How to punctuate dialogue is a frequent question among authors and something that writers seem to struggle with, for good reason. Punctuating dialogue can be tricky. If you find yourself getting tripped up by this, don’t fret. With these tips, learn how to punctuate dialogue in fiction with confidence.
What is a dialogue tag?
To understand how to punctuate dialogue, you first need to know what a dialogue tag is.
A dialogue tag attributes the dialogue to a speaker. In other words, a dialogue tag identifies who is speaking. The most common dialogue tag is “said.”
Example: “I want ice cream,” she said.
You can also use what is known as an action beat to attribute dialogue to a specific character. An action beat can come before, between, or just after the dialogue.
Example: “I want ice cream.” Amy walked toward the kitchen.
How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction
1. Single vs. double quotation marks
Quotation marks are what authors normally use to indicate speech. You might be asking yourself whether you should use single or double quotation marks. The answer is that either is acceptable, but one might be more common than the other in certain circumstances.
In U.S. fiction it is traditional to use double quotation marks; in British fiction, single quotation marks are the standard. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommends double quotation marks but recognizes that the use of single quotation marks is the normal practice in the UK and elsewhere.
When deciding which to use, consider what is standard where you live but also what your reader is likely to expect to see. If you are a British Author writing for a primarily American audience, you might choose to use double quotation marks despite single quotation marks being the standard in British fiction because your readers will expect to see double quotation marks.
Regardless of which you choose to use, the most important thing is that you are consistent throughout your novel. Also, if you are using double quotation marks, never use two single quotation marks.
Quotations within dialogue
When you have speech within speech, what do you do with the quotation marks? Simply put, you use the opposite type of quotation mark. So if you are using double quotation marks, you would use single quotation marks around the speech within the speech.
Example: “I didn’t know why she was so angry. When I asked her, she said, ‘I reminded you about tonight five times and you still forgot!'”
If you are using single quotation marks, then you would do the reverse and use double quotation marks around the speech within the speech.
Example: ‘I didn’t know why she was so angry. When I asked her, she said, “I reminded you about tonight five times and you still forgot!”‘
Smart quotation marks
Directional or smart quotation marks (sometimes called “curly” quotation marks are standard in mainstream publishing.
2. Tagged speech
When dialogue is marked by a dialogue tag, either before or after a complete sentence, it is punctuated by a comma. The question is, does the comma go inside or outside the quotation marks?
When the dialogue tag follows the dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation marks.
Example: “Come closer so I can see,” he said.
When the dialogue tag precedes the dialogue, the comma goes outside the quotation marks.
Example: She said, “I want coffee.”
If the dialogue ends in a question mark or exclamation point, those marks replace the comma.
Example: “I’m so happy!” said Amy. / “Do you want to come with me?” she asked.
Note that even if the dialogue ends in an exclamation point or question mark, the dialogue tag takes the lower case when the dialogue tag follows the dialogue.
She asked, “Can I take the car?” vs. “Can I take the car?” she asked.
3. Dialogue that pauses or trails off
The ellipsis is used to indicate a pause or speech trailing-off at the end of a sentence. The ellipsis goes inside the quotation marks.
Example: “I don’t know . . . It doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
Example: Sarah glanced down at the table. “I could have sworn I left my glasses right there . . .”
CMOS recommends three full stops (periods) separated by non-breaking spaces. Non-breaking spaces stop the elements they’re positioned between from becoming separated because of a line break.
To create a non-breaking space use the keys CTRL+SHIFT+SPACE.
You can also use the tighter single ellipsis character in Word. Either is acceptable, just make sure to be consistent. To insert an ellipsis symbol in Word, go to Insert and select Symbol. It may come up as part of your initial options, but if it doesn’t, the Unicode character is 2026.
CMOS also recommends you space the ellipsis as follows:
- Ellipsis occurring mid-sentence: space on either side
- Ellipsis occurring at the beginning of a sentence: space after
- Ellipsis occurring at the end of a sentence: space before
- There is no space between a final ellipsis and a closing quotation mark
4. Interrupted speech
When you want to indicate that a person has been interrupted, you use an em dash. This is a good way to show certain emotions, such as impatience, curtness, disbelief, rudeness, frustration, or anger on the part of the interrupting speaker. Note that in this case, the em dash goes inside the quotation marks.
“Amy, please just let me explain—”
“No! Just get out!”
5. Breaking up dialogue with a tag
A dialogue tag doesn’t have to come before or after the speech; it can also be used to interrupt a character’s dialogue. If you break up dialogue with a speech tag, you will use commas. Also, you do not capitalize the first letter in the second part of the dialogue.
Example: “I assume,” said Leslie, “that you haven’t finished the project.”
In the alternative, you can use a dialogue tag to split your speech into two sentences. In that case, the dialogue tag should end with a period.
Example: “It’s fine with me,” said Amy. “If Jake wants to come, I don’t care.”
6. Breaking up dialogue with stage direction
If your dialogue is broken up with action or description, then you will want to use dashes. If you are following CMOS, then you will use closed-up em dashes. If you are following UK publishing convention, then you would use the shorter en dash. In this case, the dash is outside the quotation marks.
Here’s an example from CMOS where the dialogue is broken up by description of the speaker’s voice: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”
Here’s an example where the dialogue is broken up by action: “In the blink of an eye”—the detective snapped his fingers—“the burglar was gone without a trace.”
7. Using action beats as tags
As previously mentioned, an author doesn’t always need to use a traditional dialogue tag like he said/she said. Instead, you can use an action beat to attribute dialogue to a character.
Example: “I’m going to make some coffee.” Jane stood up and walked into the break room.
In the example, the dialogue stands alone and is punctuated by a period inside the quotation marks.
8. Punctuating vocative expressions in dialogue
A vocative expression is an expression of direct address where the person being addressed is directly referred to in a sentence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are using someone’s name; the person being addressed could be referred to using a title that relates to their job or position.
When writing a vocative expression, a comma is needed for clarity.
If the vocative expression comes at the beginning of the sentence, place a comma after it.
Example: “Lisa, are you ready to go?” Mark asked.
If the vocative expression comes at the end of the sentence, place a comma before it.
Example: “I’m not ready to go yet, Mark.”
If the vocative expression interrupts a sentence, place a comma before and after it.
Example: “Did you know, sir, that your taillight is out?” said the police officer.
9. Faltering speech
Indicating faltering speech with punctuation is a way to demonstrate that your character is out of breath, nervous, unsure, caught off guard, shocked or frightened without actually saying so.
There are different ways that punctuation can be used to indicate faltering speech, depending on the effect you are looking to achieve with your dialogue.
Ellipses are good when a character is repeating full words. This is useful for softer faltering. Em dashes might be used to indicate more sharper faltering between words.
Example: “Her . . . her cat is gone.”
Example: “That—that wasn’t me. I don’t—I’m not.”
When the character stumbles over syllables, try hyphens.
Example: “I-I-I don’t know,” said Maggie.
10. Internal dialogue
You can treat a character’s internal thoughts/dialogue like you would spoken dialogue in terms of punctuation.
Example: I can’t believe she went to the mall without me, she thought.
Similar to spoken dialogue, the comma goes after the thought and before the tag. You’ll notice that I didn’t use quotation marks and that is because character thoughts are generally italicized.
Example: I can’t believe she went to the mall without me, she thought.
However, you can use quotation marks, just be sure to be consistent.
And that’s how to punctuate dialogue in fiction.