How to punctuate dialogue

No story is complete without dialogue yet punctuating speech is many a writer’s bane. Where do those pesky commas go? How do you indicate multiple speakers? And how on earth do you format speech?!

Books need dialogue. But get the punctuation wrong and you risk drawing your reader out of the story; the one thing that you absolutely want to avoid.

So why does writing dialogue, and doing it well, often stump authors? It can be daunting and remembering the rules of dialogue punctuation is half the battle.

If punctuating dialogue is one hurdle that stops you in your tracks, then read on and use this quick reference guide to get you back on track.

Identifying speech: Using quotation marks

When you add dialogue to your story, the first thing you have to do is think about how you’re going to identify the fact that somebody’s talking. And using italics doesn’t cut it. Italics are usually saved for when somebody is having an internal thought—and you don’t want your readers mistaking dialogue for thoughts.

Depending on whether you’re in the US or the UK, plus the house style of the publishing house, the most common indicator of speech you’ll see are either single or double quotation marks. Double quotation marks ( “ ) are more common in the US, while single ( ‘ ) are more common in the UK.

If self-publishing, whichever one you choose will mostly depend on personal preference. However, you should consider what is most common for the countries where you plan to publish; common punctuation helps avoid drawing the reader out of the story. The most important thing is, that whichever style you choose, you must be consistent.

Quotes within dialogue

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to identify speech—whether it’s with single or double quotation marks—you may find that at some point, a character will be quoting what somebody else has said. So how do you go about identifying a quote within dialogue?

It’s actually very simple. You just use the opposite identifier of what you’ve already chosen. So, if you’ve chosen single quotation marks to identify dialogue, you will use double quotation marks to identify a quote within speech.

For example:
When using single quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
‘I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said “As if!” in that perfect high-school voice she has.’

When using double quotation marks to identify speech, it would look like this:
“I did ask Beth if she’d come to the party, but she said ‘As if!’ in that perfect high-school voice she has.”

Smart vs undirectional quotation marks

This is how your quotation marks look to the reader. Smart quotation marks, sometimes referred to curly quotation marks, are those that curl towards the text at both the beginning and the end. Undirectional, or straight, quotation marks, do not curl towards the text. It’s important to note that in mainstream publishing, it’s conventional to use smart (curly) quotation marks. Not all fonts have curly quotation marks so you may want to read up on how to add them in manually.

Commas and full stops within tagged speech

So you’ve identified what is dialogue by using quotation marks, but how do you now punctuate it correctly to identify which character said it? Knowing where to put commas and full stops within dialogue and dialogue tags is something that often trips writers up.

First, let’s explain the two parts which make up dialogue. There’s the dialogue text and the dialogue tag. The dialogue text is the part of the sentence being spoken, and the dialogue tag (or action) is the part where the speaker is identified (usually in the way of [character name] said).

The rules are pretty simple:

  • If the dialogue tag follows a complete sentence, put a comma before the closing quotation mark.

Example: “This is an example of a dialogue tag following a complete sentence,” Stacey said.

  • If the dialogue tag follows a question mark or an exclamation mark, then these also go before the closing quotation mark.

Example: “Is this the right way of using question marks during speech?” Stacey asked. (Just to confirm, yes, this is correct.)

  • If the dialogue tag or action is before the dialogue text, then the punctuation is reversed. In other words, follow the dialogue tag or action with a comma, before the dialogue text. Then end the dialogue text with a full stop, inside the closing quotation mark.

Example: Trying to explain dialogue punctuation, Stacey said, “The rules are pretty simple once you’ve grasped the basics.”

Ellipsis and Em Dashes

Ellipsis (the three dots: … ) and em dashes (the longest “dash”: — ) are used in mainstream publishing to indicate a significant pause/trailing off and interruption of speech respectively.

The ellipsis can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence, depending on where you want the speech to trail off or where you want the pause to be. But be mindful of not repeating yourself; if you use the ellipsis to indicate a pause or trailing off, then trust your readers will acknowledge it.

There is no reason to also add in the dialogue tag that the speaker trailed off/paused as well. It adds unnecessary clutter and actually risks pulling the reader out of the story. Using correct punctuation helps to show your reader what is happening, you don’t then also need to tell.

