Punctuating Dialogue

Punctuating Dialogue

A primer for dialogue punctuation

by Jamie K. Schmidt 

January 7, 2020

 

Even after all these years of writing, one of the things that trips me up is punctuating dialogue correctly. In fact, I told my long-time editor I was writing an article about it and she laughed and laughed. I still have to refer to a little cheat sheet sometimes because I second guess myself. And I’ve rewritten sentences because I couldn’t figure out how to punctuate them correctly. So for you (and me!), the following is a handy reference guide that you can print out and keep by your desk to refer to.

The Basics:
• Dialogue is what is in between the quotation marks.  “This is dialogue.”  The punctuation mark always goes inside the quotation mark.  
• Start a new paragraph when a new person is speaking.
• A dialogue tag is either placed before or after the dialogue to mark who is speaking.  He said/She said/They said are examples of dialogue tags. You don’t always need a dialogue tag. The dialogue can stand on its own, or you can put an action sentence or narrative around the dialogue to make the story flow and progress.
• “Said” is enough.

Most the time, you should use the verb “said” in your dialogue tags, rather than another verb like cried, moaned, related, observed, etc.  The reason is because the reader skims over the word “said” like it wasn’t there. However, another verb in the dialogue tag breaks the reader out of the sentence, and you want to keep readers engaged as much as possible. If you need to show emotion or reaction, show it in the dialogue and not in the tag. See how you react when reading the verbs that aren’t the word “said” in the examples to come and judge for yourself.

If you want to start with the dialogue tag, you must put a comma after it and capitalize the first word of the dialogue.

• She said, “These rules are persnickety.”

However, if you have an action in front of the dialogue, you would punctuate it as two separate sentences.

• He crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ll never remember all of this.”

If you are using a dialogue tag at the end of the dialogue, the dialogue sentence must end with a comma, and the pronoun in front of the tag will begin with a lower-case letter (unless you’re using I as your pronoun). For example:

• “That doesn’t make any sense,” she lamented.
• “My sentence ends here,” he cried.
• “A period should go at the end of a sentence, not a comma,” they whispered mutinously.

It’s done this way because in the case of punctuating the dialogue, the entire quote and dialogue tag are considered one sentence.

• “Is it different if you use a question mark or an exclamation point?” she wondered.
• “No comma!” he shouted. “However, the pronoun is still lower-case.”

If you have an action following the dialogue without a dialogue tag, everything is punctuated as two separate sentences.

• “It’s starting to make sense now.” She rubbed her chin.

Advanced Techniques:
It gets a little trickier when you’re trying to be fancy and have your dialogue tag in the middle of the character’s speech. If the tag is between two sentences, punctuating is easy.  

• “I need a cup of coffee,” he muttered. “Hey, bartender! Do you have any cold brew?”

In this case the first sentence ends with the word “muttered.” And then the new sentence in the second part of the dialogue is capitalized. If you have an action in between two pieces of dialogue, you would punctuate it like three sentences.

• “This is a bar.” The bartender rolled his eyes. “Try Starbucks.”

But what if you want to break up the dialogue mid-sentence?

• “Then all the rules,” said Jamie, having to check the Chicago Manual of Style yet again to see if she’s doing it correctly, “seem to go out the window.”

To simplify it, the entire thing is considered one long sentence. To break it down, they’re all considered clauses and are separated by commas.  And because there isn’t a sentence to end, the word “seem” in the example above does not get capitalized.

The last tricky dialogue punctuation tip I have for you comes when the speaker changes topics in one long dialogue. You won’t use this one often. Every new topic is its own paragraph and begins with a quotation mark, but don’t put an end quote until the absolute end of the dialogue.

For example:
“I went to the break room to get a soda, but the machine was out. So, I walked all the way to the cafeteria and the machine ate my dollar.
“I would have had change, but I needed it for the parking meter.  I was not going to get a ticket.  Not today.
“Anyway, I decided just to stick with water.  It’s healthier.”

I’ll be honest. I probably would never have a dialogue that looked like that last example. I’d break it up with having the character do something or insert some other narrative in between the dialogue to make it flow better.  But it’s your choice. Now that you know the rules, you can decide to work within them or work around them.


Related Links:

Reedsy Blog: Punctuating dialogue
Chicago Manual of Style



USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances.  Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks.  Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller.  Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.

Are you ready to start writing your book? Let us help! Show the Institute for Writers a sample of your work here.

Comments

Linda Triegel (IFW instructor)
January 7, 2020

Right on, Jamie! A simple, but just right explanation. Will pass this on to my students as needed. Two nits to pick, though: I advise against putting a tag at the end of a paragraph of dialogue if it goes on for longer than a line or two; otherwise the tag looks weird hanging off the end like that. Third point under "The Basics" - "either" and "placed" should be reversed (darn modifiers...). Thanks,

Judy Podlesney
January 7, 2020

I just finished reading the book, Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. He uses a long dash (forgot what the dash is called) to indicate the beginning of dialog. It seem less burdensome to me. I have not seen the technique anywhere else. Hope I punctuated these sentences correctly.

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