Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 4, Punctuating Dialogue

August 6, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

  • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
    “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
    Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
  • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
    Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
  • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as a whole.
    “Why didn’t you write to me?” she asked.
    “Because I hate you!” he responded.
    How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you”? –As it’s written now, the writer ends the sentence by quoting a non-question, but is asking a question with the whole sentence, so the question mark is placed outside the quotation marks so we know the speaker is asking a question. If the question mark appeared inside the quotation marks, it would change the meaning of the “I hate you” comment– “I hate you?” is not a declaration of hate, but a request for confirmation of information/an expression of incredulity.
  • Use single quotation marks to set off a quotation within a quotation or line of dialogue. A quote within a line of dialogue needs to be set off at beginning and end (don’t forget to close it!) with single quotation marks, and the rules for end punctuation are the same for these internal quotes.
    “You said, and I quote, ‘Be ready at seven-thirty.’ It’s seven-thirty. I’m ready,” she said, glaring at her mother.
    “How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you’?” asked Dr. Harper. –the sentence from the above example was turned into a line of dialogue by enclosing it in quotation marks and adding attribution, so now the speaker is quoting someone else within his speech and that quote needs to be set off by single quotation marks. The line of dialogue as a whole, however, is still a question that Dr. Harper is asking, so the question mark appears outside the single marks around the quoted material, but inside the double marks around Dr. Harper’s words, per the rule above.

And always remember to begin (and indent) a new paragraph to indicate a change in speaker.

Of course, you’ll always come across sentences which are more difficult to know how to punctuate correctly, whether because the syntax is a bit more complex or because the setting affects the delivery of the dialogue (e.g., a scene where a character is reading from a letter or a newspaper), but in general, knowing these rules will let you write and punctuate your dialogue with confidence.

If you’re feeling confident and want to try out your quotation-mark skills, try this quiz hosted by Capital Community College’s grammar help page for some practice in using these basic rules. Feel free to brag about your awesome score in the comments, or to publicly admit your shortcomings– we’ll try not to judge you. If you’ve run into one of those tricky punctuation situations not covered by these rules in your own writing, post it and I’ll see if I can offer any clarity– if I can’t, I’ll just sit here quietly until another reader more knowledgeable than I pipes in with the answer, and then I’ll nod wisely and agree. As always, thanks for reading!

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Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized

  • Rene` Diane Aube

    Thanks for the refresher, Erin. :)

  • Laura Droege

    My dialogue punctuation issue is when one character is speaking and another character interrupts, or the speaking character breaks off his/her own dialogue line to do something dramatic or pause for gather his/her thoughts. For example,

    “I ran all the way–” he said, gasping for breath, “–all the way from Athens to tell you–” he shut his eyes, as if unwilling to see her face as he spoke, “Your husband has been murdered.”

    Or this,

    “I think–”
    “Shut up, you idiot.”

    I hope these lousy examples makes sense.

  • Amanda Luedeke

    What do you think of Robin McKinley’s dialogue skills? Sometimes she strings together entire conversations in one single paragraph. Drives me up the wall.

  • Stacey Shubitz

    These are great reminders. Concise and helpful!