Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Punctuating Dialogue Tags

One of the facets of writing I’ve always found to be the most challenging is dialogue. Particularly in fiction, but also in history, faction, and some other nonfiction genres, the ability to create dialogue that convinces the reader they are witnessing real conversation is invaluable. A story can limp through a weak description; it won’t survive weak dialogue.

There are many skills involved in creating memorable dialogue, but today I’m going to focus in on just one of them: punctuating tags, because there is little that brands our work “amateur” as much as getting the punctuation wrong.

Most of our public education educations—if they taught English grammar at all—did not teach us how to punctuate dialogue. They didn’t teach me anyway. What I have learned, I taught myself (and much of that has been wrong), or drew from my reading. That works, kind of, but is really inefficient. Sometimes what we need is a set of rules.

Therefore I present rules for punctuating dialogue tags.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “dialogue tags” are the little notices authors use to let the reader know who is speaking. “Arf,” she said. “She said” is the tag.

Punctuated with a comma.

When the dialogue is punctuated with a comma that separates it from the tag that immediately follows, the tag should not be capitalized and the comma goes inside the quotation mark. If the tag immediately precedes the dialogue, the comma goes after the tag, outside the quotation mark and the first word of the dialogue is capitalized.


“I’m so tired,” she said.                           Correct.

“I’m so tired” she said.                             Incorrect.

“I’m so tired,” She said.                           Incorrect.

He said, “Come here.”                               Correct

He said “Come here.”                                 Incorrect


Punctuated with a question mark or exclamation point.

If the dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point and the tags immediately follows, you still do not capitalize the tag.

“Quit that!” she yelled.          Correct.

“Quit that!” She yelled.           Incorrect.


Punctuated with a period.

Sometimes a dialogue ends in a period, and the dialogue tag that follows is capitalized. Technically, these are not actually dialogue tags because they are physical actions rather than a description of saying something. These actions are called beats or description beats and they are complete sentences on their own, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period.

“I guess.” He nodded.          Correct.

“I guess,” he nodded.           Incorrect.

“I guess.” He nodded.           Incorrect

“Happy?” She smiled.           Correct.


Inserted into the middle of a sentence.

A bit more complicated is when a dialogue tag is inserted into the middle off a sentence. When this happens, the tag is set off with commas and the sentence is capitalized as if the dialogue tag weren’t there.

“Honey,” his wife called, “come here!”          Correct.

“Honey,” his wife called, “Come here!”          Incorrect.

However, should the speaker be uttering two complete sentences, rather than one, it is correct to have a period after the tag, followed by a capital beginning the second dialogue. It can be used to change the nuance of the scene.

“Honey,” his wife called. “Help him!”             Correct.

“Honey!” his wife called. “Help him!”             Correct.

When an action interrupts a quote, the tag is still set off by commas. The rest of the dialogue sentence is not capitalized.

“You really think,” he swallowed hard, “she did that?”       Correct.

“You really think,” he swallowed hard. “She did that?”        Incorrect.

Be careful. Only set a dialogue tag off with commas when it’s interrupting a single sentence, not just between two sentences. To tell the difference, remove the dialogue tag and punctuate the sentence correctly, then insert the tag.


Be sure what you’re using is really a dialogue tag.

Some words and expressions often seen in dialogue aren’t really dialogue tags, but are mistaken for them by less experienced authors. Words such as “nodded,” “smiled,” “grimaced,” “laughed,” and “grinned” are actions, not means of speaking. As such, they are beats, not dialogue tags and should be treated as such: separated from the dialogue with a capital at the beginning and a period at the end.

“I did it.” He beamed.       Correct.

“I did it,” he beamed.         Incorrect.

In more practical terms, first impressions do count, and we don’t want the first impression an editor, agent, or publisher receives when looking at our work to be “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” It doesn’t matter how groundbreaking our content is, if it isn’t read.

More than anything else, we need to want to do it right.

Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part One

Last week I mentioned that I would be spending the weekend at the South Coast Writers Conference, gathering material and, I hope, learning some new skills and brushing up some old ones. Now I can truthfully say I am not disappointed. It is always an amazing experience, learning new things, meeting fellow writers and networking. Though it took a couple of days to recover I am now refreshed and have a new enthusiasm for the craft.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have the opportunity to attend a writers conference, by all means, do. You will not regret it.

So now, to business.

On Friday, I attended a full-day workshop on dialogue. For a writer of fiction, one must above all be a master of dialogue. Many thanks to Tess Thompson, author of Blue Midnight and many more romantic suspense titles for helping us brush up on this skill.

Without further ado: Notes on Dialogue.

Three types of dialogue.

Summarized: the conversation is condensed and simplified. Lowest dramatic action.

Example: At home in the first few months, he and Maizie had talked brightly about changes that would make the company more profitable and more attractive to a prospective buyer: new cuts, new packaging, new advertising, new incentives to make supermarkets carry the brand.

Joan Wickersham “Commuter Marriage”

Indirect Speech: carries the feel of conversation without quotation. Medium dramatic action.

Example: Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.

God, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough.

Katherine Anne Porter “Rope”

Direct Quotation: the exchange is quoted as it happens. Highest dramatic action.


“But I thought you hardly knew her, Mr. Morning.”
He picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a notebook page. “Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, you did.”
“It’s true. I didn’t know her well.”
“What is it you’re after, then? Who was this person you’re investigating?”
“I would like to know that too.”

Siri Hustvedt “Mr. Morning”

The Four Functions of Dialogue

To help reveal and express characterization

This is what most of us associate with dialogue.


“So I talked to Johnson,” Parish said. “He says go ahead. But if it blows up in our faces, it’s our asses.”
“Figures. Plausible deniability.”

