How to Use Punctuation When Writing Dialogue

Kevin Ott
Man and woman with speech bubbles

Unless you're writing a novel in which no one speaks, it's essential to punctuate dialogue properly. Some basic rules are easy to overlook, and there are unorthodox methods that cause confusion if you don't understand the traditional methods first.

Seven Rules for Punctuating Traditional Dialogue

The following seven rules provide a basic framework for punctuating dialogue traditionally.

1. Quotation Marks

Always surround spoken dialogue with double quotation marks.

Example: "Hello, Peter. I like your shoes."

2. Commas and Periods

Commas and periods should always be placed inside of quotation marks.

Example: "I think it's raining," said Mark. "I didn't bring my coat."

3. Colons, Semicolons, and Other Punctuation

All other punctuation including, colons, semicolons, exclamation marks, question marks, and dashes, go outside of the quotation marks.

Example #1: Are you saying, "It's hot outside today," or "It's not outside today"?

Example #2 (when a dash indicates a character interrupting another character):

"I don't really understand what you're"--

"Well, maybe you should pay more attention."

The exception to this rule is when a question mark or an exclamation mark is part of the character's dialogue.

Example: "How are you doing today, Melissa?"

4. Introducing Dialogue Mid-Sentence

If a character begins speaking in the middle of a sentence, use a comma to introduce the spoken words.

Example: Daniel walked under the elm tree and said to Belle, "You look lovely tonight."

5. How to Finish Dialogue

When ending dialogue and naming the speaker, use a comma before the 'he said' or 'she said' tag.

Example: "I love it when you talk to me like that," said Ann.

If the speaker begins speaking again, do not change the period after the said tag to a comma. Keep the period and begin a new sentence as Ann continues to speak.

Example: "I love it when you talk to me like that," said Ann. "I wish you would say that to me every day."

6. Quotes Within Dialogue

If a character is quoting something else in their dialogue, use single quotation marks.

Example: "As the saying goes, 'haste makes waste,'" said Ann.

7. Multiple Paragraphs

If a character's speech extends into multiple paragraphs, only close the final paragraph with quotation marks.

Example:

"You should have been there. The dolphins swam along the boat for hours. The way they chattered was so funny, and they began jumping over each other on the waves.

"But that's when I got the call from Jennifer. She ruined our perfect day at sea with such terrible news."

Unorthodox Dialogue Methods

Authors have always tinkered with alternative methods for quoting dialogue. Authors who used unorthodox punctuation include James Joyce, William Faulkner, and 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner MacKinlay Kantor. Contemporary authors like Cormac McCarthy have followed in their footsteps. This has produced alternative methods such as the following styles.

No Quotation Marks, Minimalist Punctuation

The minimalist method uses as little punctuation as possible. In these novels, quotation marks are not used when a character speaks. Question marks are allowed to float mid-sentence. This requires care on the author's part to ensure the identity of the speaker is clear.

Example: The man walked to the cashier. Do you have any diet sodas? said the man. No, said the cashier. We only have regular. The man sighed with disappointment. Fine, said the man. Just give me a regular.

This style also avoids using colons or semicolons at all costs. As McCarthy explains in the interview linked above, he only needs commas, periods, and question marks to write.

Text Message Dialogue

Contemporary novels set in the present time often include moments of dialogue that occur entirely through text messaging. Many authors will use a speaker format similar to movie scripts or theater. Other authors will use italics. In either case, the author will include clear indicators when the text conversation has ended.

Example #1:

Sarah: Hey. Where are you?

Jim: Sorry. Flat tire. I'll be 30 mins late.

Sarah: OMG. So sorry. It's ok.

Sarah put her phone away and rubbed her temples. It was the worst day for Jim to be late.

Example #2:

Sarah heard her phone beep and picked it up. A text message from Jim appeared on the screen. Sorry. I'm late again. Flat tire. Sarah shook her head and felt like slamming the phone down. Instead, she sent a polite message back. It's ok. That's awful.

Know the Rules Before You Break Them

Effective, unique writers have a keen understanding of traditional grammar rules. They use the foundation of basic grammar to craft their styles. Once you've mastered the basics of punctuating dialogue, you can tinker with your story's dialogue until a unique style emerges.

How to Use Punctuation When Writing Dialogue