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)!

27 thoughts on “How to punctuate dialogue tags and action beats correctly

  1. 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!

    1. 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.

  2. 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

    1. 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?”

  3. 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!

  4. I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to cut “he said/ she said” from dialogue by using a comma or period. Instead of saying “said”, i’d rather make the individual be in action and talking at the same time.

    1. My way: I stared at john. He leaned back in his seat and grabbed a gun from the counter, “don’t move.”

    2. Alt: I stared at john. He leaned back in his seat and grabbed a gun from the counter. “Don’t move.”

    3. correct way: I stared at john. He leaned back in his seat and grabbed a gun from the counter. “Don’t move,” he said.

    What I’m doing is stating a subject at the beginning of a sentence (john. He.) then, by following his actions with a comma and quotes, it’s assumed he’s the one talking. Have you ever seen this before? Or is this just me. I don’t think it’s grammatically correct.

    1. Of the examples you gave, I’d prefer version 2. There’s no need to slow down an action scene with unnecessary dialogue tags, so I’d cut the “he said” and use the action beat to identify who’s talking.

      Option 1 isn’t grammatically correct, so I’d advise you to avoid using a comma instead of period with action beats.

      Option 2 does exactly what you want to achieve: It lets your readers assume who’s talking, and it uses proper punctuation.

      If you want to know more about action beats, you might want to check out my newest blog post:
      https://sandragerth.com/how-to-use-action-beats-in-your-writing/

  5. Thank you, Sandra. It was a pleasure meeting you at GCLS this year. Congratulations on the awards you won in 2017 and previous years. I’ve always enjoyed your books. My first may not be as fine as yours, but I’m trying, and your tips are beneficial.

    1. Thank you! It was great to meet you too. Best of luck with your writing, and let me know if you need a few tips about a certain aspect of the writing craft!

  6. Thank you so much! This is the clearest and easiest explanation that I’ve come across for the dilemma of when to use a comma or when to use a full stop when punctuating dialogue.

    1. I’m so glad to hear you found the blog post on punctuating dialogue helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.

  7. I have been seeing this weird rule for a few years now, and it seems so bizarre. I’ve been scouring professional writing articles, and I can’t seem to find where this has been coming from, but people on online writing sites for sharing stories and writing forums keep advising this. Basically, if the dialogue is screamed/yelled/shouted, etc., or asked, and the dialogue tag states as such, you shouldn’t use an exclamation point or a question mark because it’s deemed as redundant. This “rule” is only applied when the dialogue tag is after the line of dialogue tag. These people don’t seem to have an issue with:

    She shouted, “How dare you!”

    Instead, they have issue with:

    “How dare you!” she shouted.

    What they want to see is:

    “How dare you,” she shouted.

    This seems weird to me because the exclamation gives my mental reading voice permission to shout, so if I don’t see that exclamation point, I read it blandly, and the tag gives me that hint too late.

    1. That’s not bad advise, but I wouldn’t tell writers to never use an exclamation mark with “shouted” or “yelled.” A lot of new writers overuse exclamation marks. If it’s clear that the character is shouting because the dialogue tells us, the exclamation mark isn’t necessary.
      If you use an exclamation mark only every once in a while, it lends more power to the lines when you do use it.

  8. This cleared up a lot for me, thanks! Sometimes I get confused regarding action beats vs dialogue tags.
    The following seems straightforward as an action tag:
    Liz grimaced. “God that sounds sinister—like I’m sneaking around having an affair.”

    I’m not sure about this exchange:
    “What? I can’t believe that went over well with Brian.”
    Chloe scoffed, “Not at all.” (Is this an action beat or dialogue tag?)

    Thanks in advance…sign me up for your newsletter, please.

    1. I think the real problem is that “scoffed” is TELLING readers how to read that line. You might want to SHOW readers that Chloe is mocking the other character instead. Try inserting an action beat that describes her facial expression or body language, making it clear that she’s scoffing without you having to tell readers so.

  9. Hi! Can you please help clear something up for me? I have a longer paragraph with only one speaker that is interrupted quite a bit by tags and beats. Can I keep it all in one paragraph, or do I need to start a new paragraph each time he speaks again, the same way that I would do if it was a new speaker?
    Here is an example:
    “Well, that too,” he smiled back. He stepped in closer to her and put his hands in her hair, pulling his mouth up to her ear. “And I can’t wait to see your face.” Her breath caught in a tiny gasp. She could feel a tingling just beginning in the depths of her stomach. “Are you going to open your box?” Her eyes twinkled up at him and she slowly pulled the thin ribbon from the package and let it slip to the floor. She lifted the cover and revealed a delicate gold anklet. Hanging from the anklet were three charms, as she knew there would be. They had picked this particular piece of jewelry out together afterall. It had to be just right. This was the start of everything; a whole new world for Grace and Miles. “Can I put it on you?” Miles whispered.

    Where should I break this up, if at all? I was taught to keep it all together, but my husband who is a writer is challenging me, saying that it is clearer to break it up. I just want to know what is correct. Thank you so much for your help!!

    1. There’s a lot happening in your paragraph, not just dialogue. Generally, one person’s dialogue or actions should never go into the same paragraph as another character’s dialogue or action.

      Your passage could be separated into paragraphs like this:

      “Well, that too.” He smiled back, stepped in closer to her, and put his hands in her hair, pulling his mouth up to her ear. “And I can’t wait to see your face.”

      Her breath caught in a tiny gasp. She could feel a tingling just beginning in the depths of her stomach.

      “Are you going to open your box?”

      Her eyes twinkled up at him, and she slowly pulled the thin ribbon from the package and let it slip to the floor. She lifted the cover and revealed a delicate gold anklet. Hanging from the anklet were three charms, as she knew there would be. They had picked this particular piece of jewelry out together afterall. It had to be just right. This was the start of everything; a whole new world for Grace and Miles.

      “Can I put it on you?” Miles whispered.

      By the way, “smiled” is an action beat, not a dialogue tag, so don’t tag it on to the dialogue with a comma. I corrected it above.

      You also might take a look at my advice on point of view and how to avoid POV violations. Maybe even check out my book on point of view: https://sandragerth.com/point-of-view/

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