One 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.
“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.
- 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)!
56 thoughts on “How to punctuate dialogue tags and action beats correctly”
How timely! Thanks Sandra and Jae!
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!
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.
Thank you for the info
You’re very welcome! I’m glad you found the information helpful.
Thanks for the great refresher!
Glad you found the post helpful!
“Thank you for this,it helps me a lot.”
Can you split a sentence with an action beat?
‘I just thought,’ he watched her face closely as he spoke, ‘that maybe you might like to come over?’
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?”
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!
Glad you found the post helpful. Best of luck with the revisions!
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.
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:
The second option doesn’t accurately identify who said, “Don’t move.” The main person, indicated by “I,” could say, “don’t move” to the guy grabbing the gun OR the secondary character, identified by “he,” could have the gun in possession and ordering, “don’t move.”
This option doesn’t clearly identify who is speaking, necessitating the need for the, “he said.”
It does, but if you add ‘he said’ it shows that you’re babying your reader. It will be exhaustive.
If you structure paragraphs correctly, it helps to reduce the need for dialogue tags. When the invisible camera switches from one character to another, start a new paragraph. For example:
I stared at John.
He leaned back in his seat and grabbed a gun from the counter. “Don’t move.”
If you keep the actions and the dialogue of the same character in the same dialogue and don’t mix it with actions/dialogue of another character, the action indicates who’s talking.
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.
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!
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.
I’m so glad to hear you found the blog post on punctuating dialogue helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.
What if an action follows the dialogue tag? Do you use a comma?
Is this correct?
“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” she said, rolling her eyes skyward.
You would use a comma, not a period. But it would be even better to use just the action beat, without the dialogue tag. Both really isn’t necessary. Take a look at this blog post: https://sandragerth.com/how-to-use-action-beats-in-your-writing/
In your case, that would mean:
“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” She rolled her eyes skyward.
Assuming the writer did use the sentence posted in the comment, is the comma correct and necessary in the following:
she said, rolling her eyes skyward
Yes, the comma is correct, but to me the participle makes the dialogue tag unnecessary. Dialogue tags are there to identify the speaker so if there’s an action beat already doing that, we don’t need the tag.
I’d write it like this:
“Bla-bla-bla.” She rolled her eyes skyward.
Or maybe some other action beat, depending on how often you use “rolling eyes” in the manuscript already. See my post on overused body language.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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/
Thank you so much!! Very helpful!
I am having trouble interpreting the word “thought” as in: “….,” she thought, as she opened her purse. I believe that thought is a dialogue tag and should have a comma after it. Also, as is a conjunction in this instance and “she opened her purse” is a complete clause that could be an independent clause, so a comma would go before the “as” anyway. Even if the sentence was: “….,” she thought, opening her purse. I still would put the comma in, even though opening her purse is not a complete clause, because “she thought” is a dialogue tag that needs to be set off by punctuation when in the middle of a sentence. Am I reading this right?
“She thought” isn’t really a dialogue tag since thoughts aren’t dialogue. You could call them thinker attributions or thinker tags.
Also–and this is important–never put thoughts in quotation marks or readers will confuse them with dialogue.
Depending on how deep your point of view is, you don’t even need thinker tags since readers will always know who’s thinking these thoughts.
If you do use them, I personally don’t see the need to put a comma between the thinker tag and a dependent clause that follows.
Yes, “she opened her purse” is an independent clause, but if you combine it with a conjunction such as “as,” you turn it into a subordinate clause.
If you pair a thinker tag with a participle such as “…she thought, opening her purse,” you would use a comma.
But then again, why would you even need the thinker tag when the action of opening her purse can stand alone to identify the person thinking this thought?
How about this, for example:
Where the hell did my car keys go? She opened her purse.
“Oh, yes, it was nice to meet you, too. You know, Troy wasn’t with me the whole time. He went off for a long time a couple nights ago,” Harlan’s voice was just a whisper when she spoke, and she kept her eyes down.
I assume you want to know how to punctuate this paragraph. Here’s how I’d do it:
“Oh, yes, it was nice to meet you too. You know, Troy wasn’t with me the whole time. He went off for a long time a couple nights ago.” Harlan’s voice was just a whisper when she spoke, and she kept her eyes down.
The last sentence (Harlan’s voice was just a whisper) is a description of how Harlan sounds, not a dialogue tag. So I would treat it the same way as any other description or action beat and separate it from the dialogue with a period.
I hope that helps!
Thank you!! Your website has been a lifesaver!!
Thanks for the thread.
The one I have trouble with is ‘shrugged’ (or similar). This is an action beat, for sure.
1. I shrugged. “Not my area of expertise.”
2. “Not my area of expertise.” I shrugged.
