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Everything About Dialogue Punctuation in Fiction Writing

Ollie Ander
Is probably just a couple cats in a trench-coat—the hair shedding and sunlight napping are highly suspect.
Characters are chatty, chatty creatures. We interact with dialogue often in fiction writing, so it’s important to know and follow the guidelines of proper dialogue punctuation. Let’s go over when and how to punctuate dialogue so your characters’ words can seamlessly integrate with the narrative.

1. Quotations (" ")

The base of all dialogue punctuation is quotation marks. They go at the start and end of text in which a character is speaking aloud:
"Dialogue is easy once you know the rules."
If the person speaking is quoting something, the quote inside of the dialogue should use single apostrophes (‘) as quotation marks:
"She said, dialogue is easy,’ but I’m not sure I believe her."

Use capitalization to indicate a new sentence. As I’ll discuss later in the Ending Punctuation section, you do not have to capitalize a dialogue tag following a quote (regardless of its punctuation) if it is part of the sentence:
"Dialogue is easy."
She looked at me skeptically. "How easy?" she asked.

Use paragraph breaks whenever there is a change in speaker:
I tried to reassure her, "Dialogue is easy to write!"
"How easy?" she asked again.

If a single character’s dialogue spans longer than one paragraph, do not end the first paragraph with a quotation mark. Use a closing quotation mark only when they have finished speaking, or when inserting dialogue tags or asides:
"Hey! Pretend this is a really long paragraph.
Note that I don’t use a quotation mark at the end of the last paragraph; Not until I’m done talking," I explain.

2. Commas (,)

Using commas to punctuate dialogue is almost as frequent as using quotation marks themselves. Commas are important to the flow of your dialogue in any sentence that includes additional tags or exterior descriptors.
Use a comma when you are introducing text:
He said, "Commas are cool."
The only time this doesn’t apply is when the dialogue is introduced with words like "that" or "whether," indicating that the quote is being summarized rather than expressed in real time:
He said that "commas are cool."
If you put a dialogue tag after a quote, use a comma before the closing quotation mark to keep the sentence flowing:
"Commas are cool," he remarked.

3. Ending Punctuation (.!?)

Without a dialogue tag, end complete sentences with a period before the closing quotation mark:
"Punctuation rules are important." They didn’t look like they believed me.
All punctuation used to close a quote should fall within the quotation marks:
"How important is it to know punctuation rules?"
"It’s very important."

If the tone of your dialogue is a question or exclamatory, use that punctuation in place of a comma when continuing the sentence with a dialogue tag:
"How important is it to know punctuation rules?" she asked.
The general rule for question marks and exclamation points is also true for em dashes (—). 

4. Punctuation Outside of Quotations

Although punctuation should typically fall within the quotations, there are some exceptions when it comes to punctuating the sentence, separate from the dialogue.
Punctuation can fall outside of quotations when being used to define a phrase and not to enclose speech:
Soon you’ll be a self-proclaimed "punctuation master"!
Elements whose priority is to punctuate the sentence’s delivery may also fall outside of the quotations:
I said, "I don’t know if I understand this"—the exact moment everything clicked.

5. Cutting off Speech

If your speaker is interrupted, cut off their dialogue using a dash:
"I don’t know if I can write this—"
"Yes, you can!" I shouted.

Use ellipses whenever your character’s dialogue trails off of their own accord:
"Maybe I can write this after all…"
And trust me, you can! Once you pay attention to dialogue punctuation and enact these rules, writing dialogue will become easier. The best way to know whether you’ve punctuated correctly is if you can read through your sentence and it sounds natural when spoken aloud. You can also run your text through a text-to-speech program to see if it gets caught up, or get a second opinion from a peer.

While you're on the path to perfect dialogue punctuation, you might also want to check out some $ common revision mistakes$  to avoid! Write, revise, and revise again, my friends.
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