There are a couple of simple rules to follow when using the ellipsis:

  • If used at the start of the sentence, add a space between the final period of the ellipsis and the next character (letter or number).
  • If the ellipsis is used in the middle of a sentence, place a space at the beginning and at the end.
  • And if it’s used at the end of a sentence, place a space between the last character and the first period of the ellipsis.

Don’t confuse the em dash with the hyphen or en dash. There are plenty of articles out there which explain the difference so we won’t go into that here, but just note that the em dash is the longest “dash” of the three. Some word processors will automatically change a hyphen into an em dash, but it’s safest to know how to add it into text. To do this on a windows computer, simply hold down the Alt key and type 0151 then release all keys.

In mainstream publishing, the em dash ( — ) represents the interruption of a speaker. Using this form of punctuation instead of adding [character name] interrupted in the dialogue tag can significantly improve the flow and pace of your writing.

People will interrupt speech for a variety of different reasons. It can show emotions like impatience, shock, annoyance, anger, etc. But whatever reason you’re using it, be mindful that, just like with using ellipsis, there is zero reason to add in the dialogue tag that the speaker was interrupted. Let the punctuation do its job.

Formatting dialogue

Formatting dialogue, whether it’s to indicate multiple speakers, long passages of dialogue, or to add a dialogue tag or action between the dialogue is quite simple. But ensure you follow these rules, no matter if you’re in the UK or the US.

Multiple speakers

When there are two people or more involved in dialogue, each person’s dialogue should be on its own separate line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said.

If the conversation continued, mum’s next dialogue would continue on its own separate line. However, if Stacey was the next person to speak or act, it would continue on the same line.

For example:
“Hi, mum.”
“Hi, hunny. Did you decide what you wanted for dinner?”
“I’d like something with mash,” Stacey said, heading into the kitchen. “Maybe sausages?”

Do you see how the second part of Stacey’s dialogue stayed on her line? If we had moved that down onto its own separate line, it would have implied that her mum had said it.

That’s because not every line needs dialogue tags. And that’s evidenced quite clearly in the example above.

There’s no reason to add dialogue tags in the first two sentences, it’s clear who is saying what. Plus, your readers are pretty smart—they’re pretty good at figuring out who’s talking at what point.

Just don’t forget to add in the odd dialogue tag in a long passage of dialogue just to remind your readers of who’s speaking when.

Long passages of dialogue

If you only have one speaker, and that speaker has a long piece of dialogue (this is usually advised against as it’s best to try to break up dialogue, but sometimes this isn’t always possible), then the same rules as above apply.

However, you can’t just have one massive wall of text, at some point you will have to add a paragraph break. When you do, you simply need to add an opening quotation mark at the start of the paragraph and only have a closing one when the dialogue is finished.

For example:
“I’m not sure what I’d like for dinner tonight, mum. At first, I thought I might like sausage and mash. But then I remembered I only had mash last night so decided against it.

“Tom mentioned pizza earlier so I do kinda fancy that now, but I know we don’t have any salad to go with it and you know I can’t eat pizza without salad.

“How about a nice chilli? You’re the best at cooking that. And you know it’s my favourite.”

Breaking up dialogue with dialogue tags or action

Sometimes, you will want to add some form of dialogue tag or action between a sentence your character is saying. In this case, the rule is to add a comma before the first closing quotation mark, and then after the dialogue tag or action.

For example:
“I think,” she started, opening the fridge, “I’d like something simple. Like sausages.”

Less commonly, em dashes without spaces (in the US) and en dashes with spaces (in the UK) are used in place of commas. But their placing goes outside of the closing quotation mark.

For example:
“I think”—she started, opening the fridge—“I’d like something simple. Like sausages.” (US)

“I think” – she started, opening the fridge – “I’d like something simple. Like sausages” (UK)

Punctuating vocative expressions in dialogue

A vocative expression is where you mention a person’s name or use some other way of identifying a person to whom a request or command is being directed.

There are set rules as to how vocative expressions should be punctuated and these rules apply when using them in dialogue, too.

