How to punctuate dialogue in fiction: A guide for authors

Dialogue allows readers to get inside the minds of your characters. As an editor, I have realized that many authors struggle with how to punctuate dialogue correctly.  Here is a primer that explores the basics of punctuating dialogue in fiction with tips for making it more effective.

Dialogue is set off by quotation marks. Each time a character speaks, what they say should be enclosed in quotation marks. For example,

“Hello,” said John.

When a character speaks, their dialogue should be followed by a tag that identifies who is speaking. Tags can be a simple (“said” or “asked”) or more descriptive (“yelled” or “whispered”). For example,

“Hello,” said John or “Hello,” John yelled.

It’s important to note that punctuation in dialogue comes before the quotation marks and not after them. For example,

“Hello,” said John. NOT “Hello”, said John.

When a character speaks for multiple sentences, the sentence before the tag ends with a comma unless it is the last sentence of the character’s speech, in which case it should end with a period. For example,

“Hello,” said John. “How are you doing today?”

If your character speaks in paragraphs, changing the subject one or more times in a long speech, the convention is to omit the close quotation marks from the first paragraph, begin the next paragraph with an open quotation mark, and continue in this manner until the character is done talking. At that point, end the speech with an end quotation mark.

When a character’s dialogue is interrupted by another character or an action, use a comma to separate the dialogue and an em-dash to indicate the interruption. For example,

“Hello,” said John, “How are you do—” Before he could finish his sentence, the phone rang.

Use an ellipsis to show a pause in a character’s speech (“I just…I don’t know.”) or when the character trails off before finishing their sentence (“I just can’t believe…”). 

It’s also important to consider the context of the dialogue when choosing punctuation. For example, if a character is shouting, you could use an exclamation point to indicate this (“Get out!” he shouted.), but the fact that the tag says he shouted is enough (“Get out,” he shouted.). Try to use exclamation points sparingly, as people rarely shout entire paragraphs. Try to use the character’s words to show they are enraged instead of ending every sentence they utter with an exclamation point. Also, avoid using multiple punctuation marks at the end of a sentence (!?).

By understanding the basics of punctuation in dialogue, authors can write conversations that are clear, believable, and engaging. Remember that good dialogue is not only about what is said; it is also about how it is said, and the right punctuation can make all the difference.

For more on writing dialogue in fiction, see The Shape of Stories, A Comprehensive Guide for Fiction Writers. For help with dialogue in your current manuscript, contact EMSA Publishing for a quote.

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