Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Dialogue (Format and Group Conversation)


I'm absolutely NOT a good writer, but I'm trying to improve. Which is hard... And one of the hardest things to learn is dialogue.

Then again: George Lucas become famous, so why would you care about dialogue? 😁

Fair warning

I'm not a good writer, and without a doubt, you can find better resources on the Internet. I wrote this primarily to help starting writers, so I wouldn't have to explain it twice :-) and for myself, so I had something to fall back upon, in case I (yet again) forget. I hope this can be of use to you.

This page is a mix of different subjects, but it's more technical in nature, focusing on punctuation and dialogue tags / action beats. It doesn't turn you into a writer of snappy dialogue, but it might give you some hints on the fly.

Before we dive in one more note: different languages have different use of punctuation and quotation marks in dialogue! I'm using a 'international generic' approach, which is based on the US system, and isn't a formal one, but which seems to be adopted by many. Still! Pay attention to your target audience! If they expect a certain format, better stick to it, or you've lost them before you even started...

Note: I tend to mix up the terms italics and cursive and oblique now and again... Yeah, they're different, but to us wannabe authors it matters not 😁

I. Stylesheet

Decide on a format, and stick to it. Here's mine.

Update! I started with a 'modified US', but I've since adapted the  'official' Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). The latter is the formal one, even though I prefer the 'modified' version (which is the one I still use for blogging and in daily writing, because I think it is clearer).

All notes regarding the 'formal' CMOS spelling are in brown.

'Modified' US ruleset

This is the 'style-sheet' that some people use, and that I prefer. It's fairly close to the 'official' US spelling / punctuation  (of which there is more than one 😅), except that single quotes are used for 'quotes'.

1. In a nutshell, simple double quotes to start and stop spoken sections. Don't use lower / higher quote signs, opening / closing quotes (aka smart quotes), no nothing. Simple, straight forward, easy.

He says, "It's fine."

2. Although in email etc. 'straight quotes' are the norm, in printed books publishers use 'curly quotes'. For comparison:

Most online platforms have troubles with curly quotes, and not all fonts support them. I suggest to keep using straight quotes " " until you do a final preparation for an e-book or printed copy.

You can easily convert (most) straight quotes to curly quotes using a search / replace in Word. Replacing single curly quotes is slightly trickier, but searching for [space]+['] will allow you a manual search and check.

You could let Word / Google Docs correct them on the fly for you, but if you're doing a lot of dialogue editing I found both word processors (who still uses that word these days!) to get confused now and again. I went as far as disabling smart quotes until the final pass.

Here's how to convert from straight to curly and the other way around using word:

3. Use single quotes to 'quote' someone inside dialogue:

"He said, 'take your hands off her,' but didn't do anything," she told me.

The above is called 'elevation'.

4. Use single quotes to quote anything:

As my grandparents used to say, 'These modern-day birds can't raise their voices properly anymore!'

Or, inserting a piece of cynicism...

He thought of her 'great' friends, and shuddered.

He said, "You have 'great' friends."

In other words, single quotes to quote, double quotes to say.

CMOS: Note that the above is formally WRONG according to the CMOS, though it's used quite a bit.

The correct way to do it is to always start with the base quote form, then elevate it where needed:

He thought of her "great" friends, and shuddered.

He said, "You have 'great' friends."

In the first line it's a quote, in the second line it's an elevation. The base quote signs here are US style straight double-quotes.

Note that in several other languages the rules may be different, but hey, I said I would be adopting the US format.

Whatever you do, stick to one format, and keep it.

4. Use single quotes or italics to create 'objects':

He said, "I think you're right," and ignored the new 'traveler'.

He said, "He's one of the new travelers."

He said, "He's one of those 'travelers'."

Note where the closing period goes, as opposed to dialogue!

CMOS: Using the formal rule you would use double quotes unless elevated. That would look like this:

He said, "I think you're right," and ignored the new "traveler".

He said, "He's one of the new travelers."

He said, "He's one of those 'travelers'."

The bottom line has 'elevated' quotes.

5. Use italics (cursive, oblique, whatever) for accents, focus points, and internal thoughts.

If your format allows cursive / italics / oblique then that's another way to accentuate sections, express sarcasm, and thoughts. In the line below you can see the internal dialogue (unspoken thoughts) as well as spot the 'sarcastic' part of her thoughts (using single quotes):

How 'wonderful' of him to say so, she thought.

CMOS: Or, using the formal version:

How "wonderful" of him to say so, she thought.

Now, in the old days, there was no way to print italics that easily, so authors used underline in manuscripts, and home-writers had to settle for alternatives. If you use single quotes for thoughts, this may cause some confusion. Here are some variants:

How 'wonderful' of him to say so, she thought.

"How 'wonderful' of him to say so", she thought.

'How 'wonderful' of him to say so', she thought.

'How wonderful of him to say so', she thought.

How 'wonderful' of him to say so, she thought.

Depending on your school of thought, all of these are valid (or most of them are wrong 😔) but most writers will settle for italics.


"How 'wonderful' of him to say so", she thought.

How 'wonderful' of him to say so, she thought.