A person’s name, job title, and the pronoun you are all examples of vocative expressions.

If the vocative expression is used at the start of a sentence, place a comma after it.

Example: “Stacey, do you know where I put my keys?”

If the vocative expression is used at the end of a sentence, put a comma before it.

Example: “You don’t know where I left my keys do you, Stacey?”

If the vocative expression is used in the middle of a sentence, place a comma before and after it.

For example: “Hey, Stacey, where did I put my keys?”

Do YOU have any questions when it comes to punctuating dialogue?

How freewriting can help writer’s block

Writer’s block. The bane of just about every writer. Staring at a blank page with no idea what you’re going to write about brings all manner of emotions. And a lot of the time, once you’ve been hit with writer’s block, it takes some doing to get out of it.

If you asked just about any writer if they’ve ever suffered from writer’s block, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll say they have at some point in their career. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional writer, a hobbyist, or somewhere in between. A block of creativity can hit any of us at any point in our writing lives.

So what do you do about it?

There are a lot of different opinions and strategies out there. Some range from just persevering, others say take a break for a few days, and others suggest going for a walk.

But has anyone ever suggested to you the process of freewriting?

What EXACTLY is freewriting?

A process to just get you writing, freewriting helps break through the inner critic, the perfectionist, the self-doubt and the inner editor. It’s a process that generates ideas in the here and now without thinking about structure, the quality of the writing, or where it’s even going.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, flow. None of it matters. It doesn’t even matter if what you write makes sense; you just have to write continuously for the allotted time and silence those voices of self-doubt and inner critic.

Freewriting is a process designed to give you complete freedom of writing.

It isn’t uncommon for writers to feel like what they write has to be perfect on the first attempt. In fact, it’s something which cripples a huge amount of writers and as a result, they never begin writing at all. This can be soul destroying to storytellers who are bursting to write but feel like they can’t even start.

The process of freewriting is designed to break through this state of paralysis. The idea is that you don’t give a second thought to what you’ve just written, you just keep going until the time is up.

So how you actually “do” freewriting?

How to freewrite

To give freewriting a go, you’ll want to set aside around 30 minutes. It’s broken down into steps, listed below. How many of these steps you do will be completely up to you and where you are.

For instance, when I first tried freewriting, I found for where I was in my writer’s block, I only needed to do the first two steps. You may find you only need the same or you may want to complete the whole process. It’s incredibly unique to you, what you get out of the first few steps, and where you currently are on your journey. The next time, you may need something different again.

The key is to not overthink it, set aside the full amount of time and just get going and see where it takes you.

Step One

If you’re anything like me and thousands of other writers out there, you’ll find imagery a huge source of inspiration. So the first part of the process is to find an image that triggers something in you.

It could be a portrait, a landscape picture, an abstract painting. Anything that ignites some kind of spark, or speaks to you in some way.

I love all things fantasy and historical. So when I first attempted freewriting, I went to the big G (Google) and looked for fantasy and historical landscapes. This was the image I chose.

how freewriting can help overcome writer's block
Image sourced from Google as my first freewriting inspiration

When it comes to finding an image, don’t overthink it. It just has to be something that you find appealing. Something that arouses some kind of curiosity. Something that makes your eyes light up just that little bit.

Got one? Good. Now the fun really begins…

Step Two

Set aside 10 minutes. Now in those 10 minutes, write. You put pen to paper and write whatever comes into your head for 10 minutes straight. Without pause, without break, without thought.

You’re not looking to create a masterpiece. You’re not looking to make a coherent paragraph. You’re not looking to make poetically crafted sentences. You just need to write non-stop for 10 continuous minutes.

Push past the voices telling you that you can’t do it. Push past the critics saying that what you’re writing doesn’t make sense. Push past the self-sabotage that’s laughing at your inability to spell. Ignore every single thought except what that image is creating and get those thoughts on paper.

Think of it like brainstorming. But instead of a big bubble in the middle of the page with random words shooting from it, you’re writing your ideas in one continuous block of text.

The trick is to not give up and to just keep going. Don’t think about what you’ve written or where you’re going or what point you’re trying to make. None of that matters.

