In this handy introduction I’m going to demonstrate the only five tips you’ll ever need for using punctuation in dialogue. If you’ve found this page, you’re probably a new(ish) writer looking for some hints on how to improve your writing. As we go through these tips, you’ll discover how easy it is to get the basics right.
Comma Placement Within Dialogue
- Wrong: ‘I want to write a book’, said David.
- Right: ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the instances above, the comma being placed inside the quotation marks is right. This rule holds true whichever punctuation mark you use — , . ! ?
Using Ellipses and Dashes Within Your Dialogue Punctuation
Many beginner writers think ellipses and dashes are interchangeable, but they’re not. Both serve a different purpose in your story. Ellipses are three dots placed thus … They indicate that speech has faltered.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies…’ David stared off into the middle distance.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies—’
‘I’m sure you did,’ said Susan.
In the first example, David’s speech tails off as he goes into his own daydream. In the second one, he is interrupted by Susan. Both of these give a different impression on what is happening in the story.
Capitalising Your Dialogue Tags
- ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the example above, you’ll notice I’ve used a comma and a small letter for said. “But,” you ask, “shouldn’t it be a capital letter?”
The rule for this is no - not if you tag your dialogue. If you use ‘said Mary,’ or ‘he said,’ or ‘she replied,’ and ‘they asked,’ etc. Using tags like these require a comma and a small letter.
Punctuate Your Dialogue With Action
Another way of writing dialogue is to provide an action with the words.
- ‘I want to write a book.’ David sat down at his desk and picked up his pen.
- ‘I want to write a book,’ he said, sitting down on his chair and drinking his coffee.
Now, although both of these are technically correct, example #1 is a better way of putting dialogue and action together. This is because sitting and drinking both imply a continuous action and we don’t usually do both at the same time. Talking, sitting and drinking coffee – we do one after the other.
Single or Double Quotations?
If you read mostly British authors, you will be used to seeing single quotations marks for dialogue i.e., ‘These are single quotes.’ American styles will use double quotes. “These are double quotes used for dialogue.”
Time Saver – Future Edits
Although you may write either single or double quotes depending on which way you have been schooled. If you use double quotes in your manuscript, you can always use the “search and replace” function to change the style if you have to. This doesn’t work the other way around because search and replace will change all of your apostrophes too.
Thanks for Reading This Primer on Dialogue!
This is the first in a series of articles about how to make your dialogue shine. You’ve learned when to use ellipsis and dashes and where to place your commas. You’ve learned how to tag your characters’ words and how to attribute dialogue to your characters without tags. You’ve even had a quick and dirty tip on how to use quotations that can be adapted for publishers both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Next time we’ll be looking at tags and actions in more depth. Visit our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some exercises. Post your completed exercise back into our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some staff and peer feedback. If you haven’t joined us yet, it’s totally free and you can sign up here.
We look forward to welcoming you in our forums.