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Mini Lesson: Punctuating Action Beats in Dialogue

Dialogue is one of those funny things: when you see it in a book, you're so busy "hearing" a conversation that you don't pay attention to how it's formatted on the page. Many writers know instinctively, just from reading a lot, how to format basic dialogue with he said/she said tags. But there's a lot of confusion about how to format dialogue when it gets more complicated, like when you add interruptions or action beats. Anya explained how to punctuate interrupted dialogue in a previous post, and today I'm going to clarify the correct way to punctuate action beats in dialogue.

Basically, the easy way to think about it is:

  • If there is no speech verb (like "said"), it needs to be its own sentence.
  • If there is a speech verb, use a comma before the dialogue or to close the dialogue. If the dialogue comes first, followed by something like "he said" or "she whispered" (etc.), lowercase the word after the dialogue.

I find that the best way to demonstrate this is with examples. So let's envision a scene. Say we have two characters, Bob and Steve, meeting for the first time.

Wrong:
"I'm Steve," we shook hands.
I opened my office door, "Nice to meet you. How's your first day going?"
"Okay," he shrugged. "I'm told I'll get my first big project next week."

Right:
"I'm Steve," he said. We shook hands.
I opened my office door. "Nice to meet you. How's your first day going?"
"Okay." He shrugged. "I'm told I'll get my first big project next week."

Because "said" is a speech verb, we use a comma to close the dialogue. And because "opened" and "shrugged" are action verbs, not speech verbs, those sentences get set off separately.

In a similar vein, actions taken by other characters generally also need to be broken onto their own lines. This is because whenever we see actions in the same paragraph or on the same line as dialogue, we assume that the actions and dialogue belong to the same person.

Let's look at an example. In the following scene, we've got Stacey agonizing over a decision and Greg being her sympathetic listener.

Wrong: 
Stacey just didn't know what to do. She sighed.
"I guess everything happens for a reason, right?" Greg nodded. "So maybe I should just let it go."

In this case, it's Stacey talking but Greg nodding. Confusing, right? Stacey's dialogue should go on the same line as her own action, but then Greg's action should go on its own line. It would get broken up like so:

Right:
Stacey just didn't know what to do. She sighed. "I guess everything happens for a reason, right?"
Greg nodded.
"So maybe I should just let it go."

Here, you can tell who's doing the talking and who's doing the nodding. Even though Stacey is the only one speaking, and even though Greg's action is in response to her dialogue, Greg's action should go on its own line.

So there you have it: how to punctuate action interspersed with dialogue. Let us know if you have any questions about this or if there are other dialogue scenarios you'd like us to clear up for you!