Wednesday, March 09, 2016

How to Punctuate Dialogue

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

How we punctuate dialogue tells our readers how to read that dialogue. We can show pauses, questions, interruptions, who’s speaking and how they’re doing it. It’s a useful tool for telling our stories.

If it’s been a while since you were in a classroom, or you’re new to writing and still figuring out the rules of dialogue, let’s look at some common questions for punctuating dialogue in a story.

First, some general dialogue rules:
  • Dialogue is opened and closed by quotation marks: “I’ll be in the car.”
  • Start a new paragraph for each speaker.
  • If the dialogue is a new thought, start a new paragraph. This is seen mostly when we have a paragraph of narrative, then some dialogue. If the dialogue is part of the narrative, it can often stay in that paragraph, but if it’s a different thought or topic, it gets its own paragraph. For example:
It wasn’t as if she liked being first in the car every time, she just got ready faster. Hardly her fault, right? They didn’t have to take that tone with her. She crossed her arms and glared at them. “Who cares if I’m the first one out?”
It wasn’t as if she liked being first in the car every time, she just got ready faster. Hardly her fault, right? They didn’t have to take that tone with her.
“You guys going or what?” she asked.

1. Where Does the Punctuation Go?

Since dialogue is often part of a sentence, it can be tricky knowing if it needs a period or a comma. If the dialogue continues into the tag (the text that shows who’s speaking) you’d use a comma:
“I’ll be in the car,” Bob said, heading for the door.

Bob said, heading for the door isn’t its own sentence. The two parts of this sentence work together, so they’d need a comma. But if they were two separate sentences, you’d use a period.
“I’ll be in the car.” Bob headed for the door.

Bob headed for the door isn’t dependent on “I’ll be in the car” to understand it. This is the same whether you use said Bob or Bob said.
“I’ll be in the car,” Bob said, heading for the door.
“I’ll be in the car,” said Bob, heading for the door.

For dialogue that comes after the tag, the same rules apply.
Bob headed for the door and said, “I’ll be in the car.”
Jane looked at her and said, “he told me he’d be in the car.”
Bob headed for the door. “I’ll be in the car.”

Question marks and exclamation points also work the same way. Is it part of the same sentence, or a different sentence? The difference here is whether or not you’d capitalize the first word after the dialogue.
“Is Bob in the car?” she said, peeking out the window.

The tag is part of the sentence, so you’d use a lowercase S for she. But if the tag were its own sentence, you’d capitalize the S.
“Is Bob in the car?” She peeked out the window.

2. What if the Dialogue is More Than One Sentence?

Follow the same rules. If the tag is part of the sentence, use a comma, question mark, or exclamation point followed by a lowercase letter. If separate sentences, use a period, question mark, or exclamation point followed by an uppercase letter.
“Bob left ten minutes ago,” he said. “You can still catch him.”
“Bob left ten minutes ago.” He looked out the window. “I think you can still catch him.”

There are also situations where the dialogue is broken by action, but the dialogue is all part of the same thought. In these cases, you’d use a comma followed by a lowercase letter, then another comma and lowercase letter.
“I think Bob left,” said Jane, peeking out the window, “but you might be able to catch him.”

The line “I think Bob left, but you might be able to catch him” is all one thought. The tag and action just splits it in two.

If the character is talking for a long time, as in a speech, the rules for quotation marks are a little different. You’d start the paragraph with quotation marks, but not use any to end it until the speech was done. For example:
“I’m tired of always being the last one to the car,” Bob said, gearing up for a long speech. “I’ve decided that I’m not going to do it anymore, and I’m going to head out first before anyone else has a chance.

“This might sound selfish, but it’s the only way I can maintain my sanity in this crazy, crazy world we find ourselves in.”

With both paragraphs being Bob’s speech, the first paragraph skips the end quotation mark, which shows readers the speech continues. This lets us break the dialogue into the proper paragraphs without it getting confusing for readers as to who is still speaking.

