I’m an avid reader, and I never think twice about the punctuation that makes dialog so easy to read, allowing you to flow from one conversation to the next. With so much exposure to the technique, you’d think it would be easy to reproduce – but nothing could be further from the truth.
Punctuating dialogue properly eludes even the most voracious reader. And, it’s truly no surprise since you must remember more than one rule concerning quotations, terminal marks, and comma use when all mashed together.
Knowing how to punctuate dialogue correctly is important to help develop your characters and make them more interesting to your reader. Take a look at our dialog writing tips to help you develop your storyline for a more exciting read.
The Importance of Well-Written Dialog
Writers depend upon dialog to help bring their characters to life and allow readers to form relationships with the story they are immersed in. Good dialog punctuation helps create flow and clarity, lends tone to the sentences being spoken, and creates connections between characters and the overall storyline.
Poorly constructed sentences that feel wooden and stiff are common mistakes writers make when new to the technique. But, with practice and knowledge of strong dialog sentence structure, it doesn’t take long for them to become more confident writers.
The Rules of Dialog Writing
To avoid errors in dialogue punctuation, you must keep some precise rules in mind.
A good story uses direct and indirect dialogue between characters and dialogue with narration to enhance the storyline. This creates lines of text that can quickly become confusing when punctuation or grammar is ignored or, worse yet – used incorrectly.
Review these ten rules for punctuating dialogue to help create captivating dialogue that draws your reader into an original storyline.
Rule #1: Direct Speech Requires Double Quotation Marks
If you are in the US, you use the double closing quotation marks to indicate spoken, direct dialogue. This is the first step in punctuating dialogue correctly.
- “Mom, Sanna and I only went to the store, and we came right back!” exclaimed Sarah.
- Maxine wasn’t so sure, asking, “If I spoke to Mr. Hooper, would he tell me he saw you there?”
British or Commonwealth English uses a single quotation mark, but both styles indicate the same thing.
This article focuses on the American English standard widely accepted by the Chicago Style Manual to avoid confusion.
Rule #2: Periods (and Other End Marks) Belong Inside Quotation Mark
Misplaced periods and other end marks are common mistakes when writing dialogue. Complete spoken sentences should always end with the end mark inside the quotation marks.
- She reviewed the essay, stating, “You’ll need to proofread for corrections.”
- She watched the light turn green and, glancing sideways, said, “What if we kept driving and just didn’t stop?”
Rule #3: Comma Placement is Dictated by Speaker Attribution
The majority of written dialogue is attributed to a speaker using dialogue tags. This helps a reader keep track of who is speaking, especially when back-and-forth dialog is used between two or more characters.
An attribute is a simple way to give credit to a speaker. These can be as simple as she said or he replied. They can also be more detailed, providing tone or behavioral hints, such as she rolled her eyes, leaned forward, and whispered.
When the attribute comes before the dialogue, place the comma outside the quotation marks.
- She exclaimed, “There is no way I will be involved with that plan.”
- He wasn’t impressed, looked her in the eyes, and stated, “You promised to take part in this all.”
When the attribute comes after dialogue, you place the comma inside the quotation marks.
- “I’m heading to the store,” Sarah told her mother.
- “Go straight there and back,” was the reply.
Rule #4: Always Begin New Sentences with a Capitalization
Dialogue dictates that new sentences always begin with capitalization, even when following an attribute. This may be slightly different than other rules of quotation use, but it is important to help highlight the speech of your characters.
- She turned to him smiling and spoke her thoughts aloud, “If I were to leave, what would you do?”
Do not capitalize dialog that follows an interrupting attribute.
- He smiled back, “I’d follow you,” he replied, “anywhere you go.”
Rule #5: Start a New Paragraph Each Time the Speaker Changes
One of the most important rules of organizing dialogue is to begin a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. This provides a visual of who is speaking and is especially important to avoid the overuse of attributes during back-and-forth dialogue.
To indicate a new paragraph, leave a space between each line.
“Why are you here so early?” asked the teacher, looking down on the little blond head riddled with cowlicks.
