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Space and Punctuate Dialogue Correctly: Creative Writing Success Tips

Writers who fail to punctuate dialogue correctly confuse readers and draw attention to their inexperience. So basic is proper punctuation that an editor is unlikely to read past the first page if dialogue is handled incorrectly.

Almost all new writers make mistakes when they punctuate dialogue, whether it is in spacing or capitalization, but the rules for all three are few and simple.

Commas and Periods

A comma separates dialogue from its dialogue tag, and periods and commas ALWAYS go inside the quotation marks.

Incorrect: "You can be proud of your name", Lin said.

Correct: "You can be proud of your name," Lin said.

The same is true of periods:

Incorrect: "You can be proud of your name". Lin turned her back on him before she could say something she might regret.

Correct: "You can be proud of your name." Lin turned her back on him . . . etc.

To punctuate dialogue divided by a dialogue tag, place a second comma after the tag, and after any words that come between the tag and the continuation of the sentence.

Incorrect: "If you try," he said his smile persuasive. "You'll find it's easier than it looks."

Correct: "If you try," he said, his smile persuasive, "you'll find it's easier than it looks."

When a character takes action after speaking, the action usually begins a new sentence and should not be punctuated with a comma, as if it is a dialogue tag.

Incorrect: "Let's proceed, shall we," Roberta coughed, shuffling her papers.

Correct:"Let's proceed, shall we?" Roberta coughed and shuffled her papers.

(Note also that it's preferable to remove the "ing" participial phrase and replace it with the conjunction "and" to join the two actions of coughing and shuffling papers.)


Question Marks and Exclamation Marks

Both question marks and exclamation marks take the place of commas and periods; they are not used in addition to them. Also note that unlike the previous example, a period is correctly placed after the dialogue tag because the tag does not divide a single sentence but separates two distinct sentences.

Incorrect: "Watch out!," She yelled. "Do you see the snake?"

Correct: "Watch out!" she yelled. "Do you see the snake?"

Dashes and Ellipses

To punctuate dialogue correctly, dashes indicate where a sentence breaks off, such as when one character interrupts another. Ellipses indicate that the dialogue trails off, such as when one character is unsure, or does not want to finish the sentence.
Incorrect: "I told him we would break his . . ."
"Quiet," he said. "You don't know who's listening."

Correct: "I told him we would break his—"
"Quiet," he said. "You don't know who's listening, or even worse. . ."

Spacing

If indentations are used in the text, indent the first line of dialogue. When one character stops speaking and the focus moves to another character's speech or actions, begin a new paragraph.

Incorrect: "Watch out!," She yelled. "Do you see the snake?" He shrugged. "I've always been fascinated by snakes."

Correct: "Watch out!" she yelled. "Do you see the snake?"

He shrugged. "I've always been fascinated by snakes."

Keep each character's response and descriptive material with his or her dialogue.

Incorrect: He clasped her outstretched hand.

"So you're Susan Jones."

She stood straighter and her voice took on a frostier edge.

"Dr. Jones will be fine. Is there something I can do for you?"

Correct: He clasped her outstretched hand. "So you're Susan Jones."

She stood straighter and her voice took on a frostier edge. "Dr. Jones will be fine. Is there something I can do for you?"

Capitalization

To correctly punctuate dialogue, the first word of dialogue is always capitalized.

Incorrect: He said, "we can be there by morning."

Correct: He said, "We can be there by morning."

When dialogue is divided by a speaker attribution, begin the second half of the sentence with a lowercase letter, not an uppercase one.

Incorrect: "We can be there by morning," he said, "If we get started right away."

Correct: "We can be there by morning," he said, "if we get started right away."

Never capitalize the dialogue tag. A lowercase letter follows the punctuated dialogue.

Incorrect: "Yes, it's mine," Said the woman.

Correct: "Yes, it's mine," said the woman.

More Than One Paragraph of Dialogue

When a character has more than one paragraph of dialogue, use closing quotation marks at the end of the final paragraph in the sequence only. Omit quotation marks at the end of any paragraph directly followed by more dialogue from the same character.

Incorrect: He said, "We can be there by morning, if the weather holds. All six of us will go, including the three kids and Tiny, the St. Bernard."

"If Charles says anything about the dog, ask him to contact me."

Correct: He said, "We can be there by morning, if the weather holds. All six of us will go, including the three kids and Tiny, the St. Bernard.

"If Charles says anything about the dog, ask him to contact me."

Punctuate Dialogue: Final tips

And two final tips to help you punctuate dialogue correctly:
  1. Standard use of quotation marks uses double quotation marks for regular dialogue and single quotation marks for anything quoted by a character: "When I arrived, he already had her terrified. 'Never again,' I heard him say. 'You've had your last chance.'"

  2. Avoid placing quotation marks around thoughts. Written correctly, thoughts need neither quotation marks nor italics: Jud slid a registration form across the counter and took advantage of the woman's preoccupation to size her up. She said she'd be gone as soon as possible, so she was no tourist, but what then? A real estate agent? That would fit with her business attire.


See Also:

Writing Dialogue with Tension

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