Jen’s Editing Tips – How To Punctuate Dialogue Tags

During the past month, I’ve critiqued over 80 short stories.

…Yeah, I’m a little tired.

But, I’m also excited to share some new editing tips based on common errors, bad habits, and other hiccups I stumbled upon while evaluating those 80-plus stories.Jen's Editing Tips

“So, which tip should I start with?” Jen asked her good friend, Ms. Red Pen.

Ms. Red Pen shrugged. “I don’t know. What was the biggest problem you noticed while critiquing all those stories?”

“Hands down, dialogue punctuation,” Jen said and shuddered at the memory. “I saw commas where there should’ve been periods, and periods where there should’ve been commas. Missing quotation marks. Uppercased words that should’ve been lowercased, and lowercased words that should’ve been uppercased. The list goes on and on.”

“Yikes!” Miss Red Pen exclaimed. “But, well,” she sighed, “it makes sense. Dialogue punctuation can be really tough.”

Jen nodded. “I know. But, once you get it, it’s easy.”

Dialogue Tags

As complicated and intimidating as dialogue punctuation can seem, it’s not. I promise. All you have to do is remember these basic rules of thumb:

If Dialogue Is Spoken

If a character says, asks, yells, whispers, or speaks in any way, then you should use a comma and lowercase your pronoun. Question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill said.

I know, I heard you,” Amy responded.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” he asked. 

Because I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you,” she hissed. 

If Dialogue Is Followed By An Action

If a character smiles, scowls, walks, sprints, or acts  in any other way, then you should use a period and uppercase your pronoun. Obviously, question marks and exclamation points are okay, too. For example:

Hey, I’m talking to you!” Bill slammed his hand against the dining room table.

I know, I heard you.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched plate of food.

Then why won’t you look at me? Why?” His voice crackled with fury.

Because, I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.” Her fingers curled around her knife.

If An Ongoing Sentence Is Interrupted By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag within a sentence, then use a comma to pause the dialogue (inside the quotations marks), and then use another comma to resume the dialogue (outside the quotation marks). Also, be sure to lowercase the first word of the connecting sentence (unless it’s a proper noun, of course). For example:

Hey,” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table, “I’m talking to you.”

I know,” Amy responded, “I heard you.”

Then,” his voice crackled with fury, “why won’t you look at me? Why?”

Because,” her fingers curled around her knife, “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

If Two Sentences Are Separated By A Dialogue Tag

If you insert a tag between two separate sentences (spoken by the same character, obviously), then use periods instead of commas, and uppercase the first word of the second sentence. For example:

Hey!” Bill slammed his hand down on the dining table. “I’m talking to you.”

I know.” Amy glared at the silverware next to her untouched dinner. I heard you.”

Then why won’t you look at me?” he asked. “Why?”

Because.” She took a deep breath and curled her fingers around her knife. “I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hurt you.”

So, there you go. Those are the basics of dialogue punctuation. Yes, there are others I could go into (ellipses, em dashes, etc.), but to avoid overwhelming you, I’ll save those for a future post. If you are overwhelmed, it’s okay. Really! It took me ages to feel comfortable with dialogue punctuation.

One thing that always helps me simplify matters is to ask myself one question:

“Is my character speaking or acting their words?”

Once that’s determined, it’s easy to figure out which direction to take the dialogue punctuation:

Spoken = Comma, lowercased pronoun

Acted = Period, uppercased pronoun

If you’re still struggling, then I urge you to read. Read, read, read! And while you’re reading, study how authors punctuate their dialogue. That’s how I learned best when I didn’t know how to handle this annoying, but essential aspect of writing.

And, of course, write. Write, write, write. The more you write, the more you’ll grasp its technicalities and nuances.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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