.
- “You didn’t… I thought you were going to… What happened?” (vs. “You didn’t. I thought you were going to. What happened?”)
- “Ummm… Yeah. This is a bad time. I’m just… gonna go.” (vs. “Ummm, yeah, this is a bad time. I’m just gonna go.”)
- She shook her head. “I just thought—”
“—You thought what? That I already knew?” He threw the book out the window.
Dashes can also create longer pauses or set apart something that needs stronger emphasis:
- “She packed them this morning — one for each of us — because she knew you’d forget.”
How Do You Punctuate Dialogue? More Questions and Examples
#1 — You’ve seen dialogue tags between lines of dialogue. But how do you put dialogue in the middle of a sentence? Look to the following examples for an answer.
- He smiled and said, “You came,” gently taking her hand.
- She ran to the edge, screaming, “Don’t let it touch you!” before diving into the river.
- “I knew you were onto me when you said, ‘He’s as green as they get,’ but you let me come anyway.”
#2 — How do you punctuate a dialogue question?
If the words between the quotation marks pose the question, the question mark belongs there, too — right at the end of the question and before the quotation mark.
- I walked up to him and took his hand. “When did you get here?”
- “Is this a regular thing around here?” he asked.
When the question is posed by the larger sentence or line of dialogue, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks for the embedded quote, as you see in these examples:
- “When is he going to say, ‘Time’s up’? The suspense is killing me!”
- “Is he the one standing in front of the sign that reads, ‘Wait here’?”
Are you ready to properly punctuate dialogue in your next book?
Now that you’ve looked through these 11 rules on punctuating dialogue, which has stood out for you the most? Most writers have at least one nagging question when it comes to punctuation.
If we’ve helped you answer one of them, we’ll consider the time and energy writing this post well spent. We look forward to hearing about how much your editors love you.
The more you put into developing your craft, the more your readers will love you, too.