Apr 20 2011

How to Punctuate Dialogue in Novels and Short Stories

Published by at 3:18 am under Punctuation

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. A line of dialogue with a tag like “he said” or “Joan replied” should end with a comma rather than a period. If a line of dialogue ends without a tag, then it should not end with a comma.

WITH TAG: “If I wanted your opinion, I would give it to you,” said the drill instructor.

WITHOUT TAG: “If I wanted your opinion, I would give it to you.”

 

2.  Begin a new paragraph when you switch from one speaker to the next. It helps readers figure out who’s speaking.

Take my spare pistol,” Lex Luthor said.

“Not my style,” Batman said.

“Suit yourself.  I plan to live through this.”

 

3. Like the dialogue tags for sentences, dialogue tags for questions and exclamations should not be capitalized.

“Was this before or after you threatened to eat a district attorney?” the Senator asked.

“I plead not guilty by reason of my own badassery!” said Agent Orange.

“It is my professional duty to remind you to shut your damn trap,” Agent Orange’s long-suffering lawyer said.

 

4.  When a line of dialogue is addressed to a person or people, separate the addressed person/group from the rest of the sentence with commas.

“I can help you, Jim, but I’ll need a grenade launcher.”

“Right on, man,” said Jim.

“Ready, boys?” asked Monica.

 

5.  Quotation marks ending a sentence should come after any other punctuation.

Example: “Check out any of the above lines,” said B. Mac.

WRONG: “This shouldn’t look right”, said B. Mac.

WRONG: “Do you see what’s wrong with this question mark”? asked B. Mac.

 

6.  When a line of dialogue is interrupted by the dialogue tag, don’t capitalize the second clause like it’s a new sentence.

“You have upset Mr. Bigglesworth,” said Dr. Evil, “and when Mr. Bigglesworth gets upset, people die!”

6.1  The first word of a line of dialogue should be capitalized even if it isn’t the first word of the sentence.

The politician sang, “My name is Willie O’Dea.  They’re hanging me for perjury.”  Incidentally, those are perhaps the only two lines of the song that are safe for work.


7.  When a line of dialogue is interrupted by another line of dialogue, end the first line with an em-dash (–).

James Bond said, “I always thought M was a randomly assigned initial, I had no idea it stood for–”

“Utter one more syllable and I’ll have you killed,” said M.

 

For more tips, I’d recommend checking out How to Punctuate Dialogue at the Editor’s Blog and Dialog Tags.

 

 

37 responses so far

37 Responses to “How to Punctuate Dialogue in Novels and Short Stories”

  1. steton 20 Apr 2011 at 5:10 am

    Faintly off-topic, but own extremely strong preference is always for ‘Napoleon said,’ instead of ‘said Napoleon.’

    ‘Said I,’ ‘said Jim’, ‘said the Riddler’ … a bit like Yoda-talk, that locution reads to me.

  2. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 20 Apr 2011 at 5:11 am

    I abide by all of these except number six. I always seem to forget that. XD In general, I think I’m pretty good with my punctuation and such.

    And, heads up – “7.” isn’t bolded like the other numbers are. 😉

  3. B. Macon 20 Apr 2011 at 5:15 am

    Ah, thanks for the note on the bolding.



    PS: Stet, I think you’re right that leading with the character rather than the tag is usually preferable. Bad habit. 🙂

  4. Contra Gloveon 20 Apr 2011 at 6:31 am

    With me, it’s the opposite — I prefer “said Napoleon,” since that’s the way I’ve always seen dialogue tags written.

  5. Silvercaton 20 Apr 2011 at 7:57 am

    I wish I could get every writer on the net to read this! It’s one of the things that drives me nuts.

  6. B. Macon 20 Apr 2011 at 8:12 am

    Thanks, Silvercat. I think that dialogue is one of the biggest minefields for punctuation errors because the rules are a bit unusual and they aren’t emphasized by most schools. (Most school papers don’t have dialogue).

