How to punctuate dialogue

Following punctuation conventions when writing dialogue will give your readers a smooth reading experience. When done well, punctuation silently guides the reader so they can concentrate on what your characters are saying.

There’s a difference between UK convention and US conventions, and New Zealand convention is stuck in the middle. Which convention should you follow? To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. The key is consistency. For this guide, I have used double quote marks rather than single quote marks, and I’ve followed the New Hart’s Rules style guide, more or less. (Click here for more information about style guides.)

Definitions

Dialogue is more than what characters say to each other. It also involves dialogue tags and action beats.

Dialogue tags show us who is speaking. For example: 

  • he said
  • Aroha replied
  • said Tina

Action beats describe what the character is doing. For example:

  • He stood
  • Aroha smiled
  • She pointed

Let’s see how those dialogue tags and action beats work, and how to punctuate them.

Direct dialogue

“This is a sentence,” he said.

When stating a character’s direct speech, insert a comma inside the closing quote mark.

She said, “This is a sentence.”

Insert a comma after the dialogue tag to introduce the speech and capitalise the first letter of the speech.

“This is one sentence,” they said. “This is another sentence.”

When a dialogue tag splits two complete sentences, insert a full stop after the dialogue tag, and start the second sentence with a capital letter. This method immediately shows the reader who is speaking when there are three or more people in the conversation.

“This sentence,” she said, “is split by a dialogue tag.”

Use commas and lower case when a dialogue tag splits an incomplete sentence. This method can emphasise a pause between the two parts of the sentence.

Dialogue and action

“An action follows this sentence.” He winked.

Use a full stop before an action beat. Actions can be anything from smiling to standing. 

Characters laughing is a common action. Laughing is a tricky action, punctuation wise. Some people will insist that laughing is an action: you don’t speak while you laugh, they argue, so laughing cannot be a dialogue tag. But sometimes you do laugh as you speak. Think of a time when you’ve tried to tell a really funny story. You can’t stop laughing so your speech is cut up and halting as you laugh. How do you punctuate moments like those? I suggest still treating laughing when speaking as an action, punctuated with a full stop. Try to phrase the action to show the laughter.

“That’s a good one!” He laughed.

Here, his action is a laugh after his spoken line. The exclamation mark also shows his tone.

He laughed. “That’s a good one!”

Here, the laugh action comes before the spoken line.

“That’s a good one!” he said, laughing.

Here, the dialogue tag is combined with the action.

“That’s … that’s a … good one!” He laughed so hard he struggled to get his words out.

Here, the ellipses show he’s struggling to speak. The action beat gives us more detail about how he’s laughing and talking at the same time.

Smiling is always an action.

❌ “That’s a good one,” he smiled.

✅ “That’s a good one.” He smiled.

✅ He smiled. “That’s a good one.” 

✅ He smiled as he said, “That’s a good one.”

Dialogue with questions and exclamations

“Is this how you format a question?” she asked.

Use lower case in the dialogue tag. The she asked is a dialogue tag, not an action beat. 

“This is how you format an exclamation mark!” she yelled.

Just like the dialogue tag with the question mark, the dialogue tag after an exclamation is lower case.

Dialogue tag, then action

“This is some speech,” they said, pointing at the text.

Use a comma after the dialogue tag to introduce the action.

Depending on the context or pacing, you could leave out the dialogue tag and go straight to the action:

“This is some speech.” They pointed at the text.

Action, then speech

He pointed at the text. “This is what I have to say.”

Separate the action beat and the speech with a full stop.

If it suits the context, you could combine action with a dialogue tag:

He pointed at the text and whispered, “This is what I have to say.”

Cut off dialogue

“This sentence—”

“Is cut off,” she said.

When another character cuts off the speaker, or something distracts the speaker, there is often no need to add a dialogue tag because the dash shows that they have been cut off.

Avoid:

❌ “This sentence—” he started.

“Is cut off,” she said.

Avoid:

“This sentence—” 

❌ She cut him off. “Is cut off.”

