Do you struggle with the proper punctuation for what people say in your stories? You’re not alone. Many writers labor to get this right. Let’s start with a review of the rules.
Punctuation Rules for Dialogue
1. Start with a quote (“) when someone begins speaking.
2. If what the person said is followed by an attribution (i.e. he said), end the dialogue with a comma and another quote mark(,”).
“I went to the store,” Ralph said.
3. When what was said is a question, use a question mark, quote mark (?”).
“Would you please buy milk?” Mom asked.
4. If instead of an attribution (i.e. she said), there’s an action, the dialogue will end with a period and a quote. (.”)
“Look what I found at the mall.” Mary pulled earrings out of the paper sack.
5. If a question has an action, still use the question mark, quote mark (?”).
“Would you please buy milk?” Mom handed me a five.
6. After an action or an attribution when the same person starts speaking again, use another beginning quote.
“I went to the gym,” Hector said. “Manuel and I played horse.”
7. Quotation marks come in pairs, a left and a right. (“…”) A quote mark without it’s mate is incorrect.
8. If the person speaking addresses someone by name, their name is separated by a comma.
“Hey, John, come here.”
9. Each sentence does NOT have a quote mark at the beginning and end when the same person continues speaking, unless interrupted by an action or an attribution.
“We went to Grandma’s house. I played with her dog. The cat ran.”
10. Generally, what one person says is all in one paragraph.
“I took my basketball to the gym,” Hector said. “Manuel and I played horse. Then Tommy and Kate showed up so we played two on two.” Hector smiled. “Manuel and I won.”
11. Start a new paragraph when a new person speaks.
“Hey, Mama?” I asked. “Can I go to the park?”
“Yes, you may.” She looked at her watch. “Dinner is in an hour. Make sure you are back in time, Danika.”
“My stomach will remind me.” I grinned and she grinned back.
Mainly, it takes practice, practice, practice to get the rules set in your brain. Here are a few suggestions that might help you engrain these rules.
Practicing Dialogue Punctuation
1. Print out your short story or chapter of your book. Take different colored highlighters or colored pencils and mark what one person says in one color. Exclude any actions, punctuation, or he said or asked, etc. Use another color for another person’s dialogue. When everyone’s dialogue is colored, look for these things:
• Quote marks at beginning and end of what each person says.
• Comma or question mark within quote mark right before an attribution (i.e. he asked, she shouted).
• Period, question mark or exclamation mark–use the latter sparingly–within quote mark when it is followed by an action (i.e. Dad slammed the door.).
• Is what someone says all in one paragraph before someone else speaks? Or before a change of scene?
• Comma(s) separating the name of a person being spoken to.
2. Take a published short story or book chapter with lots of dialogue and retype it to get the flow of how punctuation, action, dialogue, etc. mix in.
3. Turn on your word processor’s “Grammar Checker.” It can be very annoying as it usually isn’t set up for fiction, but it may help point out where your punctuation is wrong. Use the help option in your word processor to find out how to turn it on and how to customize it for your version of the software.
A lot of work? Yes. But work on it enough and the rules of dialogue punctuation will come automatically to your fingertips.
*picture courtesy of Mary R. Vogt and morguefile.com