Knowledge Bite

The basics of punctuating dialogue

Punctuating dialogue can be one of those gnarly issues that trips an author up. Here are some tips to keep you right when writing dialogue.

Let’s start simply with just a normal statement uttered by a character:

‘It’s raining outside,’ Harriet said.

The first thing you might notice is that I’ve used single quotes to enclose the dialogue. This is a style choice; traditionally, British publishers have preferred to use single quotes, while American publishers opt for doubles. Nowadays, the distinction is a bit blurred. The main thing is to be consistent in whatever form you choose. For this article, I will use single quotes, but the same principles apply if you choose to use double quotes in your own work.

This piece of dialogue is followed by a tag – ‘Harriet said’. You can identify a tag by looking for words like ‘said’, ‘whispered’, ‘replied’, ‘asked’ in conjunction with a name or pronoun – Harriet, Jim, he, she, Grandmother, etc.

In my above example – ‘It’s raining outside,’ Harriet said – you’ll notice that a comma is used to join the piece of dialogue to the accompanying tag and that the comma appears inside the quote marks. The tag should be lower case if it appears before the name.

‘I’m cold,’ whispered Dan.

‘I’m hungry,’ declared Alice.

But what if your sentence is a question or ends with an exclamation mark?

Many people fall into the trap of capitalising the tag as they see a question mark or exclamation point as terminal punctuation – that is, as ending the sentence. But when it comes to dialogue, that’s not the case; these punctuation marks do the same job as the comma in my Harriet example.

‘I’m hungry!’ declared Alice.

‘What’s for dinner?’ Jim asked.

Of course, not every piece of dialogue comes with an accompanying tag. It would get wearying if everyone was declaring, whispering, or shouting every piece of dialogue, after all. A common way to avoid this kind of repetition is to use action beats instead.

‘I’m hungry!’ Alice rubbed her stomach and looked around hopefully.

‘I’ll see what we’ve got in the fridge.’ Jim opened the door and peered inside.

As you’ll see in the last example, if there is no tag, then the sentence takes a full stop as what follows (Jim opened the door…) is a full sentence in its own right.

Each new speaker should take a new line.

Those are the basics of punctuating dialogue, but there is still much more to learn! Take a look at Beth Hill’s excellent guide to punctuating dialogue to learn about interrupted dialogue and reported speech, among other things.