You’ve written the best chapter of your life, full of emotion, suspense, and … dialogue. Now you just have to figure out how to punctuate that dialogue properly. Dialogue punctuation can be confusing, but once you learn the basic rules, you’ll be well on your way to writing the perfect scene.
Whenever you have lines or passages intended to be spoken by characters, it's called dialogue. You’ll use quotation marks in your dialogue — any time you are indicating in writing that a person or character is saying something. There are two primary ways to categorize dialogue: direct and indirect.
Direct dialogue is when you quote exactly what a person is saying using double quotation marks to set these quotes apart. Most of the time the punctuation will go inside the quotation marks (more on these rules in a bit).
Indirect dialogue is when you're loosely reporting what someone said without providing an exact quote. For example, in the line, He told me he wakes with the morning sun every day, no quotation marks are used, and the sentence is punctuated normally.
When it comes to dialogue, you’ll generally indicate who is speaking by using a phrase like “she said” (this is known as a tag). Regardless of whether the tag comes before or after the quote, you should capitalize the first word of the quote. Looking at loads of dialogue examples will help you get the hang of all these rules.
When the dialog tag comes first, you need to place a comma after "said" (or whichever verb you use to describe them talking) and before the opening quotation marks.
- He said, "I wake with the morning sun every day."
- I always think, “Today is the day I will go for a run.”
- Alice wondered, “Why is the sky blue?”
- The fans chanted, “Go, team, go!”
Other times, you will see the dialog tag after the quote. In these cases, you should place a comma at the end of the quote before the closing quotation marks, and then finish the sentence normally.
- "I wake with the morning sun every day," he said.
- “Today is the day I will go for a run,” I always think.
- “Come join us," they yelled.
However, if the quoted text ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, include that inside the closing quotation mark instead of using the comma.
- "I wake with the morning sun every day!" he said.
- “Why is the sky blue?” Alice wondered.
- “Go, team, go!” the fans chanted.
Sometimes, dialogue gets broken up by a tag. For example, the author might insert an action or add a detail about what's going on in a character's mind. There are two ways to do this.
First, the tag might be placed in between two sentences. The first sentence typically ends with a comma (unless it’s a question or exclamation), because the speaker is mentioned at the end of that sentence. The quote continues after that and begins with a capital letter because it’s the beginning of a new sentence.
- "I don't love you anymore," she said. "But, you can rest assured I'll never forget you."
- “I’m so hungry,” Gerald whined. “Can we please get dinner now?”
- “How long have we been hiking?” he asked. “I need a break!”
You can also place the tag in the middle of one sentence, which gets broken up by commas. The second part of the quote is not capitalized, because it is a continuation of the first part.
- "I don't love you anymore," she said, "but you can rest assured I'll never forget you."
- “Where will we end up,” he asked, “if we continue down this path?”
- “Time is a construct,” Sana stated seriously, “to help us structure our lives, nothing more.”
Punctuation goes beyond question marks and commas, of course. There are many ways you can use different punctuation marks to add life to your dialogue. Start with some of the following tips.
Ellipses are a great way for writers to dramatize a scene. You can use ellipses to indicate awkward or extended pauses, building anticipation.
A comma is not needed following an ellipsis. You don't need a period for an ellipsis either because you're not ending the sentence. Rather, you're deliberately expressing that the thought wasn't complete.
He caught her off-guard and asked her what she was doing in this room.
"I'm umm … I'm just …" she stuttered.
Dashes can also add drama to dialogue. Typically, they're used to create a sense of urgency, such as if one speaker is cutting off the other to get right to the point.
"Help! I've looked everywhere for my guitar and I can't find it! I think maybe Robbie—"
"You think maybe Robbie, what, stole it?"
Just like ellipses, dashes don't require a period or comma within the quotation marks.
There are times when a character in a story or play may be quoting someone else. If that’s the case, you’ll need to use single quotation marks to punctuate the quoted portion of the dialogue. This can seem like a complex situation, but the key is to break things down.
Start with the quote the character is using, and put that in single quotation marks. Then use regular double quotation marks for the character’s dialogue.
- “My favorite part of the play,” Jim said, “was when Hamlet said, ‘To be or not to be…’.”
- Sofia explained, "I did not jump because you said, 'Boo!'"
- "Are you telling me that 'Sweet dreams are made of cheese' are not the actual lyrics?" he asked.
There are certain instances where it's grammatically correct to place punctuation outside of quotation marks. Knowing when to punctuate dialogue this way is important. Specifically, when the punctuation applies to the entire sentence, it should be placed outside of the quotation marks.
- Did Joseph really say, "She deserved it"?
- How many people replied, “Yes”?
Once you've nailed down punctuating your dialogue, you'll need to consider some specific formatting rules related to that dialogue.
If you’re writing a conversation, you can show the change in speakers by giving each speaker a new line in the text when the dialogue switches to them. This makes the conversation easy for the reader to follow.
“What did you do at school today?” Adam’s dad asked.
“Nothing,” Adam said, shrugging.
His dad gave him a hard look and asked, “Didn’t you have a test?”
Adam whispered, “Yeah.”
Sometimes, the dialogue doesn’t mention the speaker at all. This occurs often in conversations when the reader can follow the exchange of words between people. The key is to start a new line every time the speaker changes.
Maria hastily packed her bag. “I’m going to be late for my flight!” she cried.
Roberto stood in the doorway. “Do you really have to go?”
“I’ve already told you, I can’t miss this conference.”
“What’s more important, work or us?”
She faltered for only a moment. "I … will not give up on my dreams, no matter what."
When one speaker is talking for more than one paragraph, you do not close each paragraph with quotation marks.
Instead, only the last paragraph ends with quotation marks. However, each new paragraph still needs to have an opening quotation mark.
Joan enthusiastically exclaimed, "Oh, you simply must visit Ireland at some point in your life!
"You'll find the people are genuinely nice and eager to help. Very rare is it for you to meet someone looking to cop an attitude with you.
"The lush greenery is show-stopping. The land seems to just blend into the horizon.
"And where else can you go to find 10th-century ruins down the road from a brand new shopping center?"
Good dialogue punctuation isn't hard to achieve. If you can keep track of who the speaker is, you’re halfway there. The main thing to remember is to use commas to separate the speaker’s tag from the quote (unless it’s a question or exclamation). Don’t be afraid to be creative with your dialogue, too, and to use it in different forms of creative writing.