Working With Dialog

The only thing more irritating than bad dialog is badly punctuated dialog.
Here are some tips for writing in US English.


Tag lines:

The words that designate the speaker ( “he said” and “said Rob” ) are called “tag lines.” Think of Facebook, when you “tag” a photo. You are indicating the person in the picture. In dialog, the tag line indicates who is speaking.

Tag lines can come at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence.

Here are three examples:

  1. Joe exclaimed, “Kill all the lawyers!”
  2. “Can you imagine,” asked Emile, “what it would be like if we had no lawyers?”
  3. “A world without lawyers would be like a world without sin,” remarked Bob.


Quotation marks:

The actual words being spoken are enclosed by quotation marks.

  • “Joe, kill that lawyer right now!”  demanded Scott.

When you create a quote within a quote, you use single quotes to separate the two.

  • I told you what John demanded, Joy said sternly, and I can tell you word for word. He said, Kill the damn lawyers!

Notice the closing quotes at the end of the sentence close both the double quotes and the single quotes.


Commas and punctuation with quotation marks:

  1. ( . and , ) When you use period and commas, the punctuation always goes inside the quotes.
    • Don’t do this: “No”, said Amy.
    • Do this: “No,” said Amy.
  2. ( ! and ? ) Exclamation mark and question marks serve different purposes and have different rules.
    1. When using question marks and exclamation marks, ask yourself if the whole sentence requires the mark.
      • If the whole sentence is a question or an exclamation, the mark goes outside the quotes.
        • Did Joy just tell everyone, “Kill all the Lawyers”?
        • Jason exclaimed, “You said kill the lawyers”!
      • If only the quote is a question or an exclamation, then the mark goes inside the quotes.
        • I heard Joy ask, “Will you help me kill the lawyer?”
        • I heard Joy yell, “Kill the lawyers”!NOTE: In US English, you never double punctuation at the end of a sentence. Do not end a sentence with two types of punctuation.
          • You would NOT do this: I heard Joy ask, “Can I kill the lawyer?”.
  1. ( : and ; ) Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks: There are


Notice that the exclamation mark in the example above is inside the quotation marks. Look back at examples 1-3, all the punctuation is inside the quotes. Sometimes writers pen a line like this: “No, I won’t go”.  <— That is WRONG! Don’t do that.





“I would like to go to the beach this weekend,” she told him as they left the apartment.
Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks in American writing (the Brits have slightly different rules); other punctuation — semicolons, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points — goes outside unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes, as in this example from Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From”:
“I don’t want any stupid cake,” says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. “Where’s the champagne?” he says, and laughs.
In the next example, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because it is not part of the material being quoted:
Did he say, “We should all go to the movies”?
Also note that the sentence ends with only one mark of punctuation: the question mark. In general, don’t use double punctuation marks, but go with the stronger punctuation. (Question marks and exclamation points are stronger than commas and periods. Think of it as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, if it helps.)

Quick Tip: How To Use Quotation Marks
When a tag line interrupts a sentence, it should be set off by commas. Note that the first letter of the second half of the sentence is in lower case, as in this example from Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”:
“That is,” Wesley said, “that neither you nor me is her boy…”
To signal a quotation within a quotation, use single quotes:
“Have you read ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ yet?” he asked her.
For interior dialogue, italics are appropriate, just be consistent.
If a quotation spills out over more than one paragraph, don’t use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them only when a character is done speaking.