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How Do I Punctuate Dialogue in My Novel?

Why does punctuating dialogue correctly in a novel matter?

Strong dialogue is one of the key ingredients in compelling fiction.

Some authors find they have a natural gift for it, and use it to help create enthralling characters and intriguing plots that hook their readers.

For others it is something they develop over time, honing their skills as they learn from their own writing and that of others how to use it to its full potential.

In either case one thing that is guaranteed to take the shine off powerful dialogue is poor punctuation. Many who enjoy reading fiction will have an instinctive understanding of how dialogue should be punctuated and any errors you make will act as a major distraction, pulling readers out of the world you have spent so long creating.

Even worse, bad punctuation can cause confusion – something Nigel would agree with in the examples below, where the presence or absence of an indicative comma has huge implications for his future well-being.


‘Are you ready to eat, Nigel?’

‘Are you ready to eat Nigel?’


This section will take you through the key elements of punctuating dialogue (including the indicative comma) so that you (and Nigel) can move forward with confidence.


Using quotation marks with dialogue in novels

It’s crucial for the sake of clarity to differentiate dialogue from the rest of the text. The standard way of doing this is through the use of quotation marks (also known as speech marks).

In the UK, the convention is to use single quotation marks:

‘This is the UK way of indicating dialogue,’ said Julia.


In the US, the convention is to use double quotation marks.

“And this is the US way,” she added.


Which option you choose is likely to depend on where you believe most of your readers are likely to live. There are, though, two golden rules to remember.

  1. Be consistent with whichever type you use throughout your novel.

  2. Don’t use two single quotation marks to make a double mark.


Speech marks within dialogue in novels

Nested or internal quotation marks are used whenever you need to use quotation marks within dialogue. They are simply the reverse of whichever mark is being used for the main dialogue:


‘I don’t want to say “I told you so”… but I told you so,’ said Julia.



“This is a real ‘told you so’ moment,” said Kevin.


Dialogue within dialogue in novels

This needs very careful handling to ensure it’s always clear who’s talking. Again, the internal dialogue will use the alternative quotation marks to the external ones. It’s also standard practice to run on the internal dialogue rather than starting a new paragraph as you would normally do with a new speaker.


‘I was walking down the street when I saw my friend Charlie coming towards me. “Hey, Mike,” he said, “How’s that novel of yours going?” “I struggled a bit at first with punctuating the dialogue,” I said, “but I’m really getting the hang of it now.”’


Paragraphs within dialogue in novels

There may be times when you want to start a new paragraph during a quotation. The standard way of doing this is to omit the quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph but to use one at the start of the new one.


‘It was the day of my final exam at university. I was so nervous I’d not been able to get to sleep the previous night. I did finally nod off but there was one slight problem … I was on the bus to the university at the time and missed my stop.

‘I got into the examination hall with seconds to spare. As soon as the exam started, I turned over my paper … and smiled with relief.’


Using the ellipsis in fiction writing

You’ll have noticed the example above made use of the ellipsis …

This can be a very effective way of giving dialogue a more authentic feel. When we speak to one another in real life we don’t always speak in full, uninterrupted sentences. We might pause in the middle of a sentence or trail off at the end, leaving the remaining words unspoken.


His visitor put a small package down on the table. ‘You’d better take this … just in case.’

Jim opened the package and took out the handgun. He looked at it thoughtfully. ‘I’m not sure … ’ he told his visitor.


When using the ellipsis as in the examples above, avoid using phrases like ‘he paused’ or ‘his voice trailed off’. These words slow down the pace without serving any purpose since it’s already clear what’s happening.

Some authors have trouble deciding how they should space either side of the ellipsis – the answer depends on where in your sentence the ellipsis occurs:


  • Start of the sentence – space after:

Tom put a hand on Roy’s shoulder. ‘… Take it easy. We’re the only ones for miles around.’


  • Middle of sentence – space each side:

Roy pointed. ‘So where … did those footprints come from?’


  • End of sentence – space before:

Tom looked at him in horror. ‘But that means …’


If the ellipsis is followed by a question mark or exclamation mark, the ellipsis still consists of three dots.

Roy looked fearfully into the darkness. ‘D’you have the feeling we’re being watched …?’


How to punctuate tagged speech

Speech tags are used to indicate the person who has spoken a piece of dialogue – she said, he said, I said, and so on.

So far, so good, but many authors have problems when it comes to punctuating these tags. Here are some examples to make things clearer.

‘I’m going for a stroll in the park,’ said Karen.

Notice how the comma after ‘park’ takes the place of the full stop that would have been there without the tag. It’s also important to position it correctly – before the closing quotation mark.

The only occasions when a comma is not used are when the dialogue ends with an exclamation or question mark.