The author of this passage has one character give a summary of another conversation to advance the plot. (They received conditional permission from their boss).

Sets the Scene

“We didn’t know no one was up here. We thought hit a summer camp all closed up. Curtains all closed up. Nothing here. No cars or gear, not nothing. Looks closed to me, don’t hit to you, J.J.?”

Joy Williams “Woods”

Reading just the above passage, we can make assumptions about where the story is taking place and much about the characters involved, all in two short, heavily-loaded lines.

Advances the action

“The surgeon will speak to you,” says the Radiologist.
“Are you finding something?”
“The surgeon will speak to you,” the Radiologist says again. “There seems to be something there, but the surgeon will talk to you about it.”
“My uncle once had something on his kidney,” says the Mother. “So they removed the kidney and it turned out the something was benign.”
The Radiologist smiles a broad, ominous smile. “That’s always the way it is,” he says. “You don’t know exactly what it is until it’s in the bucket.”
“The bucket,” the Mother repeats.
“That’s doctor talk,” the Radiologist says.
“It’s very appealing,” says the Mother. “It’s a very appealing way to talk.”

Lorrie Moore “People Like That Are The Only People Here”

In this passage, the author lets us know that something bad is about to happen and demonstrates the character’s attitude toward the doctors and their jargon.

Read a passage of your own dialogue. It must do at least two of the four tasks listed. If it doesn’t, re-work or delete it.

Some General Principles:

Dialogue concentrates on characters feelings; narrative states the facts.

Every character should speak differently. Try switching the attribution between characters. If the dialogue still works, the dialogue is not defined well enough.

Every character’s speech changes depending on what audience she’s addressing. We do not speak the same way to our buddy on the softball team, as we do to our pastor, as we do to our boss at work.

Every character’s speech changes according to mood. He will not speak the same after his girlfriend agrees to marry him as he does after another day of fruitless job hunting.

So, that’s a brief overview of the principles of dialogue. Much of this we already knew, but a refresher course is always a good idea. Next week we’ll look at some of the more subtle aspects of creating killer dialogue.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Signs of Overwriting

One of the most frequent mistakes I come across as I read works by struggling writers of fiction, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, is overwriting. It’s a trap. And it’s been known to catch even the most seasoned writer, if they aren’t careful. Every writer needs to be aware of the signs, but beginners especially need to be extra cautious.

What, exactly, is overwriting? It’s difficult to distill into a concise definition because so much of it is a matter of art, but a rule of thumb is: overwriting constitutes too much of a good thing. Or what we think is a good thing.

The problem is that when we decide to try and learn this art of writing, we think, naturally, that in order to do so we need to be WRITERS. We have a way with words. Our family tells us this; our teachers tell us this; our friends tell us this; so we try to become WRITERS. Writers are poetic and profound and eloquent. Thus we try to be eloquent and overwrite.

An example. The king and queen are having a disagreement:

The queen entered the room, wearing a gown of the finest silk dyed royal scarlet hanging in graceful folds along the fertile curves of her body. Embroidery of gold thread decorated the hem and sleeves. The flash of gold, rubies and sapphires on her fingers matched the flash of her eyes.”

Though this passage isn’t terrible (I had no idea how hard it is to purposely write badly. That only seems to happen when I’m trying to write well.) It is overwritten. The purpose of the scene is to dramatize a confrontation between the king and queen. As such, it doesn’t work as well. It isn’t likely the king is going to be impressed by the richness of her robe or her rings. He will be preoccupied with their upcoming argument.

Instead of serving the purposes of the scene, the writer is showing off his ability to string words together. He is being a WRITER.

Another frequent symptom of overwriting can be found in dialogue, especially the attributions. Nothing marks the rookie writer like a piece of fiction filled with dialogue punctuated by attributions like “she inquired,” “he stated,” “she mused,” and “he insisted.” While the novice writer thinks this is clever and creative, adding another layer of characterization, the experienced writer knows that the sole purpose of attribution is to make sure the reader knows who is speaking. If the speaker is clear from the situation, no attribution at all is required.

With attribution, as in many aspects of writing, less is often the more valuable. Using fancy or creative attributions turns into more of an exercise in the writer’s vocabulary than anything else. Again, it shows the writer trying to be a WRITER.

A third overwriting mistake novice writers often make can be summed up as underestimating the intelligence of their audience. Because of this underestimation (or the underestimation of their own writing ability) they don’t think the reader understands what they are trying to say so they repeat it over and over again, figuratively beating the reader over the head with the idea.

I, myself, made this mistake in an early version of my upcoming novel. In the opening segments, my protagonist was running late for work because of an accident on the freeway. After the third or fourth time I mentioned it, one of my beta readers left a note in the margin: “Okay. Everybody’s running late. We get it.”

Message received. I edited the references to the circumstances out.

Another example, courtesy of Mary Kole, who writes a very nice blog about writing for children.

She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like a gossamer web. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel cold night.”

At first glance, the author does everything right. The verbs are all strong and active. The images are precise and creative. However, together, the passage is too much. Like the reader commented about my traffic accident situation earlier: okay. We get it. It’s really cold and her coat sucks. She doesn’t need to beat us over the head with it.

What seems to have happened is the writer didn’t just come up with an image she liked, she created three. But rather than choosing the best one, she decided to use them all. It is too much of a good thing. She overwrites.

These days, I try to avoid the same mistakes I’ve made in the past. If I am going to miss the mark with my writing (of course the object is always to be perfect) I am going to consciously underwrite. If anything, the work is going to be enigmatic.

A rose is a rose.”
Gertrude Stein