Mastering the fine art of dialogue punctuation

Many novice writers use punctuation marks haphazardly in their dialogue. The problem is they haven’t yet mastered the fine art of punctuating dialogue.

Which punctuation mark you use largely depends on two factors:
• What is the typical, standard mark that should go in that spot in a sentence to improve readability
• What kind of pause the writer wants in the dialogue

For example, the comma might be used to set apart listed items and also suggests a typical pause when speaking. For example: “Aunt Janie brought paper plates, napkins, and plasticware to the picnic.” Most speakers in real life would pause a tic more after the words “plates” and “napkins” than they would between the words “Janie brought.”

A semicolon is perfectly appropriate in dialogue if you’re showing two complete sentences that are connected via closely linked thoughts and if the pause in speaking is a tic shorter than sentences set off by a period and capital letters. For example: “You will become light itself; the holy stream will carry you to the endless kingdom” shows the speaker is saying the words with less of a pause than if it were written as “You will become light itself. The holy stream will carry you to the endless kingdom.”

A dash shows a tic longer of a pause than a semicolon. For example: “So, do you think you have kicked it – the pills?” That extra tic occurs in this case because the speaker doesn’t quite want to say certain words (“the pills”) but needs to say them to clarify or to show that she possesses intimate knowledge.

Ellipses, however, show a few tics longer of a pause than a dash. For example: “The key to being powerful is the ability to manipulate yourself…by creating something good for your…situations…for your relationships.” In this case, the extra pauses suggest that the speaker is thinking carefully about how to choose her words in what is a single sentence.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.