How to Punctuate Dialogue: The Ultimate Guide

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The vast majority of writers make errors when punctuating the dialog in their novels.  Many writers who make these errors think they have a firm grasp on dialog punctuation.

Though it probably won’t get you rejected by an agent or editor, incorrect punctuation can put them in a very nasty mood (the last thing you want when they’re handling your precious novel).

Commas

Commas are always used with dialog tags, whether they come before or after the dialog.  For example:

“Look at the dog,” he said. [RIGHT]

He said, “Look at the dog.” [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog.” He said.  [WRONG]

He said. “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

If an exclamation point or question mark is used and the dialog tag comes after the dialog, then there should be no comma and the dialog tag should not be capitalized.  For example:

“Did you see the dog?” he asked. [RIGHT]

“Did you see the dog?” He asked. [WRONG]

Dialog Tags

Writers are often confused about what qualifies as a dialog tag.  A dialog tag is only something that references the way the words came out of the character’s mouth.  Any gestures, expressions, movements, etc. should be set apart from the dialog with a period, not connected with a comma.  For example:

8392210897_586b9ec905“Look at the dog,” he exclaimed. [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog,” he smirked. [WRONG]

“Look at the dog,” he pointed. [WRONG]

He jumped up and down, “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

And despite what many writers seem to think, you cannot laugh or sigh dialog.

“Oh, bother,” she sighed. [WRONG]

“Oh, bother,” she said, sighing. [RIGHT]

“Look at that cute puppy,” she laughed. [WRONG]

“Look at that cute puppy.” She laughed. [RIGHT]

If the dialog tag is in the middle of a character speaking, then the dialog is not capitalized after the tag unless it starts a new sentence.  For example:

“I was thinking,” she said, “that maybe you could teach me.” [RIGHT]

“I was thinking,” she said, “That maybe you could teach me.” [WRONG]

“I love that dog,” she said. “He’s so cute.” [RIGHT]

“I love that dog,” she said, “he’s so cute.” [WRONG]

Interrupted Dialog

If the dialog is interrupted by another character speaking, use an em dash.  For example:

“It’s not fai-”

“Shut up!” he said. [RIGHT]

It’s not fai . . .”

“Shut up!” he said. [WRONG]

If the dialog is interrupted by an action, use the em dash outside the quotation marks on either side of the action (unless there is a dialog tag).  For example:

“Can I ask you” -she lifted her head- “to stay here for a while?” [RIGHT]

“Can I ask you,” she lifted her head, “to stay here for a while?” [WRONG]

“Can I ask you,” she said, lifting her head, “to stay here for a while?” [RIGHT]

Landscape

Trailing Dialog

If a character trails off, an ellipsis should be used.  Despite what many people think, an ellipsis is only three periods. For example:

“I just thought maybe . . .” [RIGHT]

“I just thought maybe…………” [WRONG]

Multiple Paragraphs of Dialog

If your dialog needs to run multiple paragraphs without dialog tags breaking it up, then each paragraph that is not the last paragraph should have no quotation mark at the end of it.  For example:

“My dear, sweet Love.  I love you so much that I can barely take it. You are the sun and the moon and the stars to me and you always will be.

“Unless, of course, you betray me, then I will cut off your head and put it on a stake,” he said. [RIGHT]

If any of these correct punctuations look weird to you, it’s only because you’ve seen it done wrong so many times that it has started to look right!

Need more than just help with punctuation? Check out my editing services.

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15 thoughts on “How to Punctuate Dialogue: The Ultimate Guide

  1. Tessa Bertoldi says:

    Reblogged this on Tessa Bertoldi and commented:
    There were several discussions on the proper use of dialog at the SFWC this year. Many new authors struggle with it. I will be sure to put this on my editing checklist! Good advice.

  2. Linda Vernon says:

    Ellen, one stop shopping for dialogue punctuation! Thank you so much!! I needed this and didn’t even know it. It makes me wonder how many other punctuation errors I make. I shudder to think . . .

  3. Gah says:

    > “Unless, of course, you betray me, then I will cut off your head and put it on a stake,” he said.

    This sentence is not quite grammatically sound; “then” ought to be replaced with “in which case” or an equivalent phrase. This is because the sentence lacks a clause that could stand as an independent sentence, and instead each half (“unless…” and “then…”) grammatically depend on the other half.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      This is an example of dialogue. People do not speak with perfect grammar. If you try to use perfect grammar in your dialogue, it will seem extremely unnatural.

  4. mehanausharani says:

    Hello! This article was such a good read! But I just have one more doubt! Are dialogues in a dialogues alright?
    Like for example:
    Tim broke the silence. He said, “Mom went crazy, last night. She started screaming “Fire!” and ran around the house.”

    Because I want to emphasise that Tim tried to mimic the way his mom said fire. I’m guessing dialogues in a dialogues don’t work. But do you have any advice on how I can convey Tim’s action?

    Thank you and have a pleasant week ahead!

  5. Realdeo says:

    So something like this is wrong (referring to the dialog tag section that dialog tag should be something that only mouth made.)

    “So how’s our project doing?” he asked from the toilet.

    If it’s incorrect, then what’s the right one?

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