Punctuation in Dialogue

Punctuation in dialogue comes up in nearly every single developmental and line edit I do or review. So, I decided to make things simple, break out my handy-dandy Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), and put all the nuances of punctuating dialogue in one post.

Internal Dialogue

According to CMS, we don’t have to italicize internal dialogue. I haven’t found any manual that dictates that internal dialogue be italicized. Other grammar articles on the web state that we can italicize if we choose to, which leads me to conclude that italicizing internal dialogue is an author-driven or a market-driven trend as we attempt to conform to our own standards.

We have a huge market trend toward deep POV, where the narrative is the internal dialogue. In this instance, the narrative or the dialogue is not italicized. However, external telepathic thoughts are.


What the crap, man? There was no way that was accurate. “You’re kidding me, right?”

I assure you, the majestic cat said with a non-majestic yawn, I am not.

The only thing CMS states for internal dialogue is that the punctuation for the actual dialogue be treated as if it was dialogue, whether it’s in quotes, italicized, or in normal font.

External Dialogue


Per CMS Paragraph 13.39, different speakers should be differentiated by separate paragraphs.

This is one reason I harp on my editing clients to keep their action tags, dialogue tags, and dialogue in the same character paragraph. It keeps the dialogue neat, clean, easy to understand, and in-spec.

Per CMS Paragraph 13.32, when you have unbroken quoted material that stretches across multiple paragraphs, include an opening quotation mark on each paragraph, and only close the quotation on the final paragraph.

That being said, monologues don’t happen in the real world. We’re a society who doesn’t listen, who thinks we’re all incredibly important and our opinion matters and should be heard. We’re reacting non-verbally or verbally. Make sure your dialogue is realistic and your scene is three-dimensional.

Numbers in Dialogue

Per CMS Paragraph 13.44, numbers in fiction dialogue should almost always be spelled out. Seriously. I’m not kidding. The only time when it might not is when you’re dealing with years. They can be written as numbers.


"Dude, it's from 1998 already. Give it up."

Time is one of those that a lot of authors try to push toward writing in numeral form as well.

The thing is, most people don’t say, “It’s 3:15 a.m.”

They say, “It’s a quarter after three.”

Even if it’s 3:16 a.m., they’ll still round up or down and say it on the quarter hour. So, keep in mind how the character would actually tell time. If he would be precise with the time and designation, then use numbers. However, if they’d say, “It’s a quarter after three,” then spell it out.

Dashes in Dialogue

Where I lose a lot of my authors is in interrupted dialogue, especially if we’re placing an action tag in the middle of the broken dialogue.


“You’re not seriously—” I balled my hand into a fist and advanced on him as my anger choked out my words temporarily. “—telling me that, are you?”

Here’s where things get sticky: having em dashes inside actual dialogue. The question on how to punctuate it lies in what’s interrupting the dialogue.

CMS Paragraph 6.87 says that if the action tag is interrupting the dialogue, which is moving freely and isn’t being interrupted, then the em dashes go outside the dialogue.


“You’re not seriously” —I balled my hand into a fist and advanced on him— “telling me that, are you?”

But if the dialogue itself is halted with or without the existence of the dialogue tag, then the em dashes go inside the dialogue.


“You’re not seriously—” I balled my hand into a fist and advanced on him as my anger choked out my words temporarily. “—telling me that, are you?”

Here’s the rub, though. You could punctuate this 100% correctly, putting them outside the quotation marks and inside them as they should go, but your reader probably won’t know this rule. It's a weird one and sometimes appears to be illogical. Personally, I hear the break in the dialogue even if it’s only for a second, so I put the em dashes inside the quotation marks.

My husband and several of my authors put them firmly outside the quotation marks. Whatever you do, make it consistent.

Ellipses in Dialogue

CMS Paragraph 13.41 says that ellipses in broken dialogue do not replace the proper punctuation. This is something I’ve done wrong for over a decade and just now discovered because I actually read the rule.


“But… but…,” said Tom.

CMS Paragraph 13.55 states that if the sentence is purposefully incomplete, the ellipsis is the closing punctuation.


“When, in the course of human events…” But how many people can recite more than the first few lines of the document?

Putting It All Into Practice


“Why now?”

“Cover’s blown,” Quinn said carefully.

The look on Lovejoy’s face said she understood that. “How bad?”


“Sorry to hear that.” Lovejoy studied Quinn for a long moment before saying, “You’re willing to help us?”

“Yes, but—” Quinn stopped herself and bit her bottom lip. “There’s probably something you should know first.”

“You’d better spill before” —Lovejoy’s words came in a low growl— “I change my mind.”

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