Using Correct Punctuation with Dialogue

by Davina on April 14, 2012

Let’s talk about dialogue

Writing dialogue is one alternative to a literary technique known as exposition, which can be the “quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail.”

Dialogue moves the plot forward, providing the opportunity to show through telling. A writer will also use it to develop character. You can tell a lot about a character who interrupts another, or finishes another’s sentences.

It can be used to add conflict or heighten suspense. Dialogue also paces the story, breaking up long monologue and creating white space on the page.

Dialogue is comprised of 1) a direct statement or quotation and 2) a dialogue tag (or attribution tag), such as “he said.” Writing seamless dialogue requires correct use of punctuation and capitalization, and attention to the position of the dialogue tag.

How to punctuate dialogue correctly

5 tips to remember:

  1. The direct statement is enclosed in quotation marks.
  2. The direct statement is separated from the dialogue tag by a variety of punctuation, most often the comma.
  3. Commas and periods are always placed inside the quotation mark.
  4. Colons and semicolons are always placed outside the quotation mark.
  5. Question marks and exclamation marks go inside OR outside the quotation mark.

10 examples of dialogue using correct punctuation & capitalization:

Example 1: The dialogue tag follows the direct statement and is separated by a comma, which is placed inside the quotation mark.

“I’ll have the house salad, with the dressing on the side,” said Sally.

Example 2: The direct statement is a complete sentence, which ends with a periodThe dialogue tag, which appears first, is followed by a comma to separate it from the direct statement.

Sally said, “I’ll have the house salad, with the dressing on the side.”

Example 3: The dialogue tag interrupts the direct statement, separated by two commas. The second part of the direct statement does not start with a capital.

“I’ll have the house salad,” said Sally, “with the dressing on the side.”

Example 4: The direct statement is a complete sentence, which ends with a question mark that is placed on the inside of the quotation mark. Notice that the dialogue tag does not begin with a capital.

“Can I have the dressing on the side?” said Sally.

Example 5: The direct statement is made by the waitress and includes a quote, which is placed in single quote marks. Notice that the question mark is placed outside of the single quote mark because it is not part of the quote, and inside the double quote mark because it belongs to the direct statement made by the waitress.

“Did she say, ‘I’d like the dressing on the side’?” said the waitress.

Example 6: This sentence is a question that is quoting someone else’s exclamation. Notice that the exclamation mark is inside of the quote mark because it belongs with the quote. The question mark falls at the end of the sentence and outside of the quote mark because it applies to the complete sentence.

Did I just hear her say, “There’s a fly in my soup!”?

Example 7: The direct statement is a complete sentence, ending with a period. There is no dialogue tag in this example. Instead, a descriptive phrase has been used to indicate who spoke.*

“There’s a fly in my soup.” Sally sighed.

*It would not be ideal to write this as: “There’s a fly in my soup,” sighed Sally because sighing while speaking this number of words would be difficult.

Example 8: The direct statement is followed by a semicolon, which is placed outside of the quotation mark, indicating an afterthought that applies to the statement made by the waitress. It does not belong inside the quotation mark because it is not part of the direct statement.

The waitress said, “Could you please repeat that?”; the restaurant was noisy that evening.

Example 9: If you want to show a character’s silent thoughts, follow the same punctuation and capitalization rules, but eliminate the quotation marks.

This is a busy restaurant, she thought.

Example 10: This is similar to Example 9. The direct statement is a complete sentence ending with a question mark, however, the dialogue tag does not start with a capital. As in the above example, just follow the same punctuation and capitalization rules but eliminate the quotation marks.

How long will I have to wait? she wondered.

Dialogue that spans multiple paragraphs

Whenever the speaker changes, start a new paragraph. Each new paragraph will start with quotation marks.

However, if writing multiple paragraphs of dialogue for the same speaker, only one closing quotation mark is required, which is placed at the end of the final paragraph.

Example:

“Dialogue moves the plot forward,” said Davina, “providing the opportunity to show through telling.

“A writer will also use dialogue to develop character, to illustrate conflict or heighten suspense. Dialogue breaks up monologue and creates white space on the page.

“Writing seamless dialogue requires correct use of punctuation and capitalization, and attention to the position of the dialogue tag.”

If you have any questions about dialogue and punctuation that I’ve not covered here, please ask!

I’d like to hear about other topics you’d like me to cover, too. Just let me know in your comments.

Thanks to Linda at From Roses to Rainbows for requesting that I write on this topic. She writes a collection of poetry and prose on her blog. One of her recent posts — part of a series — touched my heart: The Rose Garden: Allison

Image credit: Marc Wathieu

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