Dialogue. Speech. Chat. If you’re writing a story, chances are dialogue makes up a decent chunk of your word count. Of course, whether your characters talk all the time or almost never, you want to make sure that what they do say is written correctly, so that it’s as clear as possible for your readers. The last thing you want is for grammar confusion to distract from your characters’ heartfelt confessions (or witty banter, rousing pep talks, whatever they’re up to really)!
“Speech goes inside quotation marks,” she explained.
The bit that comes after the closing of the quotation marks is called the ‘dialogue tag’. He said, she screamed, Lena added, Dylan whispered—all examples of dialogue tags, which can be used to let the reader know who’s speaking, how they’re speaking, or both.
I’m not going to talk today about the different options you have for dialogue tags. We’ll save the debate for or against ‘said’ for another time!
It’s also worth noting that you can flip the dialogue tag and speech around if you want to switch things up a bit, like so:
She explained, “Speech goes inside quotation marks.”
The Punctuation Bit
First rule when it comes to dialogue; you need some form of punctuation to end your speech, and it has to go inside the speech marks. So the following two examples are incorrect:
“Speech goes inside the quotation marks” she explained.
“Speech goes inside the quotation marks”, she explained.
The next thing you need to know is that the end of the speech in these examples isn’t the end of the sentence. Essentially the sentence continues until the end of whatever dialogue tag you’re using, which is why that part (‘she explained’ in each of our examples so far) doesn’t have to start with a capital letter. So far we’ve been ending our speech with a comma, but this is true even if you use an exclamation mark or question mark to end your speech.
“This is outrageous!” she cried.
Shaun came slinking into the room. “What are you yelling about now?” he asked warily.
Notice how there’s no capitalisation after the speech finishes, even though we’ve ended it with punctuation that would typically mark the end of a sentence.
You can use a question or exclamation mark instead of a comma to finish your speech, if it’s adding clarity to the dialogue, but you can’t finish your speech with a full stop if you’re adding a dialogue tag afterwards.
Of course, if you’re not adding a dialogue tag—either because you’ve started with it instead, like in the earlier example of leading with the dialogue tag, or because your readers already know who’s talking and you don’t need one at all—then you need to finish with punctuation that ends the sentence. So that can be a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark, but not a comma in this case.
Keira threw her phone down onto her bed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Suppressing a smile at the dramatics, Shaun replied, “Go on, try me.”
Adding More Speech to the Speech Already Speeched
Sometimes you want to break up your character’s talking with a dialogue tag, rather than saving it for the very end. This doesn’t really complicate matters, the end of the dialogue tag still functions as the end of the sentence started by that first bit of speaking, and the new section of speech starts a new sentence. For example:
“I’ve been waiting for this book for three weeks,” she snapped. “Now I’ve just got an email saying the delivery has been delayed again! It’s ridiculous.”
This can be a useful tool for varying the way your dialogue is structured, especially in longer conversations between characters. Worth noting though, it’s generally considered not great form to have more than one of this kind of break during a single section of speech from a character. I’ve seen it done in professionally published books now and again, but I’d recommend not to make a habit of it.
So there you go! Those are the fundamental rules (well, and one that’s more of a guideline) to follow to make sure you’re punctuating your dialogue like a pro!
Got any top dialogue tips? Share them in the comments! And if you have any favourite examples of dialogue from your work I’d love to read them!