Knowing how to punctuate dialogue is important, especially when you’re writing fiction. And it's not always as straightforward as you may think. There are, after all, more variations when writing dialogue than just dialogue + dialogue tags.
In this post, I’ve made an overview of the different rules for punctuating dialogue, with examples.
Single or double quotation marks for dialogue?
The first question we need to answer is this: do we use single or double quotation marks for dialogue?
The answer depends on whether you’re writing for the US or the UK market. In American English, it’s common to use double quotation marks. On the other hand, British English uses single quotation marks for dialogue.
This just means that in some parts of the world, like the UK, Europe, and Australia, the use of single quotations is more common. In other parts of the world, like the US and Canada, double quotation marks are more common.
To decide which one you’ll use, ask yourself for which market you’re writing your book. Do you want to mainly target US or UK readers? Or if you want to publish with a publisher, which type of quotation mark do they use for dialogue in their books?
Whichever you choose is fine, as long as you apply it consistently.
For the sake of simplicity, all the examples within this article will use US-style quotation marks (so double quotation marks). With some exceptions here and there.
Dialogue with dialogue tags
Let’s have a look at the most common way dialogue is written: with dialogue tags.
A dialogue tag is the small part before or after the dialogue. For instance, “she said,” “he asked,” “Mark mumbled,” or “they yelled.”
Instead of a full stop when a sentence ends, you write a comma when a dialogue tag follows the dialogue. For instance:
“I’ll be back in a sec,” she said.
Note that the dialogue tag also doesn’t start with a capital letter.
When a dialogue tag precedes the dialogue, you use a comma before the sentence:
He asked, “When will you be back?”
When you use a question mark or exclamation mark within the sentence, these also go within the quotation marks:
“Watch where you’re going!” he yelled.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Also here, you don’t start the dialogue tag with a capital letter; you always use lowercase. Unless, of course, it’s a proper noun:
“What’s going on with you?” Jason grumbled.
When dialogue is spoken aloud, like in the examples above, it’s called direct dialogue or direct speech. When the dialogue is actually not spoken aloud but reported, it’s called indirect dialogue or indirect speech.
Often, indirect dialogue doesn’t need quotation marks:
He’d said they would meet at the corner, but Nolan was worried he might’ve gotten the names mixed up.
However, sometimes you can still use quotation marks to indirectly quote what the character has said:
He had said that they would “meet at the corner of 8th and 9th street,” but Nolan was worried he might’ve gotten the names mixed up.
My mom always said that “adversity builds character.”
In the examples above, you’re quoting fragments of something that someone has said at some point.
Dialogue with action tags
Action tags are different from dialogue tags. While they also indicate to the reader who’s speaking, they instead show an action. This often adds to characterization.
Tip: if you can, change as many dialogue tags as you can with action tags for a more engaging story. Or see if you can remove the dialogue tags and make it clear to the reader who’s speaking through the typical way a character speaks.
With dialogue tags, you don’t use a comma. You can see the action tag as a separate sentence:
She lifted an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”
“Of course, I’m not an idiot.” Daisy crossed her arms and pouted.
Punctuating interrupted dialogue
When you want to have interrupted dialogue, you use the em dash:
“What the hell is going—”
“Just hurry up!”
When you have two characters who are talking over each other, you also use the em dash:
“He was going to tell you—”
“—himself, but he couldn’t make it.”
If you have dialogue that’s not interrupted but trails off, you use ellipses. You can also use ellipses to indicate a pause in speech:
“No way…” His mouth dropped at the sight.
“I thought I left them here… Ah! There they are!”
Quotes within dialogue
Sometimes people will give a direct quote within their dialogue, for instance, when they’re relaying what someone else told them or when giving a popular quote.
In these instances, you use the other quotation mark within the dialogue. So, for US English, you would use the single quote marks within your double quote marks:
“He said, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ But it’s been days. How long should I wait?”
With UK English, it would be the other way around. So, you would use double quotation marks within single quotation marks:
‘“To be or not to be” is a popular quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet.’
In general, you don’t want to go overboard with this, as it can get confusing really fast.
While this isn’t technically part of punctuating dialogue, I thought it would be good to mention it anyway.
When you change speakers, it’s a common rule to start a new paragraph for the dialogue. This helps readers understand who is speaking, even if you don’t use dialogue tags (especially if it’s a two-person conversation).
Henry looked down and shuffled his feet. “So… Do you think you’d want to go on another date?”
“I would love to.”
Sometimes a character can give a long speech. You don’t want to put all of that into one paragraph. To make clear that the same person is talking even when you start a new paragraph, you don’t include a quotation mark at the end of the sentence. You only put the final quotation mark at the end of the final paragraph:
“It was a dark night, and we were certain we were lost in the woods,” Roan said. The fire of the campfire made strange shadows pass along his face. “All we could do was to keep on walking and hope we would encounter a road at some point.
“We wandered for a day and still nothing. When, utterly exhausted, we came upon a stream, we drank from it. Little did we know that this stream belonged to the fairies and drinking from it was forbidden.”
Revise your dialogue
Now that you know how to punctuate your dialogue, you can go back to your story and revise any parts of dialogue you’ve punctuated incorrectly.
Need any help? Feel free to reach out by email or fill out my form.