The Basics of Dialogue Punctuation

Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann at Pixabay.com
Last week, I took a deep look at a specific issue in dialogue punctuation that many of my readers admitted they didn't know: how to punctuate multiple lines of dialogue correctly.

Before I posted that message, I looked back through my dialogue-related posts and discovered I have never written a post about basic dialogue punctuation.

So, that's what I'm serving up for your enjoyment today. Over the years, I've been surprised to discover that:


  • A lot of people get this right.
  • A lot of people get this wrong.


A Quick Dialogue Punctuation Test


Which of the following quotations are correct?

1. “Stop” she said, “and look to your left”

2. “Stop,” she said, “and look to your left.”

3. “Stop and look to your left,” she said.

4. “Stop and look to your left.” She said.

5. She said “Stop and look to your left.”

6. She said, “Stop and look to your left.”

7. She said, “Stop and look to your left”.

8. She screeched, “Stop and look to your left.”

9. “Stop and look to your left.” Jan threw her arm in front of the child before he stepped into the street.

Go on and study them. I'll wait.
Ready?

How many did you get right?


Let's go through each one.

  • # 1 is incorrect because it needs a comma after the word Stop and a period after the word left, before the last quotation mark.
  • # 2 is the corrected version of # 1.
  • # 3 is correct.
  • # 4 is incorrect because She said is part of the sentence. There should be a comma between the word left and the closing quotation mark. Also, She should not be capitalized.
  • # 5 is incorrect because it needs a comma after the word said.
  • # 6 is correct.
  • # 7 is incorrect because the period should be before the ending quotation mark.
  • # 8 is punctuated correctly, but it's considered poor writing to use a verb (screeched) in place of said in order to convey the sound of the person's voice.
  • # 9 is correct. It uses a beat to describe the speaker's actions instead of a tag. Notice the beat--the sentence of action--does not use the word said, and it's a separate sentence from the quotation. The beat appears in the same paragraph as the speaker.



Dialogue Punctuation Broken Down


Just to clarify, dialogue punctuation works like this:
  • Quotation mark + Sentence with first letter of the first word capitalized + Comma + Quotation mark + Space + Speaking tag (he said, she said etc., but NOT capitalized) + Period
  • “Stop and look to your left,” she said.

OR

  • Speaking tag with the first letter of the first word capitalized + Comma + Space + Quotation mark + First letter of the first word of quotation capitalized + Rest of the quotation + Period + Quotation mark.
  • She said, “Stop and look to your left.”

Note: I inserted the direction for space when an actual space should occur between items.

Questions? Leave a comment below about dialogue punctuation.

Comments

Stuart Nager said…
Thank you for this. I do write dialogue. I feel better that I knew the correct and wrong way to construct dialogue punctuation.

I do try to vary the pronouns. Otherwise, to me, it's borning reading. My preference goes to #9. It's active and lets us know the mindset inside the character.
Unknown said…
I don't dispute the punctuation of #9, but disagree with the sequence. I would insert the action tag first. The save adds impact to the comment.
Stuart, I agree. I prefer to use beats like in #9 rather than tags. Sometimes, though, you just need a simple tag. I've seen some writers go overboard with the beats and end up with way too much detail in the beat.
Yes, you could put the action beat in front of the dialogue on #9. In some cases, this matters a lot. We typically read the beat as occurring at the same time as the dialogue, so it's up to you, or an editor, which you will do.

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