by Iola Goulton

My last three posts have looked at comma usage: commas with dependent and independent clauses, commas with coordinate adjectives, and the serial comma a.k.a Oxford comma. Today, I’m going to look at a related issue: how we punctuate dialogue in fiction. 

Specifically, when do we use a comma, and when do we use a period.

The rules here aren’t difficult (and aren’t typically debated, unlike the rules around the Oxford comma), but it’s something many first-time fiction authors get wrong.

Use a Comma with a Dialogue Tag:

A dialogue tag is a “tag” the author uses to indicate which character is speaking:

“Yes, I’d love a cup of coffee. Thank you,” Anne said.

Use a comma with dialogue tags such as said or whispered (and avoid creative speaker attributions such as apologized or grumbled. They are telling). 

There are two exceptions to the rule of using a comma with a dialogue tags:

1. Use a question mark if the character is asking a question:

A question should be followed by a question mark:

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Anne asked.

My preference is to use “asked” with a question, but I have also seen “said” used:

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Anne said.

2. Use an exclamation mark if the character is shouting:

If the character is shouting or making a statement that needs emphasis, then use an exclamation mark instead of a comma:

“Fire!” Anne shouted.

Don’t use too many exclamation marks. Like adverbs, they’re easy to overuse, and using too many is often considered the sign of an inexperienced writer. 

Many writers don’t like using “said” for their speaker attributions—they say it gets boring. That might be true, but “said” is considered invisible to readers (although it often stands out in audio books).

Authors might be tempted to use creative alternatives to “said.” But these alternatives are often telling where the author should be showing:

“I’m sorry,” Anne apologized.

“I don’t want to,” Beth grumbled.

Both these examples are telling, which goes against the modern advice to show, not tell. 

Use a Period with Other Speaker Attributions:

Authors can use a variety of using speaker attributions which show rather than tell, and which avoid the dreaded “said.” These include:

  • Action Beats
  • Dialogue Cues
  • Body Language
  • Interior Monologue

These speaker attributions all use a period rather than a comma:

“I’m sorry.” Anne stared down, twisting her right foot in the dust.

One common problem is that writers confuse action beats and speaker attributions, so use a comma where they should be using a period. For example:

“I’m sorry,” Anne grimaced.

“Grimaced” is an action beat, so a period should be used.

“I’m sorry.” Anne grimaced.

Other commonly misused action beats include:

  • Smiled
  • Shrugged
  • Laughed
  • Nodded

In summary, use a comma with dialogue tags such as said, whispered, and shouted. Otherwise, use a period.

Stay tuned! I’ll cover action beats and other speaker attributions in my next post.

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based freelance editor specializing in Christian fiction for adults and young adults. Iola holds a degree in marketing, and has a background in human resource consulting. She has been editing since 2012, and is a member of the Christian PEN, American Christian Fiction Writers, Omega Writers, and Romance Writers of New Zealand. When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading, writing her next book review, or avoiding working on her first novel. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand with her husband, two teenagers, and one cat.