(Edited on 8/14/16 to add more tips and to reflect the maturity I’ve developed since creating this guide as a little teenager)
Hello! This is primarily a guide on the proper use of punctuation in dialogue, though I have also included some tips on writing dialogue itself. Hopefully my tips here will help clear up any uncertainties you have about punctuating the many forms that dialogue comes in. So, if you’re writing a conversation and you find yourself wondering where that comma should go, whether you should capitalize that pronoun immediately following a line of dialogue, etc., then you’ve come to the right place.
This is written not only for those who have just begun exploring the wonderful world of writing, but also for those who have been writing for as long as they can remember and still need some help with dialogue. I have seen amateur writers write beautifully, with the only flaw (as far as I could see) being their punctuation in dialogue. I have seen errors in published works as well, that have perhaps slipped past the careful eyes of editors, so this is an issue that plagues even the most professional of authors.
While I am not the most amazing writer in the world, I care unusually deeply about punctuation. You could say it’s a passion of mine. The information from this guide comes from a combination of what I’ve retained from elementary school English textbooks, my intense study of the use of punctuation in published fiction, and the internet, for whenever I wanted extra clarity.
Two things before you proceed: 1.) I am American, so this is the American way of doing things. I don’t know if the rest of the world follows the same rules. For example, I have seen British authors using what resembles apostrophes instead of quotation marks to section off dialogue. And 2.) I only use Microsoft Office Word. I haven’t a clue if my punctuation tricks will work on other word processors.
Let’s begin, shall we? I’ve included examples of what not to do along with what you should do, in order to provide some contrast. Everything in red are things you SHOULD NOT do; everything in green is correct. In other words, red = stop, green = go.
**Table of Contents**
1. The period/full stop
2. Question marks and exclamation points
5. Quotes within a quote
6. Varying your dialogue
(Use Ctrl+F to search. Or you can just scroll down. It’s not a very long guide.)
1. The period/full stop
This is what I see often:
- “Daddy, I’m hungry.” She said.
If you don’t see anything wrong with that line, then I just might be able to lend a hand. There are two errors up there: the first period and the dialogue tag. I’ll address the dialogue tag first.
A dialogue tag (the “she said” part) should NEVER be capitalized, unless
- it’s at the beginning of the sentence, or
- you’re using a proper noun (words like Billy or Mrs. Smith) in place of “she.” Standard rule of English.
As soon as you capitalize a pronoun, it indicates it’s starting a new sentence, and dialogue tags are not standalone sentences.
If it’s at the beginning of the sentence, you should write this:
- She said, “Daddy, I’m hungry.”
Notice the comma immediately following the dialogue tag? You need that there. It signals that she is about to say something. Also, don’t forget to leave a space after the comma. I also see these really often, which is wrong:
- She said,”Daddy, I’m hungry.”
- “Daddy, I’m hungry,”she said.
Pretty minor, right? In Microsoft Word, that causes the quotation mark to face the wrong way, making your writing look messy and unprofessional (if you’re writing an article or something). Be careful to remember to put a space where you need it.
Now, back to the first red sentence. The period after “hungry” is wrong. If you do that, it means that “Daddy, I’m hungry” is a one complete sentence, and “she said” is a whole new sentence completely. But you want it to be one sentence, so instead of a period, use a comma. This should also be INSIDE the quotation marks. So, not like this:
- “Daddy, I’m hungry”, she said.
But like this:
- “Daddy, I’m hungry,” she said.
Got it? It’s really easy once you learn the rules.
If you are writing a line of dialogue without an accompanying dialogue tag, then you can end with a period if that’s the appropriate punctuation mark.
- “Daddy, I’m hungry.”
2. Question marks and exclamation points
For a question mark, however, you don’t add a comma or change anything. Leave it like this:
- “What do you want to eat?” he asked.
As always, don’t capitalize the “he.” You want one sentence, not two. You still use the comma if the dialogue tag comes first, though:
- He asked, “What do you want to eat?”
For exclamation points, do the exact same thing:
- “Cake!” said Carina.
