Good dialogue can make a book really stand out.  But badly punctuated dialogue in a manuscript can really make an editor tear her hair out.  And I’m amazed at how often it comes up.

So for all writers out there–published and unpublished–a quick guide to getting it right:

When using a dialogue tag such as said, noted, replied, etc., a comma is used in place of a period before the closing quote.  Ex: “Let’s get busy,” she said.  In cases of questions or exclamations, the ? or ! goes inside the quotes and attribution is followed by a period.  Ex: “Can we please get busy now?” she asked.

When the dialogue is followed by a complete sentence without a tag, a period goes within the quotes. Ex: “Let’s get busy.” She gave him a lingering kiss.

When you have action without a tag interrupting dialogue, dashes are used outside the quotes.  Ex: “I really want to”–she nipped his lower lip–“get busy.”  

If the dialogue is interrupted with a tag, you just use regular ol’ commas.  Ex: “I really want to,” she said, “get busy.”

And this kind of dialogue is precisely why I edit and don’t write.