3. “Not my area of expertise,” I shrugged.
I usually want to convey the situation in (3) because that is the one most common in everyday interactions (I think; certainly my own body language). But according to the rules, action beats should not be preceded by a comma. So what is the correct way to signal the simultaneity of the speech and action? (This has been bugging me for ages.)
I could do this:
4. My shoulders raised. “Not my area of expertise.” And I relaxed my shoulders.
But that is horrible to read, and I can’t see that any amount of editing would help the ungainly construction of (4).
Perhaps we have to resort to:
I shrugged as I spoke: “Not my area of expertise.” (5)
But to my eye, (3) still looks/reads better than (5).
A common objection to using a comma with an action beat is that the action cannot ride along with the speech, ‘laughed’ being a common example. Having said that, we can certainly speak in a jocular (laughing) tone, so even this seems a little pedantic to me, but I have taught myself to edit those out (i.e. use periods). But ‘shrugged’…
Any help, really appreciated.
Your #3 would definitely be incorrect. Shrugging is an action beat, not a dialogue tag. You can’t shrug a line of dialogue. So I would go with either #1 or #2. My personal favorite is #1. Readers will get that it might happen at the same time as the dialogue. I wouldn’t go with #4. That draws too much attention to a piece of body language that isn’t all that unique or important.
Question for any and all:
What if the action beat is:
1. in the middle of the sentence of dialogue, and
2. there are two actions, one done by the speaker and another by someone else
How on earth would one punctuate and capitalize that?
Can you give me the specific example?
Usually, I would avoid number 2. The dialogue of the speaker and the action of another character shouldn’t be in the same paragraph to avoid confusing readers.
If the action beat is in the middle of dialogue, here’s how it’s punctuated if the action beat is placed between two complete sentences:
“Give me that thing.” She waved at the hammer. “Knowing you, you’ll end up with a broken finger or two.”
If you action beat interrupts a sentence, it’s punctuated like this:
“If you don’t give me that thing”—she waved at the hammer—”you’ll end up with a broken finger or two.”
A good resource for questions like this is The Chicago Manual of Style.
Hope that helps!
Would you use a comma in the following example?
“I don’t know” was the only response I got.
In this case, I would omit the comma since it’s not a dialogue tag.
Thank you so much po for letting me know on how to punctuate dialogue tags and action beats correctly. Noted on this po will apply it.🤗
I’m glad you found it helpful!
If the sentence goes this way,
“Lazybum!” He taunted Albert.
The pronoun should be upper case or lower case?
I was very confused as my english teacher said as I began the sentence with speech , I should put the pronoun as capital H.
No, if you start your dialogue tag with a pronoun (he, she, they, etc.), you would lowercase it.
“Thanks,” she said.
But keep two things in mind:
1. If you have a scene with two (or more) female characters, “she” doesn’t really identify the speaker, and in a scene with two or more male characters, “he” doesn’t really tell you much about who’s speaking either.
2. Let the dialogue speak for itself. If the line of dialogue is clearly one character taunting the other, you don’t need to TELL the reader by using a dialogue tag such as “he taunted.”
I’m glad I found this post. It’s quite helpful. So based on the rules above, these two cases are correct:
“We must do something,” Joe said.
“We must do something,” he said.
But what if (just for variety’s sake) I want to move the verb ‘said’ ahead of the name?
“We must do something,” said Joe.
Is that correct, or should I capitalize the word ‘said’? And the same question if the line itself was a question:
“Is there nothing we can do?” asked Joe.
Thanks so much!
Punctuation doesn’t change if you switch the order of the words in the dialogue tag. Don’t capitalize “said.”
However, inverted dialogue tags are less common, so they draw attention to themselves, and most of the time, that’s not what you want, so use it with care.
Is the word “continued” considered a speaker tag or an action beat, as in the following sentence?
John quickly continued, “We’re staying across the street for the summer.”
Thanks for your helpful site!
Yes, “continued” is considered a dialogue tag in this case, and you punctuated it correctly.
Thanks for this. Can you just clarify this example:
Correct: She opened the door and called, “Hello? Anyone home?”
Shouldn’t the ‘H’ in ‘Hello’ be lowercase, as in:
Correct: She opened the door and called, “hello? Anyone home?”
Or, is it a capital because it’s the start of the speech?
The correct punctuation would be: She opened the door and called, “Hello? Anyone home?”
The first line of dialogue is always capitalized.
By the way, you could even leave out the dialogue tag in this example since the action beat (She opened the door) already identifies the speaker. So that would be:
She opened the door. “Hello? Anyone home?”
Thanks much this was really helpfull!
I’m glad to hear that!