    I think that a poor grasp of how to punctuate dialogue is a major barrier to getting published. Editors can forgive a mechanical error pretty easily if it will only come up once or twice (like mixing up “hoard” with “horde”), but a recurring dialogue mistake would come up hundreds of times over the course of a novel manuscript. It’d take a hell of a lot of work to fix. (I’ve proofread several such manuscripts and it is not fun at all).

  7. Torion 20 Apr 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I edit (Beta!) for fellow aspiring authors on and away from FanFiction.net. This is what I see most often. Dialog mistakes. They drive me crazy!!!! Honestly, though, I agree with what someone else said about dialog not being emphasized in schools. I know I learned it through reading, but perhaps others writers do not retain that or pay enough attention? 0_o

    Oh, well. At least it’s better than the usual crap you get on Yahoo!Answers. Example? ‘I wanna b a righter!’ *giggles* Sorry- it had to be done!!

    I have a question I’d like to discuss. Is there a rule for when to use a the em-dash as opposed to a comma? I usualy use the em-dash (in certain situations) to set off something important. If anyone knows what I’m talking about . . . please reply. 🙂

  8. steton 20 Apr 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Far as I know, the vague rule of thumb is that an em-dash directs your attention to what came before–so after you write a phrase, you write another to amplify or summarize or contradict it.

    A colon, however, directs the reader’s attention forward, like so:

    She wore my three favorite colors: red, green, and puce.

    Red, green, and puce–those are my favorite colors.

    In terms of em-dash versus comma to set off a phrase in the middle of a sentence, I think we’re meant to use an em-dash for a stronger effect. So if the phrase is a weak modifier, use commas. If it’s stronger, consider em-dashes.

    The house, a light blue Colonial, sprawled in the shadow of the oaks at the end of the block.

    The house–once owned by the notorious cannibal Madame L’Taste–lurked in the gloom of the overhanging elms.

    My command of grammar isn’t strong, though. And I’m a pretty big em-dash fan, myself–though I’ll admit that copy-editors often change them to periods or commas. They’re maybe a tad flashy.

  9. Sean Higginson 20 Apr 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Just a thought for want to be authors, when you have dialogue between two characters, tags after every line shouldn’t be necessary. “You get to the point where it seems like you’re reading elementary fiction if every line of dialogue ends with,” Sean said.

    Also, if tags are necessary, try to break them up. There are several synonyms you can replace with ‘said’ and sometimes just placing the tag at the front of the sentence is enough to help a reader not feel like your book is written in iambic pentameter.

    B. Mac – just wanted to point out, the James Bond link in #7 is broken.

  10. B. Macon 20 Apr 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I’ve fixed the James Bond link, but I’m not 100% sure it will continue to function.

  11. Silvercaton 21 Apr 2011 at 8:19 am

    Sean, the only problem with replacing said is some people get crazy (which I’m sure you know). But even just adding in asked and replied is usually enough. I read somewhere that people don’t really notice the tags in good writing. I know I notice them in my writing, but then I’m overanalzying.

  12. B. Macon 23 Apr 2011 at 3:35 am

    I’m okay with an occasional exotic substitute for “said,” particularly if it adds something to the sentence that “said” doesn’t, but I get distracted when the author uses a storm of them.

    PS: Almost all of the examples I wrote above use a dialogue tag (like “Jim said” or whatever), but that’s mainly because most of these mini-conversations only gave one line of dialogue to each speaker. If I were writing a conversation longer than a page, I would try to do as few tags as necessary. Rule of thumb: If most readers can figure out that Mary is speaking, “Mary said” is probably unnecessary, unless the tag provides other useful information.

  13. Sparkleon 23 Apr 2011 at 10:59 am

    On the rare occasion when you might want to use an adverb, should there be a comma.

    “I feel fed-up,” he said miserably.

    or “I feel fed-up,” he said, miserably.

  14. B. Macon 23 Apr 2011 at 11:59 am

    No comma, Sparkle.

  15. Torion 04 Dec 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I need answers. I just reviewed a fanfiction in which the author wrote dialogue like this:
    “No” she impatiently snapped.