A little note about exclamation points: Use them sparingly. If your writing has too many in one place, it looks really, really corny. It’s also not a good idea to use more than one in a row, which makes the writer seem childish. Similarly, don’t do that that with question marks, either. Avoid these:
- “Cake!!!!” said Carina.
- “Cake???” he repeated.
Also, don’t do this, with the question mark/exclamation point hybrid:
- “Cake?!” they squealed.
I like to do those things in my informal blog posts, but never in fiction that I’m publishing somewhere.
The dash. Effective if used correctly, annoying if abused. I should probably start out by teaching you how to create dashes. In Microsoft Word, at least.
First, the short ones used in here are hyphens, not dashes.:
- Recoiling, she shakes her head and moves away-those won’t do.
- Recoiling, she shakes her head and moves away – those won’t do.
- Recoiling, she shakes her head and moves away- those won’t do.
There’s probably a simpler way to make dashes (those MS Word shortcuts, for example), but I’ve always done it like this. To make a dash in Microsoft Word, do the following:
- Add a hyphen immediately after the word (don’t press space): moves away-
- Add a second hyphen right after that (sorry, you can’t see it here because they merged into one): moves away–
- Do not press space. Just type the next word: moves away–those
- Now press space. The two hyphens will combine and lengthen into a dash. WordPress won’t do this for me, so I had to copy and paste from Word: moves away—those
And there you go. It looks nice with Times New Roman font, but for other fonts (like Verdana), the dash can be rather short-looking, not much different than a single hyphen. If you want, you can go back into your sentence and add one space on either side of the dash.
- Recoiling, she shakes her head and moves away — those won’t do.
I don’t recommend doing this if you’re planning on actually publishing your writing into a physical book. I don’t think it’s correct to add spaces before or after dashes, so I would limit that to unprofessional works.
Now that you can make dashes, you can use them in your dialogue. In the above example, I use the dash as a sort of dramatic semicolon to join two related sentences. Dashes are also good to use when someone abruptly stops talking or is interrupted, as in these two examples.
- “Instead, how about some nice steamed broc—” He cut himself off, remembering his daughter’s “allergy” to anything green.
- “Instead, how about some nice steamed broc—”
“I said I want cake!” she demanded.
Note that “He cut himself off” is capitalized because it is a standalone sentence.
But putting a dash right before a quotation mark can be difficult in MS Word. When you type a word, add two hyphens, and then add the closing quotation mark, the dash will form… but the quotation mark will be facing the wrong way. That might not be an issue if you’re planning on posting your work on certain websites. But in my Microsoft Word document the quotation marks are curved, so it does make a difference when I print it out. If you want to go through the trouble of learning, here’s how to fix that problem:
- Finish your sentence and add your two dashes: steamed broc–
- Press a random letter on your keyboard, then add the closing quotation mark. The hyphen will form as usual: steamed broc—s”
- Go back with the left arrow key and delete the random letter. Voila: steamed broc—”
And if you still have trouble making dashes, there’s always copying and pasting. :D
Optional: I have seen some authors add a comma after their dash if a dialogue tag ends the sentence. I think it looks a little weird, but that’s just me. For all I know, this might actually be required. Here’s an example:
- “But—,” he protested.
If you choose to do this, make sure that there’s a dialogue tag after the quotes.
That’s it for the dash! Again, make sure to use it sparingly for maximum impact when it IS used.
I’m still not 100% sure about ellipses myself, so someone please correct me if any of this is wrong.
The ellipsis (this three-dot thing here: …) is horribly overused. Like the dash and exclamation point, too much is never a good thing; abusing it makes it lose its effect. It’s used when you want your character’s words to have that fading away/trailing off effect:
- “But cake isn’t…” he said, trailing off. He knew he was fighting a losing battle.
Like with the dash, you can choose to put a comma at the end of the ellipsis. Also like the dash, this practice is not as common:
- “But cake isn’t…,” he said, trailing off.
If you want to have a trailing off effect for a question or exclamation — I don’t know how to explain it — add the appropriate punctuation at the end of the ellipsis:
- “But…!” he protested earnestly.
