start here

How to Punctuate Dialogue

by Stacey Bowditch

Whether what you’re writing is complete fiction or not, dialogue is perhaps one of the most important aspects of your story. It helps convey important information, relationships, character personality, and the flow of the narrative.

Books without dialogue generally struggle to keep the reader’s attention and are often cited as a hard read. For instance, despite its absolute phenomenal success, The Lord of The Rings books are almost as famous for their lack of dialogue as they are for their plot-line. Making it through the books is often seen as no mean feat.

Writing dialogue, and doing it well, is one aspect of story writing that often stumps authors. But it’s vital to remember that writing dialogue isn’t about trying to replicate a real life conversation. Seriously, write a real life conversation word for word and you’ll soon realise that they’re dull. And often crammed with tangents, or filler words like ‘err’ and ‘um’.

But knowing what to write isn’t the only problem. Authors—especially those new to the craft—can find it difficult to know how to punctuate dialogue. If you struggle with this too, then keep reading. Soon all your dialogue punctuation queries will be solved…

Identifying speech: Using quotation marks

When you add dialogue to your story, the first thing you have to do is think about how you’re going to identify the fact that somebody’s talking. Using italics doesn’t cut it. Italics are usually saved for when somebody is having an internal thought—a very different thing and something you do not want your readers getting confused about.

Depending on whether you’re in the US or the UK, plus the house style of the publishing house, the most common indicator of speech you’ll see are either single or double quotation marks. Double quotation marks ( “ ) are more common in the US, while single ( ‘ ) are more common in the UK.

If self-publishing, whichever one you choose will mostly depend on personal preference. However, you should consider what is most common for the countries where you plan to publish; common punctuation helps to avoid drawing the reader out of the story. The most important thing is that whichever style you choose, you must be consistent.

Quotes within dialogue

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to identify speech—whether it’s with single or double quotation marks—you may find that at some point, a character will be quoting what somebody else has said. So how do you go about identifying a quote within dialogue?

It’s actually very simple. You just use the opposite of what you’ve already chosen. So, if you’ve chosen single quotation marks to identify dialogue, you will use double quotation marks to identify a quote within speech.

For example:
When using single quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
‘I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said “As if!” in that perfect high-school voice she has.’

When using double quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
“I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said ‘As if!’ in that perfect high-school voice she has.”

This is how your quotation marks look. Smart quotation marks, sometimes referred to curly quotation marks, are those that curl towards the text at both the beginning and the end. Undirectional, or straight, quotation marks, do not curl towards the text. It’s important to note that in mainstream publishing, it’s conventional to use smart (curly) quotation marks. Not all fonts have curly quotation marks so you may want to read up on how to add them in manually.

Commas and full stops within tagged speech

So you’ve identified what is dialogue by using quotation marks, but how do you now punctuate it correctly to identify which character said it? Knowing where to put commas and full stops within dialogue and dialogue tags is something that often trips writers up.

First, let’s explain the two parts which make up dialogue. There’s the dialogue text and the dialogue tag. The dialogue text is the part of the sentence being spoken, and the dialogue tag (or action) is the part where the speaker is identified (usually in the way of [character name] said).

The rules are pretty simple:

If the dialogue tag follows a complete sentence, put a comma before the closing quotation mark.
Example: “This is an example of a dialogue tag following a complete sentence,” Stacey said.

If the dialogue tag follows a question mark or an exclamation mark, then these also go before the closing quotation mark.
Example: “Is this the right way of using question marks during speech?” Stacey asked. (Just to confirm, yes, this is correct.)

If the dialogue tag or action is before the dialogue text, then the punctuation is reversed. In other words, follow the dialogue tag or action with a comma, before the dialogue text. Then end the dialogue text with a full stop, inside the closing quotation mark.
Example: Trying to explain dialogue punctuation, Stacey said, “The rules are pretty simple once you’ve grasped the basics.”

Ellipsis and Em Dashes

Ellipsis (the three dots: … ) and em dashes (the longest “dash”: — ) are used in mainstream publishing to indicate a significant pause/trailing off and interruption of speech respectively.

The ellipsis can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence, depending on where you want the speech to trail off or where you want the pause to be. But be mindful of not repeating yourself; if you use the ellipsis to indicate a pause or trailing off, then trust your readers will acknowledge it. There is no reason to also add in the dialogue tag that the speaker trailed off/paused as well. It adds unnecessary clutter and actually risks pulling the reader out of the story. Using correct punctuation helps to show your reader what is happening, you don’t then also need to tell.

