How to punctuate dialogue tags and action beats correctly

conversation-1262311_640One little thing that drives many editors crazy is incorrect punctuation of dialogue and action beats.

Let’s start with a definition:

A dialogue tag is a speaker verb such as “Tina said.” It tells your readers which character is speaking.

An action beat is something a character does.

Example:

 “I should be going.” Tina edged toward the door.

While dialogue tags and action beats can have the same function—identifying the speaker—they aren’t punctuated the same.

 

PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE

  • If a line of dialogue is followed by a dialogue tag, use a comma (or a question mark or exclamation mark) before the closing quotation mark. If the first word of the dialogue tag is a pronoun such as he or she, lowercase it.

Example:

Correct: “I have no idea,” she said.

Correct: “Stop!” she shouted.

Correct: “Are you out of your mind?” she asked.

Wrong: “I have no idea.” She said.

  • If the dialogue tag precedes the line of dialogue, use a comma before the opening quotation mark. Lowercase the dialogue tag (unless it’s a name, of course).

Example:

Correct: She opened the door and called, “Hello? Anyone home?”

  • If the dialogue tag is inserted in the middle of a sentence, use a comma before the first closing quotation mark and after the dialogue tag. Lowercase the dialogue tag.

Example:

Correct: “I wouldn’t have forgotten the appointment,” she said, “if you had reminded me in time.”

  • If the dialogue tag follows a complete sentence and the character continues speaking after the tag, use a period after the dialogue tag.

Example:

Correct: “I have no idea where Thomas is,” she said. “I haven’t seen him all day.”

 

PUNCTUATING ACTION BEATS

Unlike dialogue tags, action beats are always separated from the dialogue by periods.

Verbs such as smiled, grinned, laughed, etc., are action beats, not dialogue tags, so please don’t use commas to separate them from a line of dialogue.

 Example:

Correct: “This looks weird.” She squinted down at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?”

Wrong: “This looks weird,” she squinted down at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?”

 

THE SHORT VERSION

Use commas with dialogue tags and periods with action beats, and your editor will love you forever (or at least not curse your name)!

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11 Comments

  1. Kathy-Reply
    August 9, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    How timely! Thanks Sandra and Jae!

  2. August 11, 2016 at 4:55 am

    I’m so relieved. This is the way I was taught. This is the way it looks right. I realize language evolves and change is the only constant, but it took the dinosaurs eons. Thanks for slowing this down!

    • Sandra Gerth-Reply
      August 11, 2016 at 10:13 am

      I’m very glad you found it helpful. You might want to subscribe to my newsletter so you don’t miss any future blog post that could help you improve your writing skills.

  3. Timan Wainaina-Reply
    August 17, 2016 at 2:04 am

    Thank you for the info

    • Sandra Gerth-Reply
      August 17, 2016 at 5:51 am

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad you found the information helpful.

  4. August 21, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for the great refresher!

    • Sandra Gerth-Reply
      August 23, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Glad you found the post helpful!

  5. A Johnston-Reply
    August 23, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Can you split a sentence with an action beat?
    eg:
    ‘I just thought,’ he watched her face closely as he spoke, ‘that maybe you might like to come over?’

    Thanks

    • Sandra Gerth-Reply
      August 23, 2016 at 10:29 am

      Yes, you can, and most writers would punctuate it exactly the way you did.

      According to The Chicago Manual of Style, you can also use em dashes to set off the action beat:

      “I just thought”——he watched her face closely as he spoke——”that maybe you might like to come over?”

  6. Kate-Reply
    March 26, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you so much! I thought that using a period was correct but all the other dialogue punctuation posts I found didn’t cover beats at all so I was using the comma. I’ll get ‘em in revision!

    • Sandra Gerth-Reply
      March 28, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      Glad you found the post helpful. Best of luck with the revisions!

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