No clue if that is considered “proper” punctuation, though. I’ve heard that it is unnecessary to combine ellipses and exclamation points/question marks, so use at your own discretion.
I sometimes see authors use what looks like a four-dot ellipsis, which is really one ellipsis with a period at the end. I mostly find this in narrative writing rather than dialogue. Either way, only use it to end a complete sentence, not a partial thought. So, something like this should be correct:
- He weakly tried to reason with her. “Cake isn’t really good for dinner, sweetie….”
If someone has some further insight on this, I’d really appreciate it. It’s fine to leave it as three dots.
Lastly, except for the above example, the ellipsis can never be greater or fewer than three dots. Please don’t write it like either of these examples:
- “Cake isn’t really good for dinner, sweetie………”
- “Cake isn’t really good for dinner, sweetie..”
5. Quotes within a quote
This is somewhat tricky to explain, but I’ll try my best.
When you want to have a character DIRECTLY QUOTE someone else or read out loud a message, you use apostrophes as the inner quotation marks. Here, look at these examples where the speaker is giving a statement and the quote is also a statement:
- Carina pouted. “But Mommy told me, ‘You can have whatever you want tonight.'”
- “But Mommy told me, ‘You can have whatever you want tonight,’ and I want cake,” said Carina.
- Carina pouted. “But Mommy told me, ‘You can have whatever you want tonight’.”
Note that the period and comma are inside the inner quotes. These should always be inside—that is, unless you’re doing citations and things, which is a different story entirely. I won’t go into that because the American education system has been drilling it into my head for the past many years.
It gets a bit tricky when you’re dealing with question marks and exclamation points. You need to keep note of both what the speaker wants to convey and what the quote-within-a-quote is conveying. Which one is a question? Which is a statement? Are they both questions? The answers to these will determine which punctuation marks you use and where they go.
Simplified, strong punctuation marks are always retained, but periods are weak punctuation marks and will be readily dropped if there is stronger punctuation present. So, if the original quote is a statement but the current speaker is asking a question, there should be no period inside the inner quotations, BUT there should still be a question mark inside the real quotations. Watch where the punctuation goes in this example, with the father asking a question and original quote being a statement:
- “Are you sure Mommy said, ‘You can have whatever you want tonight’?” her father asked.
- “Are you sure Mommy said, ‘You can have whatever you want tonight?'” her father asked.
Same deal with exclamation points. Carina is exclaiming, but mother is not, so:
- “I’m positive Mommy said, “You can have whatever you want tonight’!” said Carina.
- “I’m positive Mommy said, “You can have whatever you want tonight!'” said Carina.
On the other hand, only put the question mark inside the inner quotes if the ORIGINAL QUOTE is a question. Let’s have an example:
- Carina nodded. “She seemed fine with it when I asked her, ‘Can I have cake for dinner?'”
- Carina nodded. “She seemed fine with it when I asked her, ‘Can I have cake for dinner’?”
If the speaker AND the original quote are both questions (or exclamations), then the punctuation goes with the inner quote, like so:
- “Earlier today, did Carina ask you, ‘Can I have cake for dinner?'”
Now (and I hope this never happens because it’s a mess of punctuation) if, for example, the speaker is asking a question but the original quote is an exclamation, you want to keep both punctuation marks in their proper locations:
- “Earlier today, did Carina scream, ‘I love cake!’?”
(I maaay have made that rule up because I cannot find a source on the internet that tells you what to do in such an odd case, but it seems logical to me. My advice is to avoid writing such a line in the first place.)
The above tips are only for direct quotes. If you want to indirectly quote someone, leave out the inner quotation marks:
- Carina pouted. “But Mommy told me that I can have whatever I want tonight.”
6. Varying your dialogue
Your dialogue will get boring if you continuously stick with the standard “Blah blah blah,” he said structure. Switch it up a bit. Actually, that’s a rule that you should always keep in mind when you’re writing, because unintentional repetition–whether it be repetitive words or phrase structures or dialogue structures–does not make for good writing.
