Many writers struggle with the punctuation of the dialogue in their stories. Several years ago, I put together a few guidelines for my own use, and I thought perhaps others might benefit from them, too.
Setting Dialogue Off from the Surrounding Sentence
- Set dialogue off with commas ONLY if there is an attribution tag (she said, he asked, etc.).
Example: “I don’t know,” he said, “what to think any more.”
- If dialogue is interrupted by an attribution tag AND additional actions, the interruption is still set off by commas as above.
Example: “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, “what to think any more.”
- If the dialogue before an attribution tag ends with a question mark or exclamation point, there is no need to use a comma with it.
Example: “Do you know what to think?” he asked, shaking his head.
- If an action interrupts dialogue WITHOUT an attribution tag, set off the dialogue with quotation marks, and use em-dashes around the action, with no spaces around the dashes.
Example: “I don’t know”—he shrugged and shook his head—“what to think anymore.”
Note that in all of the above examples, the continuation of the speech is not capitalized, since it is still part of one grammatically complete spoken sentence.
- If the attribution tag precedes the speech, it is still set off with a comma, and the first letter of the spoken sentence is capitalized.
Example: He said, “It’s hard to tell what to think any more.”
- If the dialogue before an attribution tag forms a complete sentence, place a period after the tag, even if another sentence of dialogue follows the tag. Start the next sentence with a capital.
Example: “I don’t know what to think,” he said. “Everything is so confusing.”
Stammering, Interrupted, or Faltering Speech
- When a character’s dialogue is interrupted, end it with an em-dash placed BEFORE the quotation mark, with no spaces.
Example: “I just don’t know—”
Mary cut him off. “I’ve had enough of your crap!” she shouted.
- When a character interrupts his own speech by a sudden change of thought, an em-dash with no spaces marks the break.
Example: “I don’t know what to think—but what’s new about that?”
- To indicate that a character’s dialogue is faltering or trailing off (rather than being interrupted), use ellipsis points. Place a normal space after the dialogue, nonbreaking spaces between the points, and no space between the last point and the closing quotation mark.
Example: Johnny shook his head slowly. “I just don’t . . .”
- In dialogue with a stammered partial word, use a hyphen with no spaces. Do not cap the second half of the word unless it would otherwise be capped in normal text (e.g., proper names).
Example: “Wh-what did you say?” he asked.
Example: “Ma-Mary made me do it.”
- In stammering speech with a complete word being repeated, use ellipsis points between the words. Use a regular space before the first and after the last point, with nonbreaking spaces between them. Do not cap the repeated word unless it would be capped in normal text.
Example: “What . . . what did you say?” he asked.
Example: “I . . . I just don’t know.”