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A primer for dialogue punctuation
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.
- 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.
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.
“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.
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.
Excellent. I find so many writers, when doing critiques, especially, find punctuating dialogue difficult. You’ve made it plain in this post.
I read a book for one author to review it. He put the comma after the quote marks every time. I contacted him and pointed this out, and told him the correct way to do it. He replied that he did it that way and wasn’t going to change!
I would take issue with you about the use of ‘said’ every time. As a reader, I find it becomes tedious if every tag is ‘said’. We’re told not to repeat words in close proximity, but to do that very thing with ‘said’.
Having said that, I would tell authors not to try to use a different word for every tag. I think an action can replace many, and also help to show the character’s state of mind.
Instead of ‘he said, angrily,’ or ‘he said, clenching his fists’, you could simply say ‘he clenched his fists.’ no dialogue tag at all.