How To Punctuate Dialogue In Fiction

How To Punctuate Dialogue In Fiction

For a practical overview of dialogue mechanics, see chapter 5 of ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print’ by Renni Browne and Dave King.

There is plenty of room for poetic licence in fiction but when it comes to punctuating and attributing dialogue, there are rules. First, some technical terms…


How the writer lets the reader know who is saying what.

‘I gotta take a leak,’ he said.

‘Wait here,’ she whispered.


A bit of physical action that lets us know who just spoke and also a little bit about what’s going on.

‘The spuds are boiling over.’ Mary turned down the element.

‘Did you just fart?’ He pinched his nostrils between his forefingers.


1. Don’t use adverbs in dialogue attribution.

‘Bugger off,’ she said nastily.

‘I love you,’ she said lovingly.

If the dialogue itself doesn’t show the emotion then make the dialogue better. But sometimes you do need an adverb. In that case, it’s the fashion to add it after a comma.

2. It’s ‘Tom said’, not ‘said Tom’.

Unless you’re writing children’s books, in which case there’s a bit more leeway.

3. Dialogue attribution comes AFTER the dialogue, not before.

Tom said, ‘Did you just fart?’

‘Did you just fart?’ said Tom.

4. Don’t get fancy with synonyms for ‘said’.

“I’m not going to come!” he ejaculated.

“That’s the day you won the cricket match,” she chirped.

A writer can get away with a bit of asking and whispering but, most of the time, ‘said’ does just fine. This verb is not subject to the rules applied to other verbs i.e. choose the most descriptive one and vary it. ‘Said’, in dialogue attribution, should be treated more like a form of punctuation. It goes under the radar of readers, allowing them to focus on the dialogue itself.

‘Did you just fart?’ spluttered Tom.

‘The spuds are boiling over,’ exclaimed Mary.

5. When you find you’ve got too many ‘saids’ in your dialogue, leave out some of the dialogue attribution altogether.

This can be done by making use of beats. Put the beat on the same line as the dialogue and the reader will know who just said it.

There you have it. The five rules writing of dialogue, summarised.

Related Links

  1. this nugget of great advice from K.M. Walton
  2. Dialogue – it’s not just talking, from Scott Egan
  3. How to write effective dialogue in your novel from Bubble Cow
  4. Rhythm Of The Words: Voice In Dialogue from The Other Side Of The Story
  5. Dialogue Only Has To Be True To The World Of Your Novel from Nathan Bransford
  6. 9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make With Dialogue from The Creative Penn
  7. 5 Tips For Creating Cheeseless Dialogue from Writers In The Storm blog
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