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Seven essential rules for proper dialog punctuation

You’ve written some sparkling dialogue, so now it’s time to punctuate it. In this section, we’ll go through some of the main rules of dialogue formatting and punctuation.

  1. New speaker, new line
  2. Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by the same speaker
  3. Final punctuation (commas, periods, exclamations points)
  4. Single vs double quotes
  5. Dialog attribution tags
  6. Interruption in dialogue
  7. Pausing or trailing off

1. New speaker, new line

Each new speaker starts on a new line after a paragraph break:

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m waiting for the bus; can’t you see?”

“It seems a bit of a strange place to wait for a bus.” She was about to drive off when she turned and said, “Can I give you a lift?”

2. Multiple paragraphs of dialogue by the same speaker

Open each new paragraph with a quotation mark but don’t close any of them until the very last paragraph.

“I’m going to keep on talking until you really get it. Blah de blah.

“This is a new paragraph and I’m still not done.

“It’s still me talking but it’s midnight so I’ll stop.”

3. Final punctuation marks

If commas, full stops (periods), exclamation marks, question marks or anything else comes at the end of a passage of direct speech, they go inside the quotation marks, not outside it.

“All final punctuation goes inside the quotation marks,” he said.

“Are you sure about that?” she said.

4. Single vs double quotation marks

“Should I use double quotation marks like this,” he said, ‘or single quotation marks like this?’

The choice comes down to whether you are writing in American English or UK and rest-of-the-world English. Americans tend to prefer the double quote while UK publishers generally prefer single quotes. In the end, it doesn’t matter too much which you choose as long as you are consistent.

If you want to nest quotes (a quote within a quote), use single quotes if your main text uses double, and vice versa:

“He called me a ‘wastrel and a vagabond’, but he is clearly just envious of me.”

5. Attribution tags

Dialogue attribution tags are the short statements like ‘he said’, ‘she says’ that clarify who is talking.

Tag rule 1: Don’t capitalise the first word of the tag if it comes after the words spoken.

Even if the attribution follows a punctuation mark that would normally be used to close a sentence, begin the attribution lowercase.

“Attribution tags are never capitalised,” he said.

“What about after a question mark?” she said.

“Even then!” he exclaimed.

Tag rule 2: If the attribution comes before the speech, use a comma or colon outside the quote marks.

He said, “Put the comma outside the quotation mark if it precedes the quote.”

She looked confused: “Should I use commas or colons?”

The rules about whether to use a comma or colon differ, but generally, if the introductory phrase can meaningfully stand on its own (i.e., it’s an independent clause), use a colon. In the example above, ‘She looked confused’ makes sense all on its own, whereas ‘He said’ doesn’t. As a test, see whether a full stop would be appropriate at the end of the phrase. If so, it’s an independent clause or full sentence, so use a colon.

Tag rule 3: If attribution divides the dialogue, punctuation depends on whether the attribution lies between two full sentences or whether it breaks a sentence.

“Hello John,” said Mary. “I’m so glad you’re coming to stay.”

In the example above, the original statement consists of two sentences: “Hello John. I’m so glad you’re coming to stay.” The tag falls neatly between the sentences, so there’s a full stop after ‘Mary’. Now see what happens if we take a single sentence – “John is staying with me for two weeks” – and break it with a tag:

“John”, said Mary, “is staying with me for two weeks.”

In this example, the tag falls in the middle of a sentence, so the part after the tag continues as if the tag were not there at all, i.e., it starts lowercase and the punctuation after ‘Mary’ is a comma rather than a full stop.

Also note that the comma after ‘John’ comes outside the quote mark because the comma is not part of the original statement (“John is staying with me for two weeks”). However, this seems to be a flexible rule and might simply depend on whether the style being followed is American vs UK English. The main thing is to be consistent.

6. Interruption

To show someone’s speech being interrupted, use an em dash inside quotation marks. 

“Hey, I was just thinking we should—”

“Well, I’ve got a better idea.”

Note that there’s no space on either side of the em dash.

You can create an em dash on a PC by holding down the Alt key and typing 0151. On Mac, press Alt+Shift and press the hyphen/minus sign.

Em dashes can also be used to create space for a beat right inside ongoing dialogue:

“I’ve waited so long for this”—her voice broke into a sob—“and now it’s all ruined.” 

7. Pausing or trailing off

Use an ellipsis (three dots) to show a character pausing mid-speech or trailing off:

“I’m wondering if we should, you know, … have another baby.”

“What …?”

Ellipses at the end of a sentence don’t need a final full stop.

“I never thought I’d …”

If you type three full stops one after the other, Microsoft Word will automatically make it a single ellipsis symbol. Opinions differ on whether to put spaces on either side of the ellipsis. 

“Oh, Sydney, you’re so … boring.”

vs

“Oh, Sydney, you’re so…boring.”

Choose a style and stick to it throughout.

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