Action interrupts dialogue

“All this talk of punctuation” – they threw their pen at the wall – “is really pedantic.”

(I know, but it’s important to get it right!) This example uses the en dash; insert spaces either side of the dash.

 If you’re using em dashes, then don’t insert any spaces: 

“All this talk of punctuation”—they threw their pen at the wall—“is really pedantic.”

Which dash should you use with interrupted dialogue? You can use an em dash or en dash.

Quick refresher: 

  • This is an en dash –
  • This is an em dash —

You can use either. Just stick with one and use it consistently. 

If you use an en dash, insert a space between the word and the dash, and no space between the dash and the quote mark:

“This sentence uses an en dash –”

If you use an em dash, use no space on either side of the dash:

“This sentence uses an em dash—”

Dialogue that trails off

“This sentence just …” 

When a character trails off, use an ellipsis. Insert a space between the word and the ellipsis, but no space between the ellipsis and the quote mark.

“This sentence just …” He shrugged.

An action tag can add detail, but there’s no need to add a dialogue tag to tell the reader that the character has trailed off. The ellipsis shows this.

❌ “This sentence just …” he said, trailing off.

“This sentence trails off … then it comes back on track.”

Insert a space either side of the ellipsis.

Speech within speech

“My editor told me that ‘getting the punctuation right in dialogue is important,’ and I’m coming around to it,” he said.

If you are using double quote marks for speech, then use single quote marks for speech within speech. 

Reverse this is you’re using single quote marks:

‘My editor told me that “getting the punctuation right in dialogue is important,” and I’m coming around to it,’ he said.

Speech that is longer than one paragraph

“When a character has a lot to say, their speech may stretch over more than one paragraph,” he said. “When that happens, insert a full stop at the end of the paragraph, but don’t insert a closing quote mark.

“At the start of the next paragraph, use an opening quote mark. When the speaker finally finishes talking, close off their speech with a closing quote mark.”

Leaving the closing quote mark off the end of the paragraph lets the reader know that the speaker hasn’t finished speaking.

One speaker per paragraph

Make sure each character’s speech is on a new paragraph. This helps the reader keep track of who’s speaking, especially if there is action or narrative involved.

“A conversation involves two or more people talking with each other,” she said.

“That’s right,” he said. “Keep the speakers separate by only having one character’s lines and actions per paragraph.”

“Sometimes you’ll have action mixed with dialogue,” she said. She flicked through her style guide, trying to find the right page. “If it’s the same speaker doing the action and speaking, then you can keep that action and speech in one paragraph.”

He took the book from her. “And when another character starts talking or does an action, use a new paragraph.”

Vocative comma

“I’m loving all this detail, Deborah,” they said, “but what’s a vocative comma?”

A vocative comma comes before someone’s name, nickname, or title; it shows the speaker directly addressing someone. In this example, the speaker is addressing me. The vocative comma helps avoid ambiguity. It can be used at the end of the sentence, like this first example, or at the start or in the middle, like in these two examples.

“Deborah, is this article going to finish soon?” She looked at her watch.

“Thank you, Deborah, you’ve really helped me sort out my dialogue punctuation,” they said.

Vocative commas are used outside of dialogue too, but I’ve included them here because they often appear in dialogue.

Summary

Punctuation marks are small but they can have a big effect. When used consistently, they seamlessly guide the reader through the text. When used inconsistently or incorrectly, they stick out and trip up the reader. Getting the punctuation right will give your reader a great reading experience and your writing a professional touch.

Feel free to download a PDF summary of this guide so you can have it close to hand as you revise your work. Click here for the landscape summary. Click here for the portrait summary.

If you need help wrangling your punctuation, then contact me. I can get those commas, full stops, and capital letters in the right place, and I can edit and proofread the rest of your manuscript too.

References and further reading

The Magic of Fiction by Beth Hill is a great resource for writers who want to know more about editing their own work. It provides more examples of punctuation in dialogue, along with all sorts of advice for writing, revising and self-editing.

New Hart’s Rules, second edition by Oxford University Press, Chapter 9

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. Sections 13.39–13.45