How to Punctuate Dialogue

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Punctuating dialogue is often tricky for writers. And this makes total sense because when you look at a page of dialogue, a lot of what’s happening seems contradictory: there’s a period being used at the end of a phrase of dialogue here, but a comma there; on one line, the first word after the dialogue is capitalized, but on another line, the first word is lowercase. What’s going on???

The craziness of English grammar is going on, which unfortunately you have to deal with. Unfair, right? Well, let’s try and make things a little more fair by helping you make sense of the insanity.

Quotation Marks

Luckily, one aspect of dialogue, quotation marks, are pretty easy. When your character says something, you put these little fellows “” around his dialogue.

“But I don’t want to go to mage school!” Terrence said.

But what about single quotation marks? Use those for dialogue inception: a quote within a quote. Okay, actually not quite inception… Only grammar jedis can punctuate quotes within quotes within quotes.

“And then she was like, ‘your hair is disgusting!’ And then I was like, ‘OMG!’” said Emily.

Paragraphs and Dialogue

Start a new paragraph whenever a new character starts talking.

“What are you doing?” Tammy asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

This is to make it easy for the reader to tell who’s talking. If you put all of the dialogue spoken by one character on one line, and all of the dialogue spoken by another on a new line, then the reader knows that everything said on line #1 is said by character #1.

Using Commas in Dialogue

Put commas at the end of a phrase of dialogue, inside the quotation marks, if you are following the dialogue up with a dialogue tag.

A dialogue tag is anything along the lines of she said, said he, Tammy said, the dragon yelled, and so on. And when a dialogue tag is signaling who said the dialogue directly before it, then it’s never capitalized (unless the first word of the dialogue tag is a proper noun, like a name).

“I’m afraid,” she whispered.

“I’m hungry,” Robby moaned.

Also, put a comma after a dialogue tag if the dialogue tag comes before the dialogue.

She said, “Give me my sword!”

In the above example, the dialogue tag is capitalized because it’s not signaling who said dialogue before it. Instead, it’s signaling who said dialogue after it. Make sense?

Periods in Dialogue

Put a period at the end of a string of dialogue if you don’t follow the dialogue up with a tag. Simple, eh?

“Stop that.” She glared at him.

Exclamation Points and Question Marks

The rules for exclamation points and question marks in dialogue are like a fusion of the rules for periods and commas. If you follow an exclamation point up with a dialogue tag, then its rules are the same as the comma’s. If you don’t follow it up with a dialogue tag, then its rules are the same as the period’s.

“I can’t believe you would do such a thing!” she cried.

“I can’t believe you’re such an idiot!” She stormed off.

In the above example, when a dialogue tag came after the exclamation mark, it was kept lowercase, just like what happens with the comma. But when there was no dialogue tag, the text that came after the exclamation mark was capitalized.

The same rules apply to question marks.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“What are you doing?” He raised his eyebrows.

Capitalizing Dialogue

Capitalize the first word of a phrase of dialogue if it’s a complete sentence (even if it’s preceded by a comma).

He said, “Actually, I don’t like pizza.”

Most of your dialogue will have the first word capitalized.

However, if the dialogue is only a sentence fragment, and it’s in the middle or end of another sentence, then the first word is kept lowercase.

“What exactly,” she said, “are you doing?”

Punctuating Multiple Sentences of Dialogue Said by the Same Character

Like I said above, you would keep all of the dialogue said by the same character, on one line, like this.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” John said. “I thought we were friends!”

“Well, you thought wrong,” she sneered.

Now we get to the really confusing part. Did you notice how John’s dialogue tag had a period at the end of it even though it was followed up by more dialogue? This is because the dialogue tag signaled who said the first sentence of dialogue, but because the second sentence of dialogue is on the same line as the first sentence, there’s no need to tell who said it; it’s obvious John said the second sentence as well.

Also, putting a comma at the end of John’s dialogue tag would have been incorrect because the next sentence of dialogue is, in fact, a new sentence. Using a comma after the dialogue tag would have turned poor John’s speech into a run-on sentence.

Alternatively, we could have used John’s dialogue tag to show he was saying the second sentence instead of using it to signal that he said the first.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.” John said, “I thought we were friends!”

However, doing that is pretty uncommon, and most readers prefer you use the dialogue tag to signal the first sentence of dialogue instead of the second, just because that’s what they’re used to.

Interrupted Dialogue

There are times when you may want to interrupt your character’s speech with a dialogue tag or description. There are a few different ways to punctuate this, depending on what exactly you’re interrupting the dialogue with.

Rule 1. Use commas when inserting a dialogue tag in the middle of your character’s sentence.

“Someday,” he said, “you can do that.”

Because you’re following the first phrase of dialogue (“Someday”) with a dialogue tag, you put a comma inside the quotation marks. Then, because the character never got to finish their sentence, you follow the dialogue tag with another comma and keep the first word of the ensuing dialogue, lowercase.

Rule 2. Use em dashes when inserting an action or description in the of your character’s sentence.

“Well, I just think”—she hesitated—“that it’s a bad idea.”

Notice that, unlike our comma example, the em dash is kept outside of the quotation marks. Also notice there are no commas.

Rule 3. Use an em dash or an ellipsis when your character is interrupted by another character.

“Well, I just think—”

“You think what?” he interrupted.

“Let me tell you about…”

“No, this is more important!”

Rule 4. If character #1 interrupts character #2, but character #2 finishes what they were saying, put em dashes and ellipsis after and before character #2’s dialogue.

“Well, I just think—”

“You think what?” he interrupted.

“—that it’s a bad idea.”

Make sure you don’t capitalize the second half of the interrupted character’s sentence.

Now you’re ready to write some awesome (and grammatically correct) dialogue! Go craft some compelling conversations!

Dialogue Exercise: Write Each of the Following

  • A sentence of dialogue with a dialogue tag after it
  • A sentence of dialogue with an action immediately after it
  • A sentence of dialogue spoken by one character, followed with a sentence spoken by another character
  • A sentence of dialogue, ending with an exclamation point, with a dialogue tag immediately after it

Sophia Uhlenhoff

Sophia is a writer of soft sci-fi and fantasy, who spends more time daydreaming about her books than actually writing them. She also enjoys procrastinating by playing Skyrim. If you see her, tell her to go write.

Currently, she's a student of creative writing at Boise State University and a Chaos Gate author at Fiction Vortex. Her dream is to live in a tree house next to a waterfall and have a pet bunny named Mr. Floofers.

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