The student looked up at her, blinking, “I need to study for my test today, and our power was out at the house.”
“Oh no! Of course, you can study here. I was just going to make some coffee. Would you like some cocoa to help get focused?”
“Yes. Thank you!”
“No problem. You can study early anytime you need to. I’m almost always here by this time.” She walked into the lounge, shaking her head, knowing he wasn’t the only student that needed a warm, lighted place to start the day in.
Rule #6: Use Action Beats to Replace Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags can become very monotonous in their use and take away from the tone of what is being said when overused. Consider using action beats that describe what the character is doing while they are speaking to help add detail and action to your dialogue.
Dialogue punctuation rules stay the same with action beats.
“Hmmmmm.” He rubbed his chin and glanced at the clock. “I’m just as confused as you are, but at the moment, I don’t have time to think about it.” He stood up, ushering the children towards the door. “Come back tomorrow when we can discuss this further.”
“But, tomorrow will be too late!” The children turned away from the door. “By then, she could be gone altogether!”
Rule #7: Avoid Closing Quotations Between Paragraphs of Speech
When a character speaks more than a few sentences in a row, you can split their extended speech up into multiple individual paragraphs. When you do this, you indicate to the reader the speech is not over by omitting the closing punctuation marks.
Still provide open quotation marks at the start of the new paragraph.
“It wasn’t difficult for me to find out what you all had been up to last night.” His mother looked them over, “I had the porch camera on, and it triggered the garage light. When I saw that come on, I knew somebody had to be coming in through the back to avoid waking me up. What you didn’t know was I was already awake.
“Although I didn’t say anything at the time, I checked with Mark’s mother this morning, and she let me know he had told her he was staying over here.” She wasn’t happy, and he knew he was in for it.
She continued on, “You told me you were staying at Mark’s house. So, of course, I wanted to know what you both were hiding from us.
“When I saw that you had the cellar door cracked open, I knew where you had to be keeping her.” She paused, “James, I told you we couldn’t afford to feed another dog, and now she’s down there with her puppies. What did you do that night? Go out to the tracks and carry them all back here thinking I would never notice?”
He nodded, “But, mom…” and looked up at her, “they would have died if we left them out there.”
Rule #8: Use Em-Dashes and Ellipses to Interrupt Speech
If you need to indicate an interruption in dialogue due to being cut off or a pause in speech, then you will use an em-dash or ellipses within the quotation marks.
“I know you care a lot about him, but — “
She interrupted, “You don’t understand that he’s just a friend!”
“— you aren’t going to camp with him this summer.” Her father finished.
“Listen, I just need to know what is going on…” she looked at her beseechingly.
Jen sighed, “I’ll explain it all one day. I just can’t right now.”
Rule #9: Use Single Quotes When Your Character is Quoting Someone or Something
If you are wondering how to use quotation marks within the dialogue to indicate a character directly quoting another, you need to use single quotation marks. A dialogue with quotes within it specifically highlights the thoughts or words of another person.
“Tell me what the professor said was going to be on the test again.”
“He said the test would last 2 hours and to ‘read through the first two chapters, review all the vocabulary, and be able to explain the photosynthesis process.’”
Rule #10: Use Italics for Thoughts and Internal Monologues
Avoid using quotations for internal dialogue and monologues. Although, as an author, you can take artistic license and choose to use quotations, it is generally accepted to use italics in this manner if your text also includes spoken dialogue to avoid confusing the two. Just be sure to be consistent with their use.
The kitten sat at the window, eyes big and begging to be let inside.
Kimberly knew her mother would be mad, but, What she doesn’t find out won’t kill her, she thought as she opened the window.
Writing dialog punctuation isn’t as tricky as it may seem at first as long as you follow these dialogue example rules. End marks, commas, and quotation marks in a dialog should be kept consistent in their use to provide clarity and flow to written conversation.
Always enclose dialog in double quotation marks, using single quotation marks to indicate a quote spoken by a character. End parks belong inside the quotations, while comma placement is determined by speaker attribution.