6. To accentuate sections, express sarcasm, and sometimes thoughts you can also use single quotes, sometimes the combination helps to express thoughts better.

"How 'wonderful' of him to say so," she replied.

How 'wonderful' of him to say so, she thought.


"How 'wonderful' of him to say so," she replied.

How "wonderful" of him to say so, she thought.

7. Don't use the semi-colon, unless you know what you're doing. A comma glues two parts of a sentence together, indicates list segments or pauses (though not in English). A period indicates the end of one sentence and the start of another one. A semicolon... Well, it's like a period, only less so.

Some use 'm. Some don't. I don't.

8. The colon is connected to dialogue in some languages and regions. It can also be used to indicate an explicit conclusion, but can often be replaced by a comma. Use it sparingly, if at all. As a ground rule: a colon is followed by an explanation.

He reached his final conclusion, his girlfriend was a liar.

He reached his final conclusion: his girlfriend was a liar.

He reached his final conclusion, his girlfriend was a liar.

You could dispute the use of a colon in that second example, as the second part of the sentence is NOT an explanation... It might be true though 😉

9. Example

The room was dark and empty. The sign on the door told him it was 'Waiting Room 303'. He tried the doorknob and found the door unlocked. Peter cautiously opened the door, then toggled the light switch, and found no evidence she'd ever been here.

Jerry and Tom followed him after a little hesitation.

"Where is she?" Peter muttered, mostly to himself.

Jerry shrugged. The girl was mad anyway. Who'd care if she had already left? But instead, he said, "She told us she'd wait for us here."

Tom shook his head. "No, that's not what she said. She said, 'I'm only going to wait for you three stupids for half an hour.' And I think" -- he pointed at his watch -- "we're too late."

"We're too late because of her," Peter grumbled.

"We're late because you couldn't make up your mind!" Tom spoke sharply, not trying to hide his anger.

Peter was about to give his friend a piece of his mind when he noticed Jerry shaking his head and silently mouthing "Later. Not now."

"Whatever," Peter muttered. He'd get back to the subject later, he promised himself. And then he would have some very nice words for Tom and his mindless accusations. Who did Tom think he was?

More on quotation signs:

With that out of the way, let's 'talk' 😁 about 'dialogue'...

II. Who says what?


There's an old, nice thread on Wattpad here, with some good hints and tips. I hope they keep it up:

(And they didn't. Jerks. I hope someone kept a copy somewhere and is willing to share it with me.)

Another good introduction you'll find here:

And here's a link for those that wanna' go British:


Don't use dialogue as a cheap alternative to 'explain' things. Nothing is as horrible as Will Smith explaining in Suicide Squid how to stop the baddie sorceress. (A serious 11 on the 0 to 10 scale of cringe-worthiness).

So, use it wisely.


People are real. Characters should talk like real people. Dialogue is an interaction between two or more people, so it isn't a single person spouting endless paragraphs of wisdom whilst all other characters listen meekly.

If necessary speak the words out loud. 

This also depends on the style, genre, and the simple fact that books are not interactive sessions, but written pieces of (mostly) fiction. Feel free to adjust and adapt to find your own (or your character's) voice.

Read your own dialogue. Do people really talk that way? Great! But... do they talk like that in books?

But... book dialogue is not real dialogue!

Book speak <> real speak!

You are absolutely right! In real life people interact, sentences overlap, abort, there's intonation and tons of non-verbal clues. So, all of the above is wrong. Is it?

In a way, yes. Real-life and 'book-life' are two different things, so there is nothing wrong with deviating from the above, as long as it stays entertaining. I guess the biggest difference is this simple truth: in books, people are often allowed to finish their sentences. In real life... not so much.

The trick is: book speech isn't the same as real speech, but it must feel like real speech. And sometimes that means you can't write dialogue like the real thing. Instead, you'll have lots of short monologues, characters that finish their sentences and are clear and precise in their wording. That's something very different from the real world!

Book speak <> Text speak

For the love of whatever-you-love. Don't scream IN CAPS! Don't text 'LOL IKR'. Don' go all POW! BAP! WHAT?!?!?!?!?! THUNK! OH! MY! GOD! HE! IS! LOOKING!

And, if possible, write in full, complete sentences.

Your SMS / WhatsApp / Messanger messages may be cool and hip and sexy, but except for the incidental message between the characters in your story you shouldn't do this. It's like rebooting the old sixties version of Batman... And what's hip today, is lame tomorrow. Do you want to write a story that's fun to write today, and horrible to read tomorrow, or do you want to write something that other people can enjoy as well?

Make your choice. Is this how you want your story to sound like? Onomatopoeia?

Character specific

No two people sound the same. Consider these:

- Would your character use those words?

- How would he / she speak?

- Does your character have specific speech patterns?

If necessary speak the words out loud.

Stick to a specific format

Different languages have different use of commas, periods, colons etcetera. Here's Dutch versus (American) English.

Peter zei: "Is hij ziek?"

Peter said, "Is he sick?" 

Avoid confusion

Do not confuse the reader. Do not confuse the reader. Do not confuse the reader.

