Who said what now?! How to Punctuate Dialogue Tags (correctly) in your Writing.

As a writer, especially if you write fiction, you’ll need to know how to use dialogue tags properly in your writing if you want your reader to feel engaged and connected to your characters.

In this post, I’m going to talk about where to put the punctuation in dialogue, whether it needs a capital letter, where the dialogue actually needs to go and explain how varying your dialogue tags can help change the rhythm of your writing – keeping your reader interested!

‘Where does the punctuation go?’

This one’s easy. Punctuation always goes before the closing quotation mark. I see a lot of this when working through manuscripts – it’s so easy for that pesky comma to slip outside of the quotation marks. Here’s an example:

“I’m heading to the park,” said Charlie.

Simple, the comma is inside the quotation marks. But what if the character is asking a question? Does a comma go after that too? The answer is, no. Here’s how it would look if Charlie was asking a question:

“I’m heading to the park. Do you want to come?” said Charlie.

‘If my character continues speaking after a pause does it need a capital letter?’

It can get a little tricky here, as it all depends on the context of the speech. If the two sentences are related then a capital isn’t needed when the speech continues. Here’s an example:

“I’m heading to the park,” said Charlie, “do you want to come too?”

See, no capital when Charlie continues speaking about heading to the park. However, if Charlie changed the topic and a full stop was added after his name, it would go something like this:

“I’m heading to the park,” said Charlie. “Do you know what time Pauline will be home?”

The dialogue still has a comma before the closing quotation mark but there’s a full stop now after “Charlie”. As the topic has changed and there’s a full stop between the two sections of dialogue the next section of dialogue begins with a capital letter – make sense?

I know it can get a little confusing, but an editor will look for these things and can change them where necessary. So, it’s important to get into the habit of writing dialogue this way, but don’t worry if the odd one slips through the cracks. We’ll spot it.

‘If the dialogue ends on a question, does a pronoun need capitals?’

This is another common mistake. If the dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, the ‘he/she/they’ don’t need to be capitalised either. It seems to go against the grain, as we’re always told that a question mark or exclamation point are equal to a full stop. For dialogue though, that isn’t the case. Here’s an example:

“I’m heading to the park. Do you want to come too?” he said.

The ‘he’ doesn’t need to be capitalised.

‘Do I always need to start a new line for speech?’

Every time a different person speaks you need to start a new line. Even if your character’s response is a shrug or a sigh it’s best to put it on a new line so the reader can follow the dialogue clearly.

“I’m heading to the park,” he said.
Amelia nodded absently as she glanced over her newspaper.
“Do you want to come?” Charlie asked.

Even though Amelia didn’t verbally respond it still goes onto a new line, as it would seem odd for it all to be on the same line when her nodding is her response. I’m rambling, but you get the point. Each new section of dialogue and actions as a response to said dialogue should go on a new line for clarity.

‘My dialogue seems a bit robotic. Can I move the tags about a little?’

Yes! Please do. If everything is ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘the dog said’ then it can become a bit boring for the reader. Varying where you place the dialogue tags keeps the reader engaged and changes the rhythm of the piece. Here’s what I mean:

“I’m heading to the park,” Charlie said.
Amelia nodded absently as she glanced over her newspaper.
Charlie peered down at her, and asked, “Do you want to come?”

By moving the dialogue tag it changes the flow of the writing and this will only help when it comes to keeping your reader focused. Nobody wants to read speech that doesn’t seem natural. If you add actions before/after/in between your dialogue tags it makes the characters feel real and therefore, relatable.

I hope this helps! If you have any questions about where to place punctuation when it comes to dialogue, please get in touch and I’ll help wherever I can.

Happy writing!