Feb 02

Writing Dialogue Part 2: Punctuating Dialogue

Writing Dialogue Part 2:

Punctuating Dialogue

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One thing that budding writers often ask about is actually setting out dialogue on the page. ‘Writing Dialogue Part 2: Punctuating Dialogue’ gives a short guide to some basic rules.
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Firstly, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to single and double inverted commas. In the USA they normally use double inverted commas. In The UK and Australia they usually use singles but some editors of magazines may have preferences which you need to check out before submitting stories.

Magazines also have preferences about the percentage of dialogue in the total word count.

 Quotes within a speech can have either single or double just as long as it is the opposite of that which you are using for direct speech. If you have a long quotation you can insert it, indented or in a different font, usually smaller.


New speaker, new line.

When writing dialogue you normally start on a new line for each speaker. However you do not need to start a speaker’s reported speech on a new line if you write the dialogue tag into a sentence in the first paragraph. For example:


  • Lydia was rushing to get to her doctor’s appointment when she spotted Joe at the bus stop. She considered pretending that she had not seen him but he waved furiously so she crossed the road quickly. As she approached him she said, ‘I can’t stop, come and see me tomorrow in my office.’


  • ‘Okay. I’ll see you about eleven,’ replied Joe


Lydia ’s dialogue tag is written into the description of the action and her speech is relevant to the topic of the paragraph. Therefore it is appropriate to write her dialogue into the first paragraph.


  • Joe’s reply should start on a new line, as a new paragraph which could continue with further description. For example


  • ‘Okay. I’ll see you about eleven,’ replied Joe as his face fell, obviously disappointed.


What goes where?

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You must always end dialogue with an appropriate punctuation mark at the end, inside the quotation mark; comma, full stop, question mark or exclamation mark:


  • ‘I like your shoes.’


  • ‘Will you come back today?’


  • ‘Get off me!’


When an attribution comes before the dialogue, the comma goes after the attribution:


  • Dad said, ‘I’ll pick you up after school today.’


When the attribution goes after the dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:


  • ‘I will come to the disco on Saturday,’ Laura said.



If you are adding a pronoun attribution, the comma goes inside the quotation mark and the pronoun is not capitalised:


  • ‘I will tell you tomorrow,’ she said.


End a dialogue line with a comma if you are adding an attribution but with a full stop if you are adding an action:


  • ‘I will not.’ She threw back her hair and turned her face away.


With dialogue that trails away, as if the speaker has got distracted, use an ellipsis inside the quotation mark:


  • ‘I am not sure where…’ Paula said.


If dialogue is suddenly interrupted or cut off, use an em-dash inside the quotation mark:


  • ‘Well, I don’t think –‘
  • ‘No, you never think!’


To break up a line of dialogue, use either commas or em-dashes:


  • ‘I never thought,’ said Sarah, ‘that this would happen to me.’
  • ‘Without some rain soon’  ̶   Angus lowered his eyes  ̶  ‘we are going to lose the crops.’


When a speaker has said something and then changed their mind use the em-dash:


  • ‘I don’t mean to  ̶  I mean I am not going to do it.’


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A comma never follows a space!

Semicolons and colons are rarely used in modern fiction. They are thought to look too academic and distract from the reading of a story.


The point is to make it clear who is saying what to whom, and to help the story to read smoothly.


See Writing Dialogue Part 1 here.


Category:Advice and Info. Tags: Punctuation, Writing

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