Your dialogue might be brilliant. Your plot lines are fantastic. Your characters all unique. But if you manage to confuse the reader he / she is going to lose track of who is saying what. It's my number one reason to put down a book.

So, make sure to give the reader some clues about who is saying what. Every so many lines describe an emotion, an action, have a character do something instead of only saying something.

Here is an example of how to confuse a reader:

"Are you sure he's sick?"

"I absolutely am. No way he would skip out."

"So... We have to find a solution."

"Do we? I'm not so sure we have to."

"O yes, we do. I suggest we start by watering down the story."

"The truth, you mean."

"And leave out the worst parts."

"Small doses."

"We kill his cat."

"His cat? Do we really have to?"

Assuming there are only two people you no longer know who's saying what at the end of those lines. We've managed to confuse the reader. Now, what if there are three people talking? Things get even worse.

Let's first try the 'boring' method:

Peter asked, "Are you sure he's sick?"

John said, "I absolutely am. No way he would skip out."

Peter said, "So... We have to find a solution."

Amanda said, "Do we? I'm not so sure we have to."

John said, "O yes, we do. I suggest we start by watering down the story."

Amanda said, "The truth, you mean."

Peter said, "And leave out the worst parts."

John said, "Small doses."

Peter said, "We kill his cat."

Amanda asked, "His cat? Do we really have to?"

But why not go one step better? Use different cues.

"Are you sure he's sick?" Peter asked.

The little campfire was illuminating their faces. Nobody looked particularly happy.

John nodded vigorously. "I absolutely am. No way he would skip out."

"So..." Peter looked at his friends, studying their faces before reaching a conclusion. "We have to find a solution"

"Do we?" Amanda shrugged. "I'm not sure we have to."

Doubtful as ever, John thought. He sighed and said, "Oh yes, we do. I suggest we start by watering down the story."

"The truth, you mean."

John shrugged. She wasn't entirely wrong, but John knew what was coming next. They all knew.

"And leave out the bad parts," Peter said, ignoring Amanda's comment.

John took out his notebook and his pen. He clicked it a few times before opening the book and putting the tip of his cheap Bic ballpoint down on the paper. "Small doses," he confirmed, waiting for Peter to continue.

Peter stood up and stared at the flames. After pondering the consequences he finally made his decision. "We kill his cat," he said.

Amanda looked shocked. "His cat? Do we really have to?"

With just two participants you may need fewer cues, but always be careful not to confuse the reader.

Said, said, sad

I've seen good novels and poor advise on the endless use of 'he said she said'. Some say don't use it at all, other say use it everywhere. In itself there is nothing wrong with the endless use of 'he said she said', but it might bore your readers. Decide for yourself. As a rule of thumb, just leave anything out that is unnecessary.

Too many cues, tags, clues

So cues, tags, clues can be used to identify the speaker, but don't overdo it. Leave them out if you do not need them, and that's hard... very, very hard sometimes.

Don't overdo it!

Hints how to find stuff that could perhaps be stripped:
  • anything in passive voice
  • words (verbs) ending on '-ing'
  • body movement that isn't essential

Dialogue Tags, Action Beats

Action beats versus dialogue tags

Both are c(l)ues to indicate who is taking an action, or involved with something. But they are not interchangeable. Dialogue tags can be replaced (more or less) with 'he said'.

"Let me help you," he said.

"Let me help you," he walked away.

It's clear the second one is wrong. It's an 'action beat' and not a 'dialogue tag'.

Things get a little more tricky when dealing with inserted actions:

"This looks weird.” She squints at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?"

"This looks weird,” she says, squinting at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?"

"This looks weird"--she squints at her steak--"can BBQ sauce go bad?" 

"This looks weird,” she squints at her steak, “can BBQ sauce go bad?"

"This looks weird,” she squints at her steak. “Can BBQ sauce go bad?"

The top one is correct. The middle one is questionable (well, it's wrong). Strictly speaking, it's wrong (in English), but it is a form that's often seen. The third one is obviously wrong. I'm not going to mention that other languages may use different variations...

There's also the ellipse '...' and the (em) dash '--'. Let's give those some love as well.

(I'll add some more thoughts on the em-dash later on, because there's the en-dash --, the em-dash ---, the ellipse ... Oh, the horror!)

An ellipse (three dots) is a pause, and it is often overused. In some cases it's better to use a comma or a dash.

The em-dash is a longer dash, but not all platforms support them, and not all langues use them. In writing, it is often replaced with two dashes, as in '--'. I'll return to it a bit later, but some examples first. Keep in mind that the em-dash is used to 'interrupt' an action or dialogue with something relevant but not exactly a continuation.

"You are --" He looks at his watch. "Four hours late."

"You are" -- he looks at his watch -- "four hours late."

"You are..." He looks at his watch. "Four hours late."

"You are..." He looks at his watch. "... four hours late."

"You are," he looks at his watch, "four hours late."

The bottom one is wrong...

Compare it with a dialogue tag:

"You are --" He says. "Four hours late."

"You are" -- he says -- "four hours late."

"You are..." He says. "Four hours late