Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Punctuation

Two heads facing each other with books inset in each
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi SErs! Harmony here 🙂

Today, I’d like to take another look at dialogue. Because this is such a large topic, I have spread the topic over a few posts. As the post title suggests, we’ll look at ‘punctuation’ around dialogue today.

“I thought you said-“

Penny interrupted, “I don’t care what you thought.”

“Now what …” Kelly trailed off.

“Who’s hungry?” Ben asked.

“We already ate Ben.”

The above dialogue shows a multitude of errors.

Top Tip: Let your punctuation speak for itself.

The dashes and elipses show both the interruption and the trailing off. You don’t also need to tell it.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the girls didn’t actually eat Ben. They did, however, forget the essential comma so that the readers know cannibalism isn’t involved. “We already ate, Ben.”

Any time we use a name or endearment within dialogue to directly address someone, we need to put a comma beforehand to separate it out from the rest of the sentence, as in the above exampe.

What Do we use Instead? Dialogue Beats and tags … this will avoid talking heads and white room syndromes. See below …

“I thought you said-“

Penny scowled. “I don’t care what you thought.”

“Now what …” Kelly bit her lip.

“Who’s hungry?” Ben asked.

“We already ate, Ben.”

And better still with the above example, leave Ben’s name out of it altogether. It’s clear from the context who is being answered. What’s not so clear is whether or not it’s Kelly or Penny who has replied. As shown in previous posts, the odd use of name dropping is fine, but we do want to keep it to a minimum. So, here, we could use either a tag or a beat instead. So … Penny said, “We already ate.”

The use of tags and beats is the way to go, and the punctuation speaks for itself.

1. ) Any time we want to show an interruption, we use a dash.

2.) Any time we want to show a trailing off or fading away, we use an elipsis.

3.) Any time we use a name, we place a comma before it to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

The take-away from all of this is to use punctuation to help you show, and don’t then go on to also tell it. As I said in my previous dialogue post: Before we break the rules, we need to know the rules, and we only break them if we have a valid reason to do so to enhance our artistic expression in writing.


That’s it from me for today. I hope you find this post useful. And I’ll see you again on May 10th 🙂


Post One: Name Dropping can be found HERE.

Post Two: Tags and Beats can be found HERE.

©2021 Harmony Kent

63 thoughts on “Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Punctuation

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  3. The name-dropping is something I struggle with, Harmony, specifically in groups where everyone is adding their two cents. I feel like I need a name in a tag or beat for every bit of dialog. I drive myself crazy trying to work around it. Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

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  5. Great post and information, Harmony:) I always giggle when missing commas make it seem like they are eating the person. Your examples were helpful. It is good to learn the rules, I agree. Thanks for sharing them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Always good to go over these again. I have seen some dialogue where the beginning of the phrase within quotes is not capitalized. For example, John said, “put down the ax.” I have been taught that any dialogue begins with a capital letter no matter where it occurs. So my example would be: John said, “Put down the ax.” Maybe you can set me straight if I’m wrong cause a piece I’m reading now is driving me nuts.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is such a great post with simple tips that absolutely work! Thank you for breaking down the dash and ellipsis usage. They are most helpful at times, and especially in dialogue. A great topic and great tips shared today! Thank you, Harmony!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Excellent reminders, Harmony! Mind if I add a tip? Learn the different dashes and their meanings. The em dash is for cut off speech (in dialogue). The en dash shows a span of time (ex. 1949 –1956). The regular dash is used to connect words (ex. hot-headed).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent reminders, Harmony! Punctuation is vitally important to make the meaning of our words clear, and this series is most excellent! Thanks so much for such perfect examples! 🙂 So glad Ben was taken off the menu! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this, Harmony. One of the problems I struggle with in writing dialog is understanding when “It’s clear from the context.” I find myself saying “I thought that would be clear from context,” all too often. In your example, I like leaving Ben out. I certainly like leaving him off the menu 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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