Here’s what I wrote in those first 10 minutes after looking at the image above:

Flames of yellow broke through the cracks in the thick clouds that were acting as an almost fog-like entity, preventing curious eyes laying sight on what truly laid beyond.

Jagged pinnacles pierced through the cloud, reaching up and tall into the mystery a long way beyond what any mere mortal could see. Even a dragon flying that high with its wings spread would look nothing more than a speck on the horizon.

But still, he couldn’t stop himself from searching the skyline for a clue of what lived in the fortress so vast and immense he guessed it’d take the best part of the day to walk its circumference. Whatever laid claim to such immensity certainly didn’t want to be seen, though.

The thick cloud wasn’t the only thing stopping him from searching the fortress. A lake sat between him and the elaborate stonework, teasing him with every ripple that shook its surface, goading him in the most placid way he’d ever seen.

Fighting with something he couldn’t even see, it took all his strength to control the movements of his own feet. It took more self-control than he realised he possessed to resist the urge to disrupt the glistening call of the water, trying to entice him to envelope his soul in its cool embrace.

It’s not awful. But it’s also not brilliant. That’s okay, because it isn’t meant to be. I struggle with ideas. BIG time. Give me a vague plotline and I’ll write you a short story in mere minutes. But when I have to come up with something myself…? Eek. I can honestly sit there staring at a blank screen for weeks, months even.

So the fact that this image had allowed me to actually create something, had allowed ideas and imagery to flourish and develop in my own head, was pure magic. It doesn’t matter if it’s poorly written—that can be refined, scrapped. Whatever. The point is I could have spent yet another day staring at a blank page but instead, I came away for the first time in my life bursting with ideas.

So, what happens next? First get yourself a well deserved brew, then come back and move on to step three.

Step Three

You’ve completed the 10 minute exercise and you may be cringing at what’s written down. Great. You’re not going to use the vast majority of it anyway.

Wait, what?!

Yup, you heard. The vast majority of it is going to get scrapped. You can exhale that sigh of relief now.

What you’re going to do is read back through what you’ve written. And you remember how the image made you feel when searching for one? How it appealed to you in some way? How it sparked something? How it piqued even just a little curiosity? Good. That is the feeling you’re looking for when reading back through what you’ve just written.

When you come across something that evokes that same emotion, underline it. It may be a phrase, a sentence, or even just one word. But every time you feel it, underline whatever it was that made you feel. Simple, right?

Step Four

Now you’re going to repeat step two, but using everything you underlined from step three in place of the image. So set aside another 10 minutes and write down everything that comes to mind from what you have underlined. Again, it doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to write.

Think of it like dancing as if nobody’s watching. Or singing like nobody’s listening. Imagine that freedom you feel and apply it to your writing. Write like your life depends on it and that nobody at all is ever going to even know the contents of what you’ve written, let alone actually read it themselves.

This isn’t writing for reading. It’s writing for idea generation, expansion, freedom. Think of it like scribbling on a piece of paper to see what colour a pen actually is. You are not writing now for a finished product.

But you still have to write. For 10 minutes, solid. No cheating—no breaks, no rereading what you’ve written, no editing as you go, no self doubt. Just writing.

Step Five

Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. After another well deserved brew and break, come back to what you’ve just written.

You’re going to underline anything that stands out again, just like you did in step three. And once you’ve done that, get a fresh bit of paper and aim to develop the idea even further. Instead of setting a timer this time, set a word count of 500 words.

This is still a development stage so don’t allow yourself to get too caught up on the quality of the writing yet. But at the same time, don’t fall into the trap of writing one word sentences. This isn’t meant to be a 500 word bullet list.

You may find that what you’ve done doesn’t lead to anywhere. But don’t let that discourage you. Try again. Find another image.

You’re not going to find a gem in every attempt but the idea of freewriting is that it lets you get out of your own way. It can help you go back to another project and see things in a different light. It can help you generate and develop ideas when you think your creative well has run dry. It can help you break through a creative block when you’ve been staring at a blank page for far too long.

Try it daily for a fortnight. I dare you. I dare you to let your guard down for that long and get out of your way to see where it takes you. But most of all, I’d love to hear how you get on.