Properly Punctuated: Dialogue

Posted September 3, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

Revised as of:
1 Feb 2017

Dialogue is a critical component of a story as it allows characters to communicate with each other and with the reader. This particular post is concerned with the mechanics of dialog. How to punctuate conversations of any sort, convey character emotions, AND keep the reader subconsciously informed as to who is speaking.

Dialogue Basics

It’s commas and double quotation marks for the most part with some exceptions made for question marks, exclamation marks, ellipses, and em dashes. It can get complicated when quoting someone or a message within direct dialogue. The biggest issue are those “nasty” action tags that discusses how difficult it is to grimace or snort words. As for thoughts, there are several options: remember that consistency is key.

Formatting Dialogue

Don’t make your reader work for this. Unless it’s part of the plot! Nothing…hmmm, that’s not true, as there are lots of things that drive me nuts when I’m reading, lol… One of those issues is losing track of who is speaking in back-and-forth dialogue. I hate having to track my way back and then carefully figure out who is speaking as the quoted words fly back and forth. Pop in a name every once in awhile, will ya? It can be “George said” or “Dang it, George…” (for example!).

My other big issue with dialogue is writers who allow more than one character to share the same paragraph?? What?? Are you limited to how many paragraphs you’re allowed in your story? I find this problem in both print and eBooks, and I am praying that some publisher or editor will crack down on this one. Take pity on us poor readers!!

Dialogue is different from dialect. Dialogue is the formatting of what a character is saying, texting, or writing. Dialect is how they structure their sentences and the words or idioms they choose to use. To explore more, check out the Grammar Explanation on “Dialect“.

The Properly Punctuated explores…

…the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, ahem. As Properly Punctuated is in no way complete, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…

If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page — and consider sharing this Properly Punctuated tidbit with friends by tweeting it.

Punctuation, Formatting, “…”
Definition: Conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.

General Rule: There are paragraph and punctuation rules surrounding the use of dialogue.

Paragraph Rule: Each person’s spoken words and related actions are treated as its own paragraph. As soon as another person’s words, thoughts, or actions begin, create a new paragraph. If one person’s dialogue goes on for more than one paragraph, see the section on Multiple Paragraphs.

Treat dialogue like any other paragraph in the manuscript:

  • Capitalize the first word of any dialogue
  • Never capitalize the first word of a dialogue tag unless it is a proper noun or begins a sentence

Five Types of Dialogue:

  1. Indirect Dialogue, a.k.a., inner dialogue
  2. Spoken, a.k.a., Direct Dialogue
  3. Text Message
  4. Email Message

Dialogue Structure

Punctuation to create the effect of:

A.k.a., dialog [U.S.], dialogism, sermocinatio

Indirect Dialogue Definition: Characters communicating with another through speech or writing.

CAUTION: Only encase actual direct dialogue.

A.k.a., inner dialogue

Rule: Never use quotation marks on indirect dialogue or an indirect quotation.

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Greg said they were all headin’ over to the club.
Dramatic Monologue See “Literary Device: Dramatic Monologue” for the definition.

Use “Multiple Paragraphs for punctuation of dramatic monologue.

Stream of Consciousness See “Literary Device: Stream of Consciousness” for the definition.

Use multiple paragraphs for punctuation of dramatic monologue.

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“…did they just make those wide wings and adoring hands for fun, because they liked the pattern? At any rate, they made them look as though they believed something, and that’s where they have us beat. What next? Oh, yes, out again to the grave, of course. Hymn 373 … there must be some touch of imagination in the good mr. Russell to have suggested this, though he looks as if he thought of nothing but having tinned salmon to his tea… ‘Man that is born of a woman …’ not very much further to go now; we’re coming into the straight… ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts…’ I knew it, I knew it! Will Thoday’s going to faint… No, he’s got hold…”

“… ‘for any pains of death, to fall from Thee.’ Damn it! that goes home. Why? Mere splendour of rhythm, I expect — there are plenty of worse pains… ‘Our dear brother here departed’ … brother … we’re all dear when we’re dead, even if beforehand somebody hated us enough to tie us up and … Great Scott, yes!”

– Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors

Thought Dialogue Rule: Thought dialogue is a direct thought that can stand alone as a paragraph or be inserted into a narrative passage. It may use italics without comma separation, or less often, single quotes may be used as though it were spoken dialogue.

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As Mari entered the darkened hall, she wondered if they’d run out of monsters or if more were lurking in the shadows.

I hope there aren’t any more monsters in those shadows Mari wondered.

‘I hope there aren’t any more monsters in those shadows,’ Mari wondered.

Spoken, or Direct, Dialogue
Dialogue Structure
Dialogue Tag Definition: Defines who is speaking—Greg said is the dialogue tag.

General Rule: Ideally, the tag comes after the dialogue as the spoken text is where you want your readers’ concentration. Naturally, there will be exceptions.

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There is a controversy over whether anything else can be used as the tag, and the choices go in and out of fashion. What is important to remember is that said is the nearly invisible dialogue tag. Readers generally don’t notice said. It can however get monotonous and/or you may want to slip in a more “exciting” dialogue tag every once in awhile such as exclaimed, shouted, cried, etc. What you must beware of are the tags that aren’t possible. One may snort, but it’s pretty hard to snort words. It’s also difficult to smile words. Then of course, there are the “action tags“.

When there is a lot of back and forth between characters with one-liners, avoid using a tag at all, except when you need to ensure that whoever is speaking hasn’t gotten lost amidst the tagless dialogue. Too many times, I have found myself going back and using my finger to track who said what. I hate that. It interferes with the story.

A.k.a., dialogue guide, dialogue attribution

said Rule: The preference these days is for said as the principal dialogue tag, although it is considered acceptable to throw in the occasional mumbled, cried, screeched, etc.

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“I hate doing dishes,” she said.

“Let’s go to the movies,” Brian said.

“Oh, darling, I love you,” he said.

asked Rule: Conflict arises over whether the author should use “asked” when the character is asking a question. The current fashion is to use said for all dialog.

I find it incredibly irritating when a character asks a question and the tag claims s/he said. What’s with that?

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“Why don’t you talk to her?” he said.

“Why don’t you talk to her?” he asked.

Tag: Ideal Position Rule: The ideal dialogue uses an ending dialogue tag.

It is now considered archaic to use said Greg. Naturally, this fashion will change.

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We’re all headin’ over to the club,” Greg said.

Not so usual is a starting dialogue tag:
Greg said, “We’re all headin’ over to the club.”
Tag: Between Speech Rule: This assumes that you are interrupting a complete sentence. End the first “half” of the sentence with a comma-double quote (,”) followed by the dialogue tag in lowercase, then a comma and a starting double quote with a lowercase letter (, “x).

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“If you think you can do it,” he said with a grin, “go ahead and jump.”
Tag: Action Rule: Physical action words are not supposed to be used as tags, a.k.a., a said-bookism…sigh…I really like them. If the speaker takes action around a dialogue, make them separate sentences or include the action with the dialogue tag.

Whatever you do, be consistent. It’s the one cardinal rule.

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,” she said, laughing

,” he said with a smirk

,” Mary said, chuckling

,” Helen said with a sigh

“I hate doing dishes,” she said with a groan.

She sighed. “I hate doing dishes.”

“I much prefer doing dishes,” she said with a laugh, “than having to cook!”

“It’s cold.” Katie shivered and crossed the room. The thermostat insisted it was seventy degrees. She shook her head. “I don’t care what that thing reads, it’s still cold in here!” (Jeannette de Beauvoir)

“Let’s proceed, shall we?” Roberta coughed and shuffled her papers.

The direct dialogue ended with the question mark and double quote. “Roberta” starts a new sentence.

“Let’s proceed, shall we,” Roberta suggested as she coughed, shuffling her papers.

(Pearl Luke)

“Let’s proceed, shall we,” Roberta coughed, shuffling her papers.

It’s difficult to cough words.

Particular Punctuation
Rule: The ideal overall format begins with the actual dialogue and is followed by the dialogue tag.

CAUTION: If using an ellipsis or an em dash to end the dialogue, do not follow with commas or periods.

Mark: Exclamation
Rule: An exclamation or question mark replaces the comma within a dialogue tag.

NOTE: The speaker is lowercase as this is simply a continuation of the sentence.

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“Hey, stop!” he cried.

“Where you goin’ with that?” he asked.

Quoting Inside Dialogue Rule: Use single quotation marks if quoting someone else or denoting poetry inside someone’s dialogue.

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So, get this, then he says ‘Yeah, I stabbed him twice’ and I just took off outta there, Henry said.
Multiple Paragraphs of One Person Speaking Rule: There are two schools of thought in how to punctuate more than one paragraph of a character’s dialogue:
Start and End only Rule 1: Use one pair of double quotation marks: one at the start of the dialogue and one at the end.

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George said, “Mary, we need to get on the road or we won’t get there until after dark.

The beach toys are packed.

Is the dog in his crate?

Starting Double Quote Rule 2: Chicago: Use one pair of double quotation marks at the start and end of the dialogue AND a starting double quotation mark at the beginning of each new paragraph until the dialogue ends

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George said, “Mary, we need to get on the road or we won’t get there until after dark.

The beach toys are packed.

Is the dog in his crate?

Dialogue Effects
Trailing Off Definition: Indicates unfinished speech or thought, losing track of what the character is saying, getting distracted…

Rule: Use an ellipsis.

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But I thought you wanted
Pause Definition: Indicates a pause between spoken words or a thought that will be continued.

Rule: Use an ellipsis.

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But I thought you wanted

“I thought you wanted todo thingsto me,” she whispered.

Interruption Definition: An interruption is a break in thought, a change in tone.

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Rule: Use an em dash with:

  • No space on either side if the dialogue continues after the em dash
  • No ending punctuation if the em dash is the end of the dialogue — but do use the ending double quotation!
No! You can’t

But I thought you wantedyou, jerk!

Stuttering: Definition: A continued involuntary repetition of sounds, especially initial consonants.

Rule: Use a dash between letters.

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B-b-b-but, I th-thought
Stumbling Definition: Being unable to pronounce a word, having a speech defect, being terrified, or stammering.

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Rule: Between each word fragment or word over which the character stumbles, use either a:

  • space + dash + space (word – word), or
  • ellipsis + space (word… word)
She’s pretty perz – purs – pursnick – picky person!

The witness is pretty cata… cata… not feeling well.

Slurring: Definition: Being drunk or on drugs, mumbling, confused, or speaking unclearly.

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Bbbbut, I ththought
Mumbling Definition: Say something indistinctly and quietly, making it difficult for others to hear.

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Suggestion: The best method is to simply use a dialogue tag to say the character is mumbling.
You are such a jerk, she mumbled.

“Sorry,” George mumbled.

Jean mumbled. “I hate you with all my heart.”

Eliminate the Spaces Rule: Remove all the spaces between words.

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Youaresuchajerk, she mumbled.
Eliminate Letters Rule: Remove vowels and replace them with apostrophes.

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Y’re s’ch ‘ j’rk, she mumbled.

Could certainly work for drunken dialogue!

Text Message Rule: Text messaging is best handled differently from spoken dialogue to help reinforce the context for the reader.

A.k.a., textspeak

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Punctuation: Punctuation can be used to set off text messages or non-standard dialogue within the text of the story without doing anything special.
Helen: *u coming over 2nite?*.
Helen: ::u coming over 2nite?::
Helen: <u coming over 2nite?>
Helen, u coming over 2nite?
Helen: u coming over 2nite?
Variation: Throw in a little bit of text-speak to reinforce the impression, but not so much that it’s a distraction.
*b there soon*
*I <3 u*
*Where u @?*
*I am BBB, baby*
*BTW, saw Jarod with Cassidy last night.*
*PU the kids?*
*FYI. Ur better looking.*
*CUL, girlfriend.*
*Watch where u open this. It’s NSFW.*
*Did u c the pkg on that boy? OMG*
Variation: Treat it as inline text with quotation marks.
Helen’s day brightened a bit when the dot-dot-dot of her text message app alerted her. Her sister, Kary, and those cats of hers, she thought with a smile, as she read “Gizmo caught HUGE grasshopper”.
Variation: Use the “screenplay” style of a name + colon followed by the message. Seriously consider not using this for long stretches of conversation, as it could get old fast.
Helen: *u coming over 2nite?*
Kary: *Gotta feed the cats.*
Helen: Pls, how long does that take?*
Kary: *They miss me.*
Variation: For a long-ish text message, consider using a different font, size, and/or style for the text and indent the text on both sides to make it easier for your reader to realize it is a text message or email.

As she was heading home early, Mary realized she should text her husband and let him know.

Hey honey, I finished up at the office. Wait until you see the campaign I put together. I’ve got it on disc, and we can watch it after dinner. Missed you. Hope you’ve got that champagne on ice! Love you, M

Email Message Rule: Either incorporate the email message into the narrative or set it apart from spoken or text to help reinforce the context for the reader.

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“Hey, June,” Helen called out, “you have got to see what my sister’s cat is up to now.”

“Hey, June,” Helen called out. “You’ll never believe this message I got from Kary. Check it out.”

June caught Helen’s phone and read “Gizmo caught HUGE grasshopper”. She laughed and said, “That ain’t a big grasshopper. It’s too big to be a grasshopper!”

Variation: Create the feel of an email message by using its style with to, from, subject, etc.

For a long email, I like to set it aside like a blockquote and use a different font and font size.

Version 1:

Dan wondered how far Mackenzie had gotten on that profile for their ad campaign.

To: R. Mackenzie

Subject: Ad campaign profile

From: D. Monroe

Did you get that attachment from Barney and Co yet?


Version 2:

Dan wondered how far Mackenzie had gotten on that profile for their ad campaign.

D. Monroe to R. Mackenzie

Mar 3, 2013

10:59 a.m.

Did you get that attachment from Barney and Co yet?


Variation: For an exchange of emails that come one after the other, use one of the above variations and include horizontal rules to help distinguish between emails.
Version 3:

To: R. MacKenzie Monday, March 03, 2012, 2:55 p.m.
From: D. Monroe

Subject: Ad campaign profile

Rob, did you get that attachment from Barney and Co yet?

To: D. Monroe Monday, March 03, 2012, 3:15 p.m.
From: R. MacKenzie

Subject: Re: Ad campaign profile

I’m waiting on a callback from Henny at Barney. Her secretary said she was in a meeting that should end at 4.

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Resources for Dialogue

Joanna Penn’s “9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue” is handy and succinct.

Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog has a useful post, “Bad Dialogue — Bad, Bad Dialogue” that actually includes some good bits of dialogue, lol.

Novel Writing Help addresses “9 Rules For Writing Dialogue“.

Pinterest Photo Credits

Likes To Close His Eyes While Kissing by Tobyotter is under the CC BY 2.0 license, via VisualHunt.