3. How Do You Show Interruptions?

If you need to show someone interrupting, use an em dash. An em dash is the long double hyphen looking thing —
“I’ll be in the—”
“Don’t start that again, Bob,” he said.

If the dialogue is broken, then continues, you’d use the em dashes same as you would commas.
“It looks like we have—” Bob checked his watch “—three hours.”

4. How Do You Show Trailing Speech?

If the dialogue trails off, use ellipses. An ellipse is the three periods in a row, no spaces between them …
Bob sighed. “I just thought…” That was his first mistake—thinking.

If only part of the dialogue is heard, you might denote walking in on a conversation, or only catching bits of it the same way.
“…wasn’t sure if he was going or not,” she whispered. 
He pressed his ear against the door, straining to hear. “…thought maybe…but it wasn’t the same…get rid of…”

5. Does Punctuation Go Inside or Outside the Quotation Marks?

All the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, unless there is a quote within the dialogue itself.
“He said he would be in the car,” Jane told her.
Jane giggled. “Did he really say,“I’ll be in the car?” (quoted dialogue within dialogue)
Jane hesitated. Did he really say, “I’ll be in the car”? (quoted dialogue within an internal thought)

If the quote within the dialogue is at the end of the sentence, the punctuation goes inside the quotation mark.
Jane giggled. “He said, “I’ll be in the car.”

With quotes, there is some debate between single and double quote marks. Personal taste and house style can affect this.
Jane giggled. “He said, ‘I’ll be in the car’.”

English is a weird language, so there are bound to be strange situations that require unusual punctuation, but these will work for most of your storytelling needs. When in doubt, refer to your favorite grammar guide or check online.

Do you have any dialogue punctuation questions?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. The most consistent mistake I see in self-published novels is the lack of a comma when addressing someone in dialog.

    It's "Get in the dang car Bob." Instead of the correct version, "Get in the dang car, Bob."

  2. Excellent reminder. Thanks for giving us this quick cheatsheet for dialogue.

  3. This is a great post. I could use on on when to capitalize words like doctor or sheriff.

  4. Janice, you wrote:
    Jane giggled. “He said, ‘I’ll be in the car’.”

    I think it should be:
    Jane giggled. “He said, ‘I’ll be in the car.’”

    As a rule of thumb, in American English, periods always go inside quotation marks.

    1. Hmm, my sourcebooks said differently, but that doesn't mean they're right :) Thanks! I know sometimes views on these things differ.

  5. Thank you, thank you. This post is a timely addition to my writer's toolkit.

  6. Thank you, Janice! This post is an excellent and much needed article concerning dialogue punctuation. I also have it in my writer's toolkit.

  7. just searched your blog because I was second guessing punctuation and dialogue tags. Thanks!

  8. As always, you are most welcome :)

  9. I'm editing a story where the main character is telling a story. I know I need to use a double quote mark at the beginning of each paragraph and leave the end quote off. What I'm unsure of is how to punctuate the dialogue within paragraphs and individual speakers she is quoting. Here's what I think I need to do but it gets really unwieldy. Am I correct?

    “I leaned my mouth down over his ear and I whispered, ‘I hope you are magic like Nate said cause we need Nugget Nate now.’ 
    “Then I set him back where he came from. One of the men saw it and laughed. ‘Well I’ll be, lookie here, boys. Someone done stuck antlers on top of this here stuffed rabbit. Ain’t that a hoot.’ He held him out for the others to see.
    “The last man to arrive shuddered. ‘Get rid of that thing, Bill it gives me the creeps.’
    “‘Oh, Jed, it’s just a bit of funny work that’s all.’

    1. That looks right. The speaker is telling the tale, sort of like giving a speech, correct? If so, then yes, that is how you do it.

  10. Thanks. I've been wondering this. Just a question. I use Open Office and it doesn't like to do the double -- thing. How do I go around that issue?

    1. I don't know the code offhand, but often there's an acsii code to create it (use use the alt key and a number), or you can set it in your preferences.

      But if you don't have an actual em dash, you can use the -- just fine.