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Punctuating Dialogue

One of the most difficult passages to punctuate correctly in a book is dialogue. It requires a balance of character development, or how each character would speak; reader clarity, ensuring that the reader is feeling and understanding the story as you want it told; appropriate punctuation, guaranteeing the technical requirements of English punctuation are met.

In a recent edit for one of my clients, I ran across a difficult punctuation requirement: when to use a comma and when to use a period when a character is speaking.

Speaking, or dialogue, in writing is viewed by editors as action. Typically, when a character takes action following speaking (another action), we use a period instead of a comma. For instance:

“Take a look at that train.” Ron pointed to the adjacent track.

“Take a look at that train,” Ron said.

An easy way to remember this is thinking of each sentence as only containing one action in dialogue. If a character says something, that is one action. If the character also takes physical action, it requires another action container, or sentence.

Another example:

Jenny blew a big bubble with her bubble gum and watched it pop as the pink fell upon her nose like a parachute collapsing against the earth. “Have you ever seen such a big bubble?” asked Jenny. “I must be the best bubble gum bubble blower in the whole world!” She pulled the bubble gum off her nose and balled it up before putting it back in her mouth.

See how when she takes action the sentence has its own container, utilizing a period to close that sentence. But when she does not take any action outside of speaking, we can utilize commas and other punctuation to tag that sentence to its speaker; in this case, Jenny.

Happy writing!


Don’t forget to reserve me to edit your next book or manuscript. You can email me at Emily [at] or call me at (727) 460-5708.