Jump to content

Writing Tip: Structuring & Punctuating Dialogue



Everyone who has ever tried to pass eighth grade knows what a pain grammar can be, and one of the worst things in my personal opinion is punctuating dialogue. As many of you know, Cia edits for me, and one of her favorite things to do is smack me around for not putting proper punctuation around my speech tags. So, in honor of my favorite fallacy she agreed to educate everyone – enjoy!

Important rules about structuring and punctuating dialogue:

Definition of a speech tag: Any descriptive words preceeding or following dialogue that describes the speech. IE: said, muttered, asked, yelled, screeched, whispered, insisted, demanded.

1. When your dialogue is associated with a speech tag a comma should be placed within the punctuation marks at the end of the speech unless you use an exclamation or question mark. The first word in a speech tag directly after dialogue should be lowercase unless the word is a proper noun. IE: "Let me help you with that," he said. or "Let me help you with that," Billy said.

2. Speech tags that preceed dialogue should end with a comma and the first word of the dialogue should be capitalized. The dialogue inside the quotes should end with a period, question or exclamation mark as appropriate. IE: He said, "Let me help you with that."

3. A divided quotation dialogue can go in two different ways. Both sides of the dialogue should be within quotation marks. The first word in the second half of the divided quote should not be capitalized unless it begins a new sentence or is a proper noun. IE: "This story is long," he said, "but worth the time to read it."

4. Ellipses (...) and dashes (--) in dialogue. Ellipses indicate the speaker is trailing off and is pausing before either finishing the statement or not continuing. They should be spaced and if they occur at the end of the dialogue you need to include proper punctuation, either a period, question, or exclamation mark. Dashes indicated that the speaker was interrupted. If the speaker continues after the interruption the dialogue should be preceeded with dashes within the quotation marks. IE: "Do you know if he . . . ?" he trailed off and blushed as he looked away from her knowing grin.

"Do you know if he"

"If he what?"

"said anything about me?" he asked as he blushed at her knowing grin.

5. Maybe the most important rule, imo, when writing dialogue you must start a new pargaraph EVERY time the speaker changes. IE:

"Stop!" he yelled.

The man kept running as he sneered over his shoulder. "I'd like to see you make me."

"I will shoot!" Steve braced his gun, training it on the running burglar. The shot was loud in his ears. He calmly walked over to the man rolling on the ground.

"You shot me in the knee," the man whimpered.

"I did warn you."


Recommended Comments

This is something I've been guilty of, and have been chastised appropriately for. When I was in school we were never taught the nuances of writing; we were taught all those things we knew we'd never use in life, like the periodic table and Pythagoras.

  • Like 1
Link to comment

I'd also suggest that new authors step away from the ellipses. Sometimes I think authors are enthralled with that particular punctuation mark. If you use it too much, you run the risk of your characters just looking wishy-washy.

  • Like 1
Link to comment

I agree with sat8997, and I would discourage the flowery dialogue tags. I know many people think they should switch up their diction so the reader doesn't get tired of the same word over and over, but says and said are the exceptions. When it comes to dialogue, readers glance over says and said the same way they do punctuation, and that's a good thing: it allows the dialogue to speak for itself. Flowery dialogue tags distract from the dialogue itself, suggest that the dialogue is weak, or make it read like a cheap romance novel. Some authors object (similar to their objection to the easy-on-the-adverbs rule) that they just can't possibly trust the reader to imagine their scene correctly without the dialogue tag, but my response to that is that 1) they need to trust their readers more and 2) it might suggest their dialogue is weak. If the author sticks to says and said, the alternative tags have more value (just like an earned, appropriate adverb) when they do appear.

Link to comment

those are great tips. I think sometimes new authors may overuse the tags which could also distract from the dialogue. Sometimes its okay to let the dialogue flow without too much explanation and unnecessary action. keeping it simple works best as long as the dialogue is conveying what you're trying to convey

Link to comment

Allow me to clarify something else. The abbreviation i.e. stands for 'that is' or 'in other words.' You should have used the abbreviation e.g., which means 'for example.'

Link to comment

Maybe I didn't read it right but I think you may have missed one thing about the new paragraph issue.


If the same person is speaking in the second paragraph you don't close the speech marks at the end of the paragraph but you do open them at the start of the next.




"Speaker is conveying a larger piece of information than can be dealt with in a single paragraph


"So they continue in another paragraph, without having ended the previous one with the speech marks, which come - now." :)

Link to comment
  • Site Administrator

All good points to add guys, thanks. I was trying to highlight just a few of the most common punctuation issues so I didn't touch on the same person speaking yet changing the subject or needing a new paragraph. Thanks Nephy.


Bill, I never use those correctly as I usually just write up with I think is wrong and add a suggestion when I edit. When speaking I have always said, 'in an example' so IE just flowed naturally for me to mean that, lol. Obviously I'm always learning new things (some of my early stories, yikes!), so thanks for sharing one today. biggrin.png


Speech tags are definitely an aspect of writing that can quickly approach overkill. I used to use them quite a bit, but Renee once pointed out to me that actions speaker louder than words. Instead of using a tag such as 'yelled angrily', I can put an exclamation point on the dialogue and then add in a visual cue that lets the readers know who is yelling and also gives an idea of the scene. Visualizations are one of the things I try to focus on in my writing, so that resonated with me specifically though I'm still occasionally guilty of going tag happy. Some examples below, or as Bill just taught me, e.g.:


'No way!' His hands clenched in fists as he glared over the table. I don't have to describe his speech because hands in fists and glares are cues his exclamation is angry, not excited, which could be highlighted with something like, 'No way!' He hugged me, then picked up keys to his new car.

Link to comment

Thanks Lugh,

These tips (and the comments) are very useful for all these (like myself) with another mother tongue than English.

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

Our Privacy Policy can be found here: Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..