Dialogue is an important aspect of most fiction, yet one of the most common errors I’ve found when critiquing other writers’ work is incorrectly punctuated dialogue. I’m going to go over the basics of punctuating dialogue here. At the end, I’ll link to some other online resources.
There are two parts to dialogue: the dialogue itself and the dialogue tag.
The dialogue is what the character says; the part that goes inside quotation marks. (I’m talking about spoken dialogue here, not thoughts or telepathy or similar things; those follow the same basic rules but are usually indicated by something other than quotation marks, such as italics or single quote marks.)
The tag is the part with a speech verb (said, asked, shouted, whispered, etc.) that indicates who is talking.
The first step of creating correctly punctuated dialogue is to write down the spoken part and put quotation marks around it. I’m going to shamelessly use a dialogue exchange between two characters, Alexsa and Cassantra, from the prologue of my fantasy novel The Silver Cage as an example. Here is what they say to each other:
“He senses what you have done. He feels our world. The Power calls to him.”
“I want him. When can I bring him across?”
“Not yet. He is not ready and neither are you.”
Next, you need to add tags so the reader knows who is speaking. The first character to speak (whispering) is Alexsa, so for the first line I could use either of the following:
“He knows,” Alexsa whispered.
“He knows,” she whispered.
There are three things to note (and remember) here:
First, spoken dialogue is always surrounded by quotation marks, so you need to make sure that you keep the close quote before the tag (remember to keep the dialogue punctuation inside the quote mark).
Second, if the sentence of dialogue before the tag ends with a period, you must change the period to a comma. Note that this is the only time you need to change the punctuation; if the sentence ends with any other punctuation mark, don’t change it:
“He knows!” Alexsa gasped.
“Does he know?” she asked.
“I think he knows…” Alexsa said.
“I think he—” she began.
Third, only capitalize the first word of the tag if it’s a word that is normally capitalized, such as someone’s name.
You can use the tag to indicate how the character speaks the dialogue by using words other than said (or asked), but don’t do this too much. The words themselves, along with the character’s actions, should be enough to indicate the tone of the dialogue most of the time.
You can also place the tag before the dialogue. This is not done all that often in modern fiction, but here are some of the above examples rewritten with the tag first:
She whispered, “He knows.”
She asked, “Does he know?”
Alexsa said, “I think he knows…”
When placing the tag first, the capitalization and punctuation of the dialogue remains intact (don’t change periods to commas), but the tag is followed by a comma, and the first word is capitalized since it’s considered the beginning of a sentence.
Here are the next two sections of dialogue with tags added:
“He senses what you have done,” Cassantra said without taking her eyes from the image. “He feels our world. The Power calls to him.”
“I want him,” Alexsa said sharply, eager to discover what she might accomplish once she combined the boy’s Power‑shaping abilities with her own. “When can I bring him across?”
Here I used the word said and added some description of what the speakers are doing/thinking to help indicate how the words are spoken. Notice that, again, I changed the period at the end of the sentence before the tag to a comma. Also note that I added an open quote after the tag since the dialogue continues.
You should start a new paragraph when you switch from one speaker to another. Because of this, you don’t always have to use a tag. If you include the dialogue in the same paragraph as you describe the speaker’s actions, that will let your reader know who is speaking.
I used this method for the last piece of dialogue in the example:
Cassantra looked at her through slitted eyes. “Not yet. He is not ready and neither are you.”
Note that the first sentence is not a tag because it doesn’t contain a speech verb. Because of this, it is punctuated like the separate sentence that it is, rather than like a dialogue tag.
Be careful in these instances, because it can be easy to confuse a straight sentence like this with a dialogue tag and punctuate it incorrectly. Short phrases such as the following can easily be mistaken for dialogue tags:
You can distinguish these from real tags by examining the verb. It’s difficult to laugh, smile, or pout dialogue. You can laugh, smile, or pout, and then say something, but because they are two different actions (laughing/smiling/pouting followed by speaking), they should be punctuated as two separate sentences.
You can put a tag in the middle of a sentence of dialogue, just be sure to put it at a natural break in what is being said so the tag doesn’t interrupt the flow:
“He is not ready,” Cassantra said, “and neither are you.”
Remember to keep the dialogue surrounded by quotation marks. Also, note that the tag is set off with commas, the first inside the quotation marks, the second immediately after the tag. Don’t capitalize the second part of the dialogue because it’s not a new sentence; it’s a continuation of the first part of the dialogue.
Occasionally, a character will have a lot to say, and you’ll want to break the dialogue into two or more paragraphs. If you do this, leave the close quote off the end of each paragraph of dialogue until your character stops speaking, then use a close quote to indicate the end of the speech.
Finally, to indicate when a character’s voice trails off, use an ellipsis (…) to show where s/he stopped speaking. If a character is interrupted, use a double dash (–) or em dash (—) after the last word (or partial word) they manage to say.
So there you have it, the basics of punctuating dialogue. If you’d like to learn more, click here for a list of additional resources.