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How to Punctuate Dialogue

Dialogue is an important element of fiction because it gives a greater insight into characters, shows how they interact, and makes for a more dynamic form of storytelling. While some writers, such as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver, lean heavily on dialogue, other writers use it more sparingly. However, before you use dialogue in your writing, it's important to know how to punctuate it. Learning just a few basic rules can make your writing look and feel professional and meaningful.

The Basics

A dialogue tag indicates who's speaking, attributing dialogue to a character. Some writers use few dialogue tags, relying on the sequence of the text or other methods to indicate who's speaking.

Punctuate a sentence that ends with a dialogue tag. When you're writing dialogue, the most important thing to remember is to put the dialogue that was said in quotes, and to end the dialogue with a comma within the quote if you're going to tag it, or attribute it to a speaker. Using a comma followed by an end quote and then a verb and the name or pronoun of the person who said it, or followed by the name and then the verb, is the most common way to punctuate dialogue. Here are some examples:

"I want to spend all day reading in bed," Mary said.
"I wish I could do that, but I have to go to work," Tom said.
"You can get some rest over the weekend," said Mary.

Punctuate a sentence that starts with a dialogue tag. When you start a sentence with a dialogue tag, then the same rules apply, except you'll be using a verb and a noun at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma, an opening quote, the dialogue, a period or another form of closing punctuation, and another quote. Here are some examples:

Mary said, "I think I'll have cupcakes for breakfast."
Tom said, "Do you think that's the healthiest option?"
She said, "Absolutely not. Which is exactly what makes it appealing."

Punctuate a sentence with a dialogue tag in the middle. Another way to punctuate dialogue is to write a sentence with a dialogue tag in the middle. This is a way of creating a pause while continuing the sentence. To do this, you should tag the first part of the sentence as you normally would, except that you don't put a period at the end and use a comma to introduce the second half of the sentence instead. The thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn't capitalize the second half of the same sentence or thought. Here are some examples:

"I'd like to go running," Mary said, "but I'd rather just sit in this rocking chair."
"There are few things more appealing than sitting in that rocking chair," Tom said, "but sometimes running may be just the thing you need."
"I need running about as much as I need..." Mary said, "a stone in my shoe."

Punctuate a sentence with a dialogue tag in between two sentences. Another way to punctuate dialogue is to tag one sentence as you normally would, using a period at the end, and then starting a new sentence without attributing the dialogue to anyone. It should be clear from the context that the same person is speaking. Here are some examples:

"The new girl in school seems nice," Mary said. "I'd like to get to know her better."
"I thought she was a little bit stuck up," said Tom. "That's pretty generous of you."
"I don't know about that," Mary said. "I just like to give people a chance. You should try it."

Punctuate dialogue without a tag. A lot of dialogue doesn't need to be tagged at all. It should be obvious from the context who the speaker is. You can also mention the people who are speaking next to the sentences they speak, so it becomes more clear who is talking. You don't want your readers to go line chasing, or trying to work backwards to figure out who is speaking in a two-person conversation with unattributed dialogue. At the same time, you don't want to get redundant with saying "she said" or "he said" every time someone speaks. Here are some examples:

"I just don't think this is working anymore." Mary fiddled with her pen.
Tom looked down at the floor. "How can you say that?"
"I can say it because I feel it. This isn't working, Tom. How can you not see it?"
"I guess I must have been blind."

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