Here are some ways you vary your dialogue, with examples taken from random things I’ve written.
Like I had done somewhere up there, you can move the dialogue tag to introduce the quote:
- With a touch of pride, Delia replied, “I cut it myself last month, after you left. Do you like it?”
You can remove the dialogue tag entirely and have the dialogue stand alone, as long as it remains clear to the reader who’s speaking. It comes in handy when only two characters are involved. This leaves a single line (or lines) of dialogue:
- “Who are you? Where are you hiding?”
- “That’s not important right now.”
Related to the tip above, you can add some narration before and/or after the dialogue. If you do this, make sure that the character speaking is the same one involved in the narration, to avoid major confusion. As always, be careful about punctuation. Compare the punctuation of the green examples with that of the red ones:
- Busy squirming in her jeans, Delia missed the latter half of what Jeanette said. “Sorry, what was that last part?”
- Busy squirming in her jeans, Delia missed the latter half of what Jeanette said, “Sorry, what was that last part?”
- “Oh. Um—yeah, I think so.” She wasn’t quite sure if she was thinking straight.
- “Oh. Um—yeah, I think so,” She wasn’t quite sure if she was thinking straight.
Or you can add more dialogue after the action, with or without dialogue tags. Again, don’t end dialogue with a comma if it’s not followed by a dialogue tag.
- “I… okay.” She surrendered. “I won’t.”
- “I… okay.” She surrendered. “I won’t,” she mumbled.
- “I… okay,” She surrendered. “I won’t.”
Here is a variation of the above example. You can break up a sentence by writing a bit of dialogue, stopping at an appropriate place, add a dialogue tag, then write the rest of the dialogue. Don’t forget that all the punctuation rules still apply. Uh, I didn’t explain that well at all, so just study this example and watch where the punctuation goes:
- “Then why,” said Elise, furrowing her brow, “would you want him to date your mother, if you don’t like him?”
- “Then why would you want,” said Elise, furrowing her brow, “him to date your mother, if you don’t like him?”
That red example is considered incorrect because it is split at a rather awkward place. It doesn’t make sense, right? Also, the “would” up there in the green example should not be capitalized because it is one continuous line of dialogue. If it’s two sentences, then you’d do something like this, with the proper period and capitalized “you”:
- “Why would you want him to date your mother?” asked Elise, furrowing her brow. “You don’t like him.”
Sometimes, usually for long speeches and such, you want to have your dialogue continue on to the next paragraph, with the same character speaking. Before you go one to the next paragraph, DO NOT end the quote with a quotation mark. So, for continuous dialogue, you would do this:
- Elise saw the blatant doubt on Delia’s face and went on. “I know the girls in our school bother you because you’re always surrounded boys who protect you as though you’re their little sister. They really are just jealous that you can get along with those guys so well. Alan wants you to become more like the others, to get out of the trees and have the girls finally accept you.
“Delia, Alan just wants you to be happy.”
For the next method, you need the help of dashes. This is for whenever you want to show what a character is doing right in the middle of his/her line of dialogue, but don’t want to use a dialogue tag. This is the ONLY instance where you would drop punctuation inside the quotation marks, so pay close attention to the punctuation and capitalization:
- “He hated me when I first met him. Actually”—he looked thoughtful—“maybe he still does.”
As I’ve seen it done in novels, there would typically be no spacings around the dashes. But if your font makes dashes look weird with no spaces, then try either of these options:
- “He hated me when I first met him. Actually” —he looked thoughtful— “maybe he still does.”
- “He hated me when I first met him. Actually” — he looked thoughtful — “maybe he still does.”
. . .
Well, I think that’s everything. There are several other ways of writing dialogue that I didn’t address, but this covers the basics.
My final tip for you is to do lots of reading and observing, especially if you’re a new writer! Open up a book by your favorite author and take note of how they create a conversation. What techniques are used? How is the dialogue varied? How is it combined with the narration? Maybe practice your writing in the style of these authors for a while, and then start doing your own thing once you feel comfortable and develop your own style.
Hope I was helpful!
Until next time,
~ Mimi :D