When I first started editing, I assumed most people would have this down. After all, we see dialogue punctuation all the time when we read. But the thing about punctuation is, if you’re doing it right, it becomes fairly invisible. You’re not reading that nail-biting thriller and thinking, “I definitely would have used an em dash instead of a comma there.” (Unless you’re an editor. I most definitely edit in my head when reading for pleasure.) It’s easy to get to the end of a book and not have thought about the punctuation at all. So when many authors sit down to write their first book, they may find they’re a little lost on how to punctuate all that sparkling dialogue they’re writing.
Getting this right is important. If you’re hiring an editor before publishing, it’s going to take them a lot more time (and therefore cost you more money) if they have to change the punctuation every time a character speaks. If you’re not hiring an editor (but you are, right?), it’s even more important. While correct punctuation becomes invisible, punctuation mistakes don’t. Many readers will give up on a book early on if it is littered with punctuation errors.
So, here we go: a crash course on punctuating dialogue so you never have to wonder again! (Caveat: This is correct punctuation in the United States, where I and most of my clients reside. If you live outside the United States, check on the standards there. I know that in the United Kingdom, the conventions on single/double quotation marks and on the placement of other punctuation with quotation marks are the opposite of what we do here.)
Quotation Marks: When writing speech, the convention is to use double quotation marks for the dialogue itself and single quotation marks for a quote within a quote. So it would look like this:
“Thanks for the help, Megan!” Joe said as he waved good-bye.
"Emily seemed to be taking the game in stride, but then she suddenly screamed, ‘You suck!’ at the umpire,” James said.
Punctuation at the End of Dialogue: When you get to the end of your dialogue, you’ll either be ending the sentence there or adding a dialogue tag or an action beat. A dialogue tag is the attribution that lets us know who is speaking. It usually consists of the character’s name (or a pronoun) and a speech-related verb (said, asked, screamed, etc.) An action beat is a description of physical action that falls before or after dialogue. It also serves to let us know who’s speaking, without the use of a tag. Punctuation varies based on which of these you are doing and what type of sentence it is.
With Dialogue Tag:
If the dialogue sentence would end with a period, use a comma in place of the period before a dialogue tag. The dialogue tag is not capitalized.
CORRECT: “I’m glad we finally got to meet,” she said.
WRONG: “I’m glad we finally got to meet.” she said.
If the dialogue sentence would end with an exclamation point or a question mark, use those without the comma.
CORRECT: “Are you sure this is the right way to go?” he asked.
WRONG: “Are you sure this is the right way to go,” he asked.
Without Dialogue Tag:
If you will be using an action beat or no additional text after the dialogue (because it is clear who’s speaking), use whatever punctuation is appropriate for the sentence. The first word of any additional text after the dialogue would be capitalized.
For dialogue alone:
CORRECT: “Let’s get going so we aren’t late.”
"Good idea, Jenny!”
WRONG: “Let’s get going so we aren’t late,”
"Good idea, Jenny!”
With an action beat:
CORRECT: “You did such a great job!” She grinned from ear to ear.
WRONG: “You did such a great job,” She grinned from ear to ear.
WRONG: “You did such a great job!” she grinned from ear to ear. (Note: The word “grinned” is not a dialogue tag. You can’t grin words. This is an action beat, so the first word needs to be capitalized, as all new sentences do.)
Dialogue That Is Interrupted or Trails Off
If a character is speaking and gets interrupted so that they stop speaking suddenly, use an em dash to indicate this.
“Well, I think—”
“No one cares what you think, Mary.”
If a character is speaking and they trail off, use an ellipsis instead.
“I want to go, but…”
“But what, Ashley?”
Dialogue That Is Interrupted by an Action Beat or a Thought
If you need to pause the dialogue briefly to show what the character is thinking or doing, enclose the dialogue on either side of the interruption in quotation marks. No punctuation is used inside of the quotation marks of the first part of the sentence, but at the end of the dialogue, use whatever punctuation is appropriate to end the sentence. Surround the interrupting action or thought in em dashes. This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t.
CORRECT: “She never cared”—he pointed at our mother—“about either of us!”
INCORRECT: “She never cared,” he pointed at our mother, “about either of us!”
You can use commas if you are interrupting the dialogue with a dialogue tag, however.
CORRECT: “She never cared,” he said, “about either of us!”
(Note that the comma is back in this example, as well, just like it would be if this dialogue ended after “he said.”)
Obviously, there are other permutations, but this is a great start. A good deal of the dialogue you write will follow one of these examples. A good editor will know how to handle more complicated scenarios and can help you if you aren’t sure how to proceed. Now, go write some dazzling dialogue!