‘Do you want to come to the park with me?’ asked Karen.


As with the comma in the previous example, the question mark comes before the quotation mark. Notice also how ‘asked’ starts with a lower case ‘a’ even though it follows the question mark.


The same principle applies with exclamation marks.


‘I’m not walking round the park in the bloody rain!’ said Fiona.


If there’s no speech tag after the closing quotation mark, the sentence ends with a full stop rather than a comma.


Karen gave Fiona a reassuring look. ‘I’ve checked the forecast – it’s going to stay dry all afternoon.’


How to punctuate broken up dialogue in novels

Your novel could start to feel a bit samey if you place all your speech tags at the end of the dialogue. Putting tags in the middle of the dialogue adds variety – but it has to be punctuated correctly.


‘I just knew,’ said Fiona, ‘that I shouldn’t have let you talk me into it – I’m soaking wet.’


The first part of the dialogue ends with a comma before the closing quotation mark. The speech tag is followed by another comma which comes before the opening quotation mark. Note how ‘that’ begins with a lower case ‘t’ as it’s part of the original sentence.


The same principles apply in the examples below.


‘I said it wouldn’t rain, said Karen defensively, ‘and it didn’t.’


‘But it would’ve been helpful,’ said Fiona, ‘if you’d warned me about the duck pond.’


Punctuating action in the middle of dialogue

If you want to include a description of some action in the middle of a piece of dialogue, it may be more appropriate to use spaced en dashes (UK English) or closed em dashes (US English).


UK English

‘I rather think,’ said Karen – carefully plucking feathers out of Fiona’s hair – that we should go to a coffee shop next time. 


US English

“I rather think,” said Karen––carefully plucking feathers out of Fiona’s hair––“that we should go to a coffee shop next time.” 


Punctuating vocative expressions in novels

A vocative expression is when the person being addressed is referred to directly in a piece of dialogue. It can be directly by name (James, Claire, Mrs Brown), title (Inspector, sir, Mr President) or another word or phrase (flattering or otherwise!) that refers to a specific person.


When writing vocative expressions, you need to use commas so that the meaning is clear.

The positioning of the commas(s) depends on where in the sentence the vocative expression comes.


If it comes at the start of a sentence, put a comma after it.

‘Sir, I can’t do PE because I’ve got hiccups,’ said the boy hopefully.


If it comes in the middle of sentence, put commas before and after it.

‘Put the gun down, you fool, and raise your hands.


If it comes at the end of a sentence, put a comma before it.

‘Do you want to see a film tonight, Kate?’


Confusion can arise when a vocative expression is not punctuated properly. The first example might be something said by the host of a TV culinary competition, while the second appears to be inciting an act of mass cannibalism!


‘It’s time to start cooking, everybody.’


‘It’s time to start cooking everybody.’


‘Though’ and ‘then’

The words ‘though’ and ‘then’ are often used at the end of dialogue. In both cases, a comma is needed before the word.


‘We’ve been invited to a 1970s-themed party,’ said Jill, looking at the email.

‘I’d better dig out my tank top, then,’ said Simon.

Jill looked at him wearily. ‘I’d give the kipper tie a miss, though.’

Interrupted and faltering dialogue in novels

Interrupted dialogue comes when the speaker stops abruptly due to something that is said or occurs. This is shown with an unspaced em dash:


‘We’ve still got time to get there as long as the car––––’

The engine gave an angry bang followed by a resigned hiss and fell silent.


Notice that there is no full stop, strengthening the impression that the speaker has stopped in mid-flow.

You may want to use faltering dialogue to convey the fact that someone is having trouble getting their words out due to exhaustion, fear, surprise, confusion, etc. Sometimes a person may repeat entire words as they struggle to focus on what they want to say. One way of punctuating this is through the use of spaced ellipsis.

‘I thought … I thought he was going to catch me.’


‘What’s she … what’s she doing here?’


On other occasions, the person even struggles to get whole words out at a time. Hyphens are a good way of showing this.

‘W-w-we’ve got to get out of here before they get back.’


And finally …

Though not actually a punctuation issue, there is a dialogue error that many authors make: asking your character to do something that is physically impossible!

‘Great to see you again,’ Paula smiled.

‘I’ve no idea,’ shrugged Geoff.

We can’t smile or shrug words – anymore than we can laugh or sigh them.

Our top first example reads much better as:

‘Great to see you again,’ said Paula with a smile.


‘Great to see you again,’ said Paula, smiling.


Paula smiled. ‘Great to see you again.’


Punctuating dialogue: Conclusion

Being able to write sparkling, engaging dialogue is an invaluable ability for any writer. It’s vital, however, to do your dialogue justice by ensuring that it is correctly punctuated to avoid potentially distracting or confusing readers.

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