How to Punctuate Dialogue for Beginners (and people like me who never paid attention)
There are punctuation rules you might not have run across in your essay writing – or at least you didn’t probably run into it often. If you read a lot, you’ve seen it … but do you remember?
I had to learn how to punctuate dialogue after I started writing, and it wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing ever. There are way too many rules. And there was never one article I read that summed them up (though I’m sure many such exist #toolazytoGoogleit).
So here are the basic (and slightly more advanced as far as they go) rules of punctuating dialogue all in one place for your writing ease!
Without further ado …
How to Punctuate Dialogue for Beginners
(and people like me who never paid attention)
When learning how to punctuate dialogue, it’s important, of course, to define what dialogue is.
“Conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.”
This is the talking characters do – basically, anything they say out loud. This does not include thoughts, feelings, etc. that the characters experience. Things like telepathy, texting, passing notes, etc. are usually written differently.
Direct vs. Indirect
Only DIRECT dialogue requires punctuation. Indirect dialogue requires no punctuation. For instance:
Indirect dialogue: Kelly said that learning to punctuate dialogue is easy once you get used to it.
Direct dialogue: “Learning to punctuate dialogue is easy once you get used to it,” said Kelly.
With that definition out of the way, let’s move on to the basics.
The Basic Rules for Punctuating Dialogue
“Well,” said Kelly, “basically, you start with those little double dashes which are called quotation marks. The dialogue goes in between a set of them.”
As you can see, when you write something like “said Kelly” and it’s still part of the sentence, you use a comma after “Well” and have “said” be uncapitalized.
In addition, when the sentence continues (e.g. “Well, basically, you start …” is all the same sentence), the first letter of the first word is not capitalized (meaning basically is uncapitalized).
However, if a dialogue tag (e.g. said Kelly) separates two sentences, you do not use a comma.
“The quick brown fox,” said Kelly, “ran over the lazy, fat dog.”
“Well,” Kelly murmured, “being a writer is super hard.”
“Writers are awesome,” said Kelly.
Kelly said, “Don’t you dare poison my coffee.”
“I am a writer,” said Kelly even though that was rather obvious. “I love writing.”
“Let’s be friends,” Kelly said with a forced grin. “I need a little more pain in my life.”*
*Let me here note that I do not hate people … I just don’t know how to talk to them.
For a quote within a quote, you use single quotation marks. For instance:
“Kelly says, ‘For a quote within a quote, you use single quotation marks,'” said Angela. “Makes sense to me.”
Don’t overdo this, but do remember to do it whenever someone is giving a direct, word-for-word quote. Don’t use them for indirect quotes (see above).
“She said, and I quote, ‘I don’t want to eat a pound of candy.’ What an idiot,” said Kelly.
“As one great comedian said, ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.'”
“To quote Hamlet, Act III, Scene III, Line 87, ‘No.'”
But what about actions?
“Sometimes you have actions in between sentences.” Kelly lifted a huge boulder that only someone of incredible strength could possibly lift. “Then you just continue talking like before.”
As you can see, when you have a two separate sentences, it’s pretty cut and dry. No commas – just periods. In fact, you never use commas for actions unless they’re preceded by a dialogue tag:
“I just don’t like Pumpkin Spice is all,” Kelly said, sipping a cup of heavily-sugared coffee.
What if the action is in the middle of a sentence?
“I am”—Kelly scratched her head—“a writer.”
Those lines are called em-dashes.
A regular dash looks like this: –
An em-dash looks like this: —
Em-dashes can be created by holding down the Alt key and typing 0151 on your keyboard, but I’d recommend making it so whenever you create a double dash (–) on your writing program, it autocorrects to an em-dash.
You probably won’t use this a ton, but sometimes it can bring the perfect emphasis to a conversation.
“You said”—Kelly pounded her fists on the table—”that you would comment on my blog post.”
“Will you”—he knelt on the sandy beach—”marry me?”
Note that because it’s a continuing sentence, there is no capitalization beyond the first word except for names.
Em-dashes are also used for interruptions. For instance:
“What do you want to—”
Kelly threw a cup at Angela. “STOP THE PRESSES! I’m going to rudely interrupt your conversation.”
Exclamation and question marks, though?
“I’m so excited!” said Kelly.
“Would you like to buy six copies of each of my books?” Kelly asked.
So none of that comma nonsense in these cases.
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Do you know how to punctuate dialogue? Was any of this new to you? Did I get anything wrong? Or miss anything?