    I pointed out each time a comma needed to be placed at the end of the quote. She dismissed me, saying she was an English major who gots straights As and graduated with honors. She said her teachers told her she didn’t need the comma. She claims an editor she interned for told her the same thing. I am very confused now, if a little hurt at her dismissal. I just want to know when people decided it was okay to omit the comma. I’m not saying she’s wrong; I am just confused now.

  16. B. Macon 04 Dec 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Three things stick out to me, Tori.

    1) Her attitude is completely out of line and unwarranted. The standards for courses are so much more lenient than the standards for professional work that getting straight A’s just doesn’t matter at all as a professional writer. A student could get an ‘A’ on a paper with (say) 1-2 typos per page. If a prospective novelist submits a novel manuscript with 1-2 typos per page (including the query letter), it’s probably dead on arrival (F-, do not pass go, do not collect an advance). In most college English courses, most students get A’s, but most major novel publishers reject ~998 out of every 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts. It’s much, much more competitive than anything in an English course.

    2) In the United States (and possibly other countries as well — I’m not sure there*), it is definitely mandatory to use punctuation between dialogue and dialogue tags. I’ve never seen any professionally published work (in any field of fiction or nonfiction) that has not (besides one-off typos). Is she familiar with any such examples? If she can’t come up with at least a few works in her intended field, I would HIGHLY recommend going with the industry standard on something that basic. This could be an instant-rejection issue because this mistake could come up hundreds of times and will take more than a few hours to fix. I would lean towards instant-rejection, particularly if I knew about the attitude/self-importance issues.

    3) In terms of her integrity, I’m getting fishy vibes from what you’ve told me. Her teachers AND an editor told her it was okay? If she studied and worked in the United States, I’d be skeptical. Could you get the name of the publisher? (You could look up works it’s published if you were interested, but I am not sure any such works will emerge).

    *I’m not personally aware of any other countries that differ from the United States here, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if there were.

  17. Torion 05 Dec 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Oh, thank you for clearing this up for me. She made me feel terrible after the review, just because I felt like she was dismissing me. She also said her teachers would know more than we (she and I, I assume) would. I’m sure that’s true, but I am very skeptical of what htey told her. I will ask her who these “MANY authors” are that she is citing as those who omit the comma. I felt I was nice in my review, objective. I wasn’t aiming to offend her, yet she stated she was a little upset at someone questioning something she got a degree in. I can understand that, but I wasn’t aiming to offend her. She also used my spelling errors to discredit me and while I can understand that as well, I did warn her that I was doing the review at 3 in the morning and being tired increases my inability to remember how to spell certain words. I said I was sorry about this after she responded to my review. I can understand where she is coming from, but I honestly don’t believe it is okay to leave out commas in dialogue. I think it looks terrible, and I’ve never seen any published work that leaves it out. I am pretty sure she is in the U.S, but I’ll check and let you know.

    Thank you for your help.

  18. B. McKenzieon 05 Dec 2011 at 7:12 pm

    “…she stated she was a little upset at someone questioning something she got a degree in.” Oh God, that is absolutely ridiculous. Education is the START of one’s learning, not the end of it. If a writer walks into a publishing office and thinks that he/she owns the place because he/she has an English degree, he/she will very quickly be escorted out at the behest of people that have vastly more experience, more published works, advanced English degrees of their own, AND the ability to punctuate dialogue. Do not pass go. Do not collect a paycheck.

    EVERYBODY makes mistakes and competent professionals learn from them. For example, on my first day as a marketing intern at [a major university], the agency proofreader pointed out to me that I had incorrectly hyphenated a compound adjective and I thanked her for reading it that carefully before it went to print. I didn’t make that mistake again. If I had instead argued that “I’M RIGHT BECAUSE I HAVE A DEGREE IN X! FROM A MAJOR UNIVERSITY!!1!,” I would have been fired for gross idiocy, and rightfully so. That sort of dysfunctional employee will keep making the same mistakes over and over again and is extremely hard to work with.

