Learning how to punctuate dialogue is important when writing the conversations between your characters.
Punctuating dialogue might not sound like a very exciting topic or a lot of fun as a writer to study – but it is very important in making sure your dialogue exchanges between characters make sense to your readers!
Good punctuation will help your readers connect to your characters and help you write a stronger book.
How to Punctuate Dialogue
Dialogue punctuation rules are fairly straight forward and simple. Once you learn the basics of how to use punctuation in dialogue, it becomes second nature. You’ll be writing down those spoken exchanges between your fictional characters while writing your novel in no time!
In order to punctuate your dialogue correctly, it helps to understand the different parts of a sentence.
Most dialogue sentences are made of two parts: the dialogue, which is the spoken portion of the sentence, and then the dialogue tag, which identifies the speaker.
In this example, we have the following sentence, spoken by Martha.
“I am going to the zoo,” said Martha.
The sentence which Martha speaks is the dialogue. This is the part that ends with a comma. The second part is the dialogue tag. The dialogue tag is what identifies Martha as the speaker.
Now that we know this basic anatomy of dialogue sentence structure, let’s move onto the rules!
The 7 Rules of Dialogue Punctuation
These rules are simple to follow.
Rule #1: Use Quote Marks and Commas
Surround your dialogue with quotation marks and end it with a comma before the last quote mark. End with the dialogue tag to identify the speaker.
“This is my favorite dress,” said Sally.
“I put your keys on top of the dresser,” Mark insisted.
For simple sentences, this is easy enough to remember. Now let’s get into punctuating more complex sentences!
Rule #2: Always Create a New Paragraph Line for New Speakers
When you have a new speaker, you should create a new paragraph line.
Example of Wrong Usage:
“This is my favorite dress”, said Sally. “It looks terrible on you,” said Mark.
In the example here, the two different speakers should have their own paragraphs.
Example of Proper Usage:
“This is my favorite dress,” said Sally.
“It looks terrible on you,” said Mark.
Here each part of the dialogue exchange has its own individual paragraph.
Rule #3: Put Periods Inside of Quotation Marks When Not Using Dialogue Tags
When your sentence ends with a dialogue tag, you use a comma inside the quotation marks. When you are not using dialogue tags, you’ll want to put the period inside the quotation marks as well.
Mark walked across the room to the corner dresser. “I swear I put your keys here”.
Mark walked across the room to the corner dresser. “I swear I put your keys here.”
In these examples, we don’t need dialogue tags because we have already identified Mark in the paragraph. If we follow Rule #2 of always giving each character their own paragraph, we don’t have to worry about any potential confusion on who is speaking. It’s also not necessary to use a dialogue tag.
The important thing to remember for this rule is that we place the period inside the quotation marks.
Rule #4: Avoid Run-On Sentences – Use Multiple Sentences if Necessary
It’s easy to want to create run-on sentences. Fortunately, it is also easy to avoid them.
Below is an example of a run-on sentence in dialogue with way too much punctuation.
“I love this dress,” said Sally, “I’m going to wear it everywhere, not just to the wedding, but also to the grocery store, the library, and the pancake dinner.”
This above example has several mistakes in it. First of all, you should not put a comma after a dialogue tag. It’s best to use two separate sentences.
“I love this dress,” said Sally. “I’m going to wear it everywhere. I’m not just going to wear it to the wedding. I’m going to wear it to the grocery store, the library, and the pancake dinner.”
You can see in this example above we’ve actually transformed what was one giant run-on sentence into several sentences all within the quote marks.
Is this the most captivating dialogue you’ve ever read? Probably not, but it serves our example here.
Rule #5: Do Use a Comma for Action Within the Dialogue
“I love this dress,” said Sally, carefully taking it out of the closet.
“I think it’s hideous,” said Mark, wondering why on earth she would want to wear something that reminded him of pea soup. “You do realize it’s the same color as pea soup, don’t you?”
In this instance, we DO use a comma, because it separates the dialogue tag from the action. In this case, Sally is doing a physical action as she takes the dress from the closet. Mark’s action is not a physical action. However, it still counts as a verb and an action all the same.
Rule #6: Know How to Punctuate Dialogue in Reverse
In all of our examples so far, we’ve put the dialogue tag at the end. However, both the dialogue tag and the action can come before the dialogue. In this case, you simply end the dialogue with a period and use a comma after the dialogue tag.
Mark whispered, “I love you even if you are wearing an ugly dress.”
Looking into his eyes, Sally said, “Thank you for understanding.”
Basically, when the dialogue tag or the action comes first, you simply reverse the dialogue punctuation marks for the comma and the period.
Rule #7: Multiple Paragraphs of Same Speaker
When you have a character who is speaking a lot, it is okay if you need to use multiple paragraphs. Simply omit the end quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph and begin the second paragraph with a quote mark.
This can sometimes be confusing to readers, but there are times when it is appropriate.
“Listen, I have a lot to say about why I love this dress.” Sally straightened her posture. “This dress was my grandmother’s dress. She wore it when she first came to this country in 1936. She had nothing – no money, no food – but she had this dress.
“That’s where I am today. I have nothing. Nothing! No job, no money, no car. I have this dress. It worked for my grandmother, maybe it will work for me, too.
“I’m wearing this dress, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
Again, sometimes it is better to break up your dialogue with different speakers or to add action – but it’s not always necessary. Largely a lot of this will depend on your own unique type of writing style, type of work you are writing and what your goals are as a writer.
Additional Dialogue Punctuation Resources
Many writers can find the task of correctly punctuating their character’s dialogue to be overwhelming. Hopefully these punctuation rules for dialogue will help you improve as a writer.
Need more dialogue writing tips? Check out our article on 6 Tips for Writing Dialogue.
You may also find that a good style manual can be a great resource to have on hand as a desk reference as a writer.
Writing dialogue punctuation does not have to be difficult. With practice and a basic understanding of these rules for when to use commas, quotation marks, and periods, you can easily add dialogue to your stories confidently.
Have any suggestions for ways you can easily remember the rules on how to punctuate dialogue? Share your tips in the comments section below!