There are a couple of simple rules to follow when using the ellipsis:
If used at the start of the sentence, add a space between the final period of the ellipsis and the next character (letter or number).
If the ellipsis is used in the middle of a sentence, place a space at the beginning and at the end.
And if it’s used at the end of a sentence, place a space between the last character and the first period of the ellipsis.

(Editor’s note: that said, it is also common to use a space before an ellipsis, or a space after, or a space before and after, or even no spaces at all. Different writers have their own preferences – the important thing is to remain consistent in your style.)

Don’t confuse the em dash with the hyphen or en dash. There are plenty of articles out there which explain the difference so we won’t go into that here, but just note that the em dash is the longest “dash” of the three. Some word processors will automatically change a hyphen into an em dash, but it’s safest to know how to add it into text. To do this on a windows computer, simply hold down the Alt key and type 0151 then release all keys.

In mainstream publishing, the em dash ( — ) represents the interruption of a speaker. Using this form of punctuation instead of adding [character name] interrupted in the dialogue tag can significantly improve the flow and pace of your writing.

People will interrupt speech for a variety of different reasons. It can show emotions like impatience, shock, annoyance, anger, etc. But whatever reason you’re using it, be mindful that, just like with using ellipsis, there is zero reason to add in the dialogue tag that the speaker was interrupted. Let the punctuation do its job.

Formatting dialogue

Formatting dialogue, whether it’s to indicate multiple speakers, long passages of dialogue, or to add a dialogue tag or action between the dialogue is quite simple. But ensure you follow these rules, no matter if you’re in the UK or the US.
Multiple speakers
When there are two people or more involved in dialogue, each persons’ dialogue should be on its own separate line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said.

If the conversation continued, mum’s next dialogue would continue on its own separate line. However, if Stacey was the next person to speak or act, it would continue on the same line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said, heading into the kitchen, “maybe sausages?”

Do you see how the second part of Stacey’s dialogue stayed on her line? If we had moved that down onto its own separate line, it would have implied that her mum had said it.

That’s because not every line needs dialogue tags. And that’s evidenced quite clearly in the example above. There’s no reason to add dialogue tags in the first three sentences, it’s clear who is saying what. Plus, your readers are pretty smart—they’re pretty good at figuring out who’s talking at what point.

Long passages of dialogue

If you only have one speaker, and that speaker has a long piece of dialogue (this is usually advised against as it’s best to try to break up dialogue, but sometimes this isn’t always possible), then the same rules as above apply.

However, you can’t just have one massive wall of text, at some point you will have to add a paragraph break. When you do, you simply need to add an opening quotation mark at the start of the paragraph and only have a closing one when the dialogue is finished.

For example:
“I’m not sure what I’d like for dinner tonight, mum. At first, I thought I might like sausage and mash. But then I remembered I only had mash last night so decided against it.

“Tom mentioned pizza earlier so I do kinda fancy that now, but I know we don’t have any salad to go with it and you know I can’t eat pizza without salad.

“How about a nice chilli con carne? You’re the best at cooking that. And you know it’s my favourite.”

Breaking up dialogue with dialogue tags or action

Sometimes, you will want to add some form of dialogue tag or action between a sentence your character is saying. In this case, the rule is to add a comma before the first closing quotation mark, and then after the dialogue tag or action.

For example:
“I don’t know what I want for dinner,” Stacey sighed in frustration, “just do something simple. Like sausage and mash.”

Less commonly, em dashes without spaces (in the US) and en dashes with spaces (in the UK) are used in place of commas. But their placing goes outside of the closing quotation mark.

For example:

“I don’t know what I want for dinner”—Stacey sighed in frustration—“just do something simple. Like sausage and mash.” (US)

“I don’t know what I want for dinner” – Stacey sighed in frustration – “just do something simple. Like sausage and mash.” (UK)

Punctuating vocative expressions in dialogue

A vocative expression is where you mention a person’s name or use some other way of identifying a person to whom a request or command is being directed.

There are set rules as to how vocative expressions should be punctuated and these rules apply when using them in dialogue, too.

A person’s name, job title, and the pronoun you are all examples of vocative expressions.

If the vocative expression is used at the start of a sentence, place a comma after it.
Example: “Stacey, do you know where I put my keys?”

If the vocative expression is used at the end of a sentence, put a comma before it.
Example: “You don’t know where I left my keys do you, Stacey?”

If the vocative expression is used in the middle of a sentence, place a comma before and after it.
For example: “Hey, Stacey, where did I put my keys?”

Stacey Bowditch

Stacey Bowditch

Stacey is a professional copywriter but loves all things fiction, especially if it’s fantasy based. A creative writer in her spare time, she enjoys sharing tips and knowledge with fellow writers to help writers up their writing game.