    I would like to amend my previous statement from “I would lean towards instant-rejection” to “There is no chance in hell I or any sentient editor would voluntarily interact with this author.” Her attitude concerns me a hell of a lot more than her grasp of commas. (And the integrity issues also sound pretty unappealing–I am almost certain that she either never worked at a publisher or, if she did, she lasted less than a month).

    I would recommend cutting off contact because this author-reviewer relationship is obviously not satisfactory and you can definitely find authors that are easier to work with. (I discontinue any reviewing process if the author and I aren’t having a mutually satisfactory experience. If she’s making you feel terrible, it obviously isn’t mutually satisfactory).

  19. ShyVioletson 06 Dec 2011 at 7:06 am

    @ Tori
    Don’t worry too much about people who dismiss your honest well intentioned efforts to assist them. I have a friend who always insists I read her stories and give her feed back but the second I try to say anything negative (usually that her characters are unlikeable mary sues because the are -__- or that her dialogue sounds unnatural and robotic) she goes on the defensive and tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Now I’m no pro at editing and I have a tendency to be a little bit of tough critic but what I was saying was true and she wouldn’t listen at all. Some people just can’t take criticism so try not to let it bother you and take B. Mac’s advise and just don’t review her stuff.

  20. Torion 06 Dec 2011 at 2:23 pm

    @ B Mac
    Thank you. You helped me a lot, and yes, I am taking your advice to stop reviewing her stuff. She has this self-righteous attitude on other sites as well and I wish I had seen her them first so I would have known. I am not going to waste my time with her if she doesn’t care about my efforts. Your example about the mistake you corrected was interesting. I’m glad it worked out well for you, not that I would expect otherwise. 😀 I agree with you about the degrees as well. One of my favorite authors got a degree in religious studies, not English. She seems to like to throw out her degree whenever she can, so I suppose it’s just her way of feeling superior. I wasn’t expecting her to take my advice, but there was no need to talk down to me. Anyway, thanks for the help.

    By the way, I remember you saying you were going to another country to teach, or something like that. How’d that go?

    @ ShyViolets
    Thank you for sympathizing with me. She was far too condesending for me to deal with without talking to someone else. Your friend sounds a little annoying in that respect, but I agree that there are lots of people like her. She too asked whether it was good or bad and I was the only reviewer so far who gave her full opinion. Everyone else was just like “this is good” or whatever. 🙂 I am not going contact her again because it’s just not worth it.

  21. Indigoon 06 Dec 2011 at 7:34 pm

    @Tori

    Wow, no. If I saw repeated lines of dialogue missing the commas, I would not be able to finish reading that story. Stuff like that drives me crazy, and not that I expect perfection, but there comes a certain point when the grammatical errors/spelling mistakes become too distracting.
    I’m sorry you had such an unfortunate experience on FanFic 🙁 I only recently got into it and I’m hoping I don’t run into anyone like that author you had to deal with.
    Stick with us, Tori, we’re always here-and B.Mac’s got your back 😉

  22. ShyVioletson 06 Dec 2011 at 7:54 pm

    @Tori
    All many people want to hear is empty flattery. Then real life comes out of nowhere and kicks them in the face 🙂 And Indigo is right, we all got your back here.
    @Indigo
    As a fan fiction addict (is there a 12 step for that?) I find poor grammar/punctuation very distracting. I also find childish sentence structure really annoying -_-
    On a side note I found some chocolate covered expresso beans and they’re making me really jittery.

  23. CCOlsonon 07 Dec 2011 at 7:52 am

    @ShyViolets
    I tend to like at least a little flattery up front before the face kicking starts. Then again, I’ve been having it beaten into my head the past two semesters that my traditional “bloody paper” editing is not going to encourage my future students to enjoy writing. I’ve found I have trouble singling out things that a person does right so that I can also encourage while I correct the mistakes. Disturbing character flaw.

    Also, chocolate covered espresso beans are definitely a form of candy crack. So yummy.

  24. Indigoon 07 Dec 2011 at 1:50 pm

    @ShyViolets and CC

    Yeah generally if there are more than 5 mistakes in the first paragraph, that’s it for me; I move on. However it’s really refreshing when you do find an author that knows how to spell/punctuate properly.

    I love chocolate covered espresso beans! 🙂 I also know a funny trick to play on someone who hates coffee-pretend you’re eating regular chocolate and when that person comes up to you and asks what it is, loffer them a piece and watch the horrified/disgusted expression on their face as the chocolate layer dissolves and they realize that there’s an entire coffee bean in their mouth 😉

  25. ShyVioletson 07 Dec 2011 at 7:16 pm

    @CCOlson
    I found teachers who leave constructive criticism much more useful than those who just say good work and give you a score. I can’t even remember the good comments I’ve had written but I’ll always remember when my English teacher told me I had to reread my work better because I was using the wrong verb form. (I meant to type the wright thing and she KNEW that but I would never have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out) Just do your best 🙂

    @Indigo
    I also can’t read stories (fanfic or otherwise) were the character acts like a total fool or make a lot of really dumb choices really early on.

    @both
    Chocolate covered expresso beans are like love only better 😀

  26. Indigoon 07 Dec 2011 at 11:15 pm

    @ShyViolets
    Agreed and agreed 😉

  27. ShyVioletson 08 Dec 2011 at 12:02 am

    @Indigo
    Haha I think I’m becoming a chocolate cover expresso bean addict

  28. Indigoon 08 Dec 2011 at 7:05 pm

    @ShyViolets
    Lol, there’s no shame in that 😉

  29. Torion 13 Dec 2011 at 7:07 pm

    @Indigo
    Thank you. Yeah, I was just interested in the synopsis, but the actual writing/story were crap, lack of commas aside. And she’s got this hatred of the main character and that resonates through the whole thing. It annoyed me. Yes, I am glad B Mac has my back! I knew he would!
    That trick with the coffee bean is cruel! 😛

    @ShyViolets
    I agree. Teachers especially should be honest. 🙂

    Thanks for the support guys! She hasn’t emailed me back which makes me thinks she’s ignoring me. *rolls eyes* Then she goes and Favorites a drawing I did on DeviantArt like she wants to be my friend. Not with that attitude, my dear! lol!

  30. Dr. Vo Spaderon 13 May 2013 at 7:01 pm

    @B.Mac,
    Texting in novels. I haven’t really seen it anywhere, and was curious as to how it would play out.

    My basic format idea:

    Vo: Got it. Townsquare, chinese restaraunt
    Eloise: On our way
    Eloise: May take a bit…traffic
    Vo: Hurry, I look suspicious
    Eloise: Five minutes

    …and etcetera. What do you think of this? Do you think it would get annoying? Is it a little campy? Any other format ideas?

    Also thanks, I appreciate the free and useful advice your site gives! 🙂

  31. B. McKenzieon 13 May 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Some thoughts, DVS:

    As with any conversation, I’d recommend incorporating tags as appropriate. For example, here’s a snippet of conversation from Raymond Wong:
    Ding. He looked at his phone and saw a new text message: “LOL come ovr!”
    “Now?” He replied.
    “b here 15 mins or ib gone.”
    “k b right there.”

    Another possibility would be italicizing the text. That’s an okay placeholder for the formatting/typesetting your eventual publisher will use when the book goes to press (e.g. a different font) to help readers see that the text messages are distinct from the passage as a whole.
    John looked at his phone and saw 4 new text messages: bill, bill, blackmail, bill.
    i no uve killed 3 people…” John sighed and closed the message.
    Flattery will get you nothing,” he replied. “And learn how to punctuate.

  32. Dr. Vo Spaderon 14 May 2013 at 7:53 am

    Great, thanks! I’ll go with the italicizing, I think. 🙂

  33. […] On Superhero Nation […]

  34. Nixon 13 Nov 2016 at 12:32 pm

    This, I think, is a tricky one.
    How to handle dialogue between multiple characters in a scene where a foreign speaker is involved and only the POV character understands the language. Can the […] or {…} parentheses be placed around the translated text to denote that the dialogue is in a different language?
    Example:

    [“Hello.”] said the native speaker.

    “What he say?” asked the friend of the POV character.

    “He said, hi.” replied the POV character to his friend before turning to the native speaker and responding, {“Pleased to meet you.”}

  35. B. McKenzieon 13 Nov 2016 at 10:30 pm

    ” Can the […] or {…} parentheses be placed around the translated text to denote that the dialogue is in a different language?” I think it’d look pretty awkward in a novel or short story. I’d suggest mentioning in a tag and/or with nondialogue cues that a conversation starts in another language and if/when it changes languages. E.g. “John introduced himself. His Chinese was surprisingly good.” or “______________,” John said in Chinese.

    In your example, it looks like you’re adding a few sentences to loop in the third person that doesn’t speak the language (“What’d he say?” “He said, ‘hi.'”) I’d recommend only taking the time to loop him in if it’s actually important that he know what’s going on and/or if he’s going to participate in the conversation in a more active way than asking someone to repeat what we’ve already heard.

    The ambassador introduced himself to Gary in French.
    “Death threats, I’m guessing? When was the last time anybody talked to you without trying to murder you?” Gain asked Gary.
    The ambassador stared at Gain. “My English is pretty good, too.”
    “If you’re just going to complain, you can go back to froggy talk. Let me know when the shooting starts.”

  36. Nixon 17 Nov 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Ref: B. McKenzie 13 Nov 2016.

    You make a good point about the technique appearing awkward, though I have seen it used in a published story before (maybe William Burroughs or Alan Moore – but, damned, I can not find the reference). So allow me to take your dialogue example and have a play with it.

    The ambassador introduced himself to Gary in French, {“Gain? You do remember, Paris has not forgotten you.”}
    “Death Threats? When was the last time anybody talked to you without trying to murder you?” Gain asked Gary.
    The ambassador stared at Gain. “My English is pretty good too.”
    “If you’re just going to complain, you can go back to froggy talk. {Let me know when the shooting starts.}”

  37. B. McKenzieon 17 Nov 2016 at 11:33 pm

    If you’re trying to have one character convey some message to a second character without giving away too much to a third person in the conversation, I think there are smoother alternatives to addressing Gain in a language the third party doesn’t understand. For example, giving Gary a “surface” conversation that makes sense to him in some way, while Gain/the ambassador/probably the audience understand something else beneath the surface.

    For example, maybe the ambassador asks Gary for help on an unsolved case like a terrorist getting abducted from French soil, and the clues he presents are distinctive enough to Gain that readers will pretty quickly figure out that Gain was involved. Gain might make some interjections that appear professional/encouraging on the surface, but that the ambassador clearly understands another way: e.g. Gain noting that the ambassador’s meeting is highly irregular, so the investigation must have stalled out everywhere else, but not to lose heart because most kidnappings go unsolved and that’s just to be expected. After discussing suspects, the ambassador might ask Gain to help with a police lineup, and to Gary it sounds like the ambassador needs help finding mutants to stand in for a lineup*, but to everybody else it’ll be pretty clear that Gain IS the suspect.

    My thinking is that this is probably easier for readers to follow than switching back/forth between English and another language, and also gives the third party more of an opportunity to participate in the scene than just staring on as a conversation happens in another language. (Alternately, maybe the conversation takes place mostly/all in a particular language which the 2 speakers don’t realize is also known by the third member. However, I think that your readers will probably guess that the third member also speaks the language unless that looks wildly implausible).

    *In real-life police lineups, most of the non-suspects are either police recruits or civilian volunteers. Getting a full lineup for a clearly-nonhuman suspect might take some creativity.


    Also, if the ambassador greets Gary in French, I’d recommend establishing in conversation that Gary is really bad at French before having the ambassador try getting a private message to Gain in French. (Or maybe the ambassador tries saying something to Gain in French without knowing that Gary actually speaks French fairly well).

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