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Oct 20, 2020

How to Write and Punctuate Dialogue

By: Pro-Critiquer Kimberly H.

How to write and punctuate dialogue sounds boring, right? You’re wondering, “Why should I care?” The short answer is that by perfecting dialogue, you write a better book. The bonus by-product is that you may save money on editing if you can submit a polished manuscript. Most importantly, use dialogue to control pace and show characterization when writing fiction. Be intentional—characters should have a purpose for saying something and the way they say it should be consistent with their characterization. Dialogue must help to advance the story, fit the scene, and add to tension or create conflict or it’s just tedious filler for the reader to skim.

Here's a snippet of my collection of frequently shared tips for writing dialogue. It should not be new information but hopefully it's explained simply and can be a quick reference guide. What do I mean by dialogue? I'm referring to what was spoken in your book. 

For authentic-sounding dialogue and a more engaging read, skip greetings, introductions, small talk, and cliches. It’s also best practice to avoid excessive dialect or too closely mimic actual speech with “uhs” and “ums.” Fiction is less formal so feel free to use contractions and fragments and comma splices. Keep it close to the way actual people talk by leaving names out of dialogue when there are only two people conversing. If the characters know each other well, show it by using interruptions and answering unasked questions. Please do not abuse dialogue to inform readers of something both characters already know. 

Below are the most basic of dialogue punctuation tips followed by examples. Use quotation marks to indicate spoken words. Capitalize the first word inside quotation marks for dialogue without tags.

        "Are these examples helpful?"

When a dialogue tag precedes what is said, use a comma. End dialogue with period, exclamation point or question mark.

        She said, "I hope this is clear."

When a dialogue tag comes after what is said, use a comma, exclamation point or question mark with a lowercase pronoun, then period.

        "I tried to keep it simple," he said.

When a dialogue tag interrupts in the middle, use lowercase for the second part of a quotation that divides a sentence, and two commas.

        "My posts are meant to be helpful," she said, "and save you money!"

Use commas in the dialogue tag if it modifies the dialogue.

        "I'm not sure," he said, perplexed.

Use an em dash (—) inside of the quotes to indicate interrupted speech.

        "Did you—"

        "Shh, don't say it!" she interrupted.

Use an em dash (—) outside of the quotes without commas to indicate action interrupting the dialogue.

        "Are you tired"—she yawned—"of reading about punctuation yet?"

Use an ellipsis (…) to indicate speech that trails off.

        "I forgot what I was saying…" she said.

If your character goes on at length for more than one paragraph, an open quotation mark is used with each paragraph but only the final paragraph needs the closing quotation mark.

        "I'm taking a shortcut with this example. Imagine a whole paragraph of riveting talk about commas.

        "And still I have more to say about commas. Blah, blah, blah…for another paragraph.

        "Until finally you offer wine or chocolate, or both, and I stop going on about commas." 

Kimberly H. is a developmental editor with certifications in project management and copyediting. Her superpower is delivering ahead of schedule. She loves editing Romance for indie authors but also edits a variety of genres for publishers. Rather than simply pointing out issues or giving feedback that leaves you stuck and uncertain how to improve, Kimberly H. provides solutions to pace, plot, character development and point of view problems via edits in manuscript as well as a revision letter of the most important areas to address. She delivers value. Her developmental edits help authors improve their writing now and in future books so the investment in one pays off for many.