How to Punctuate Dialogue in Fiction Writing

Image by Theresa Chiechi, 2019

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.

Before taking on a fiction writing project, be sure to review punctuation and grammar rules to ensure your writing is clearly understood and well-received.

Do's

  • Include commas and periods within quotations

  • Add a period at the end of a quote before the next quote

  • Consistently italicize words within interior dialogue

Don'ts

  • Include commas and periods outside of quotations

  • Separate two quotes with a comma

  • Use end quotes at the end of the first paragraph if the next paragraph is also part of the quote

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 punctuations—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.)
  3. 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."
  4. To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes: "Have you read 'Hills Like White Elephants' yet?" he asked her.
  5. For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent. Do I really love her? he thought. 
  6. 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 of 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

In this example, the exclamation mark should be inside the quotation, as it's part of the dialogue:

  • Incorrect: "Surely she has gone mad"! she said. 
  • Correct: "Surely she has gone mad!" she said. 

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." 

Remember that two spoken sentences are still two separate sentences and should be separated by a period.

More Tips on Using Dialogue

Helpful sources to guide you as a fiction writer include:

Also, review the editing checklist to make sure you have covered other aspects of grammar.