Mastering Dialogue Punctuation: Everything You Need to Know

Posted on Jun 12, 2023

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Written by Zara Choudhry

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Whether you’re a seasoned writer or simply interested in honing your literary skills, you’ll know just how crucial of a role punctuation plays in any written piece.

Though, when it comes to dialogue, punctuation has its own set of rules. 

In this guide, we’ll explore what is meant by dialogue punctuation, the must-know rules, and how to avoid the most common mistakes people make. 

How to understand dialogue punctuation

So you may have written some of the best chapters of your life, full of suspense and mystery but the moment you throw in dialogue, things seem to get a little tricky, right? 

Dialogue refers to lines or passages spoken by characters that are placed within quotation marks to indicate someone saying something. 

  • Direct Dialogue = Quoting exactly what the person is saying by using double quotation marks.
  • Indirect Dialogue = Loosely reporting what someone said, thus no quotation marks are being used. 

When zeroing in on the punctuation in dialogue, you’ll often find commas, quotation marks, periods, question marks, exclamation marks, and dialogue tags. 

Let’s look at each of these a little closer… 

1. Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, like “she said”, are used to indicate who is speaking or how the tone in which the character is speaking. 

Dialogue tags can either can before or after the actual dialogue, and it helps to link sentences together and create clarity for the reader. 

Here’s a few examples of dialogue tags and how to utilize them:

1. Said:

   – “I’ll be there at 7 o’clock,” John said.

   – “I love this song,” she said with a smile.

2. Asked:

   – “Where are we going?” he asked.

   – “Have you seen my keys?” she asked her roommate.

3. Replied:

   – “Yes, I can help you with that,” he replied.

   – “I’m sorry, I don’t have any spare change,” she replied apologetically.

4. Whispered:

   – “Meet me behind the building,” he whispered.

   – “I have a secret to tell you,” she whispered excitedly.

6. Exclaimed:

   – “This is amazing!” she exclaimed.

   – “I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed in disbelief.

8. Sighed:

   – “I’m so tired,” he sighed.

   – “That’s a relief,” she sighed with contentment.

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2. Using Quotation Marks

Of course, the most important rule of punctuation when it comes to dialogue is enclosing the spoken words with quotation marks. 

You’ll want to use double quotation marks (“ ”) to indicate what is being said – e.g.

Kathy said, “I’m on my way to the bookstore.”

All punctuation relating to the dialogue, like exclamation marks or question marks, must be placed inside the quotation marks, for example: 

“Weren’t you invited to the wedding?” Teresa asked Linda. 

3. Placement of Punctuation Marks

You’ll either find punctuation marks –  exclamation marks, question marks, periods, or commas – inside the quotation marks to add expression to the spoken words. 

Let’s take a look at when they should be inside the quote, and when they should be placed outside. 

Placing Punctuation Outside of Quotation Marks 

There’s a few instances where it’s grammatically correct to place punctuation outside of quotation marks. 

If you are using the dialogue as a reference and trying to weave it into a full sentence, you’ll typically see the comma placed outside of the quotation marks like this:

  • Did Hannah really say, “She deserved it”?

The dialogue is being used as a reflection of what someone else said so, in this case, the comma can go just before the speech. 

Punctuation Placement When Dialogue Tag Comes After Dialogue 

If you see the dialogue tag after the quote, the comma must be placed at the end of the quote before the closing quotation mark. Here’s an example: 

  • “I need to get back home before it’s dark,” Mai said. 

Though, if the dialogue has ended with a question mark or exclamation mark, then this will replace the comma inside the quotation mark, like the following examples: 

  • “I need to get back home before it’s dark!” Mai yelled. 
  1. Using Ellipses or Dashes in Dialogue 

Both dashes and ellipses are a great way to add tension and suspense to a narrative as well as portraying the character’s emotions. 

If you are using an ellipsis, you do not have to place a comma or period after the dialogue as you’re not ending the sentence. 

The same goes for dashes. 

Dashes tend to be used if a character is being interrupted by someone else or to create a sense of urgency. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to say this but —”

“C’mon I can’t wait around forever…” 

Common Mistakes When Punctuating Dialogue 

There’s a handful of common errors people make when punctuating dialogue so, hopefully, after this section, you’ll know exactly what they are and how to avoid them!

Misplaced Periods

One of the most common mistakes writers make is misplacing the period. When you’re completing a spoken sentence, the period should always go inside the quote, like this: 

“I have to get this work done, I’ll text you later.” 

If you see the period outside of the quotation marks, it’s likely that the author is quoting a sentence fragment rather than the entire speech. This form is common in magazine interviews and newspaper articles. 

New Speaker = New Paragraph 

Seasoned writer or not, this is a mistake that crops up time and time again. One of the most fundamental rules when it comes to formatting dialogue is to start a new paragraph when a new speaker comes onto the scene. 

This rule even applies when you’re using dialogue tags to show who’s speaking. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Sam’s dad.

“Oh, nothing. I was just looking for something” Sam replied.

Remember, the new paragraph rule also applies if the focus moves from one character to another, even if it isn;t dialogue that immediately follows. Here’s an example: 

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Sam’s dad.

Sam quickly closed the office cabinet. “Oh, nothing. I was just looking for something” Sam replied.

This rule makes it super easy for the reader to follow along with the narrative without getting confused on which character is saying which part. 

Mastering Dialogue Punctuation: Summary

Mastering the art of dialogue punctuation is essential for any writer who wants to communicate effectively through written conversations. 

By understanding and utilizing the rules (and common mistakes) in this guide, you can ensure that your dialogue is punctuated correctly, enhancing clarity and maintaining the flow of your narrative. 

Time to let your characters come to life through properly punctuated dialogue, and watch your writing shine with authenticity and precision!
Happy writing… 

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