How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction Writing

Close-up of a question mark key on a keyboard
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Nothing marks a beginning fiction writer faster than improperly punctuated dialogue. Because most academic papers do not use dialogue, many students would benefit from a fiction writing class if they intend to write in this genre.

Punctuation Rules for Dialogue

Get ahead of the game! Learn these rules to avoid obvious mistakes:

  1. Use a comma between the dialogue and the tagline (the words used to identify the speaker, or "he said/she said"): "I would like to go to the beach this weekend," she told him as they left the apartment.
  2. Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks in American writing (the Brits have slightly different rules); other punctuation -- semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points -- belong outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes, as in this example from Raymond Carver's short story "Where I'm Calling From": "I don't want any stupid cake," says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. "Where's the champagne?" he says, and laughs. In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted: Did he say, "We should all go to the movies"? Also note that the sentence ends with only one mark of punctuation: the question mark. In general, don't use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. (Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods. Think of it as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, if it helps.)
  1. When a tagline interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case as in this example from Flannery O'Connor's story "Greenleaf": "That is," Wesley said, "that neither you nor me is her boy."
  2. To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes: "Have you read 'Hills Like White Elephants' yet?" he asked her.
  3. For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent. Do I really love her? he thought. 
  4. If a quotation extends to more than one paragraph, do not use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is finished speaking. "and in the end I didn't even love her.
    I did think of marrying her, though." 

    Common Mistakes in Dialogue Punctuation

    Incorrect dialogue punctuation and formatting is common among beginning fiction writers. The most common mistake is the use quotations outside of the spoken word. Remember: Only the words that the person says should be inside the quotation.

    Here are two more common dialogue mistakes to avoid.

    Punctuation and Spacing

    Incorrect: 

    "Surely she has gone mad"! she said. 

    Correct:

    "Surely she has gone mad!" she said. 

    See rule number two above.

    Commas Between Two Sentences of Dialogue

    Another way that people incorrectly write dialogue is by putting a comma between two sentences instead of a period.

    Incorrect: 

    "I have made up my mind," she said nodding, "I do not want to marry him." 

    Correct:

    "I have made up my mind," she said, nodding. "I do not want to marry him." 

    While rule number 1 above might lead you to believe that the first example is correct, remember that two spoken sentences are still two separate sentences and need a period.

    More Tips on Using Dialogue

    • Interested in writing dialogue but unsure how to make it work within a more action-oriented narrative? Having trouble adding dialogue to a certain genre? Read Writing Dialogue in Action Scenes
    • Grammar mistakes are not the only way your writing can suffer. It is just as important to make your dialogue sound believable. Read How to Write Realistic Dialogue for tips on writing realistic dialogue. 
    • How do people talk in fiction? Read How Do People "Talk" in Fiction? for tips and exercises on eavesdropping and making your dialogue authentic in your prose. 
    • Want to take it to the next level? Review the editing checklist to make sure you have covered other aspects of grammar.