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How to Punctuate Dialogue

I’ve already written one post about the best way to handle dialogue here, but some of the biggest punctuation mistakes (other than comma use) that I see when editing manuscripts involves dialogue. It can be a tricky thing to punctuate because there are so many rules and different scenarios to cover. So let’s dive into a few (and be like Jon Stewart and act like you’re REALLY excited to learn about this).

Dialogue Tags

Let’s start with the basics. When using a dialogue tag, you’ll want to use a comma before or after the tag.

The Basics

“Let’s eat,” she said. ← You’ll notice the comma goes inside of the quotation mark.

She said, “Let’s eat.” ← Although less common, if you’re using a dialogue tag before the dialogue, the comma will go after the tag and before the quotation mark.

Note: No need to get creative with your dialogue tags. Said and asked are seen as invisible, and when you’re using tags, you’ll want to stick to those more.

Interrupting Dialogue with Tags

“Let’s eat,” she said, “before it gets dark.” ← For dialogue that gets interrupted by a tag, you’ll want to put the comma before the quotation mark and after the dialogue tag. You do not capitalize the second part of dialogue.

“Let’s eat,” she said, fishing her phone from her pocket, “before it gets dark.” ← Even if you combine actions with a dialogue tag, you’ll still use commas to separate the dialogue. You do not capitalize the second part of dialogue.

“Let’s eat,” she said. “I want to go before it gets dark.” <— For two separate sentences, you’ll use a comma to introduce the dialogue tag, then use a period before the second sentence.

Note: Make sure you only interrupt the dialogue where a) a comma would naturally go or b) between two separate phrases/clauses.

Capitalization of Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Dialogue tags are always lowercase, even if you have a punctuation mark before the tag. Check out this example below:

“Are you hungry?” she asked. ← You’ll notice “she” is lowercase. That’s because it’s a dialogue tag, so even though it’s coming after a punctuation mark, it still must be a lowercase letter.

WHEREAS

“Are you hungry?” She dug in her purse for her phone. ← If you’re using an action beat after punctuation, it should be capitalized.

Action Beats

Action beats get treated differently than dialogue tags, which is the mistake many writers run into. So let’s break down a few examples of how to use action beats in dialogue.

The Basics

“Let’s eat.” She dug in her purse for her phone. “I want to go before it gets dark.” ← If you have two complete sentences being separated by an action beat, you’ll use periods to separate the dialogue. You’ll notice in this case, you capitalize the action beat.

Interrupting Dialogue with Action Beats

“Let’s eat”—she dug in her purse for her phone—“before it gets dark.”  ← If an action beat interrupts dialogue, you should use em-dashes. The em-dashes will go outside of the quotation marks. You should not use commas for interrupting action beats. Additionally, you’ll notice that in this case, the action beat should not be capitalized.

Continuing Dialogue

If you have a character who gives a monologue or tells a story (which I don’t recommend unless it has a very specific purpose) in which the dialogue continues over multiple paragraphs, here’s how you format it:

“Sometimes when I'm all alone I walk up to the looking-glass and talk to the other Alice. She's so silly, that Alice; she can't do anything by herself. She just mocks me all the time. When I laugh, she laughs; when I point my finger at her, she points her finger at me; and when I stick my tongue out at her she sticks her tongue out at me! Kitty has a twin too, haven't you darling? ← If continuing to another paragraph, leave the quotation mark off of the end of the first paragraph of dialogue, then use a quotation mark to signal the beginning of the next paragraph.

“Don't you wish sometimes you could go into looking-glass house? See!”

Dialogue that Trails Off or Gets Interrupted

Characters getting interrupted or trailing off in speech can be characterized in two different ways: with em-dashes or with ellipses.

“Hey, don’t—” ← You can see the em-dash, which shows an interruption has just taken place. The em-dash goes inside of the quotation mark.

“Hey, don’t . . .” Her gaze wandered out of focus. ← When using ellipses, use three periods. Here, the ellipsis signals that the character has trailed off in speech. Typically you’ll only want to use ellipses to signify trailing off or a pause. You’ll notice the description is capitalized.

“Hey don’t . . . don’t do that.” ← Here, the speaker paused or became distracted. You’ll noticed the second part of her sentence is not capitalized. The rule of thumb for ellipses is if the second part of speech is a continuation of what was being said before the ellipses, you don’t capitalize. If the second part of what’s being said is its own sentence, you do capitalize.

And that’s it for dialogue basics. Is your mind still in one piece? I hope so (it would be bad for your writing if it wasn’t).

If you have any dialogue questions, feel free to comment below!