“Say that to my face!” ~ A Quick Introduction to Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue is such a beautiful, funny, irritating, headache-inducing … Wait, where was I going with this?

In all reality, dialogue doesn’t have to be difficult or tricky. It may seem like it at times, but knowing the basics can make it much easier to know what to include and what to cut during revisions. Today I only want to discuss dialogue punctuation. We’ll get into the more nitty-gritty of dialogue another time.

Let’s start with something simple:


Note that the comma is inside the quotation marks. This happens when the dialogue tag comes after the dialogue itself. If it tickles your fancy, you can switch Amanda and said.

You can also put the dialogue tag before the dialogue itself. When doing so, the comma is placed outside the quotation marks:


If it’s clear who the speaker is, the dialogue tag can be dropped if you so desire. I feel it’s good to mix it up, use some dialogue tags, some without. (Again, as long as it’s very clear who is speaking.) There are several variations that can happen here. Action can be sprinkled in to help show that the characters aren’t talking in a vacuum. Because, really, we typically don’t stand perfectly still, doing absolutely nothing when we’re having a conversation, right?


When adding in action in between dialogue, if the same character is speaking and moving, keep it in the same paragraph. As soon as you’re changing speakers, or a new character is taking over the action, start a new paragraph. For example:


Em dashes are your friend. (Click here for a great explanation on the many uses of the em dash.) (Please note that an em dash (the longest of the dashes) is being used, not an En dash or hyphen. I’m very much a fan of the Chicago Manual of Style, and they have a wonderful post on the differences.) In dialogue, em dashes can be used to show interruption, whether it’s a thought or another speaker, or simply to show a sudden action in the middle of a sentence. Ellipses can also be used to show trailing off or faltering.


When a character is particularly long-winded, you’ll want to break up the dialogue into separate paragraphs. When doing so, drop the quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, but add a quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph. Also, notice how the first sentence of the dialogue is interrupted by a dialogue tag between “No” and “that’s…”. When doing interrupting a sentence like this, a second comma is placed behind the tag, but only if it’s interrupting a complete sentence. Only a period is needed if the dialogue before the tag is a complete thought.


The beautiful thing about writing creatively is that, once you know the rules, you can break ’em. But you have to know them. Again, I’m a huge fan of the Chicago Manual of Style and keep a copy on my shelf for reference.

Well, that’s it for this post! I hope you found it helpful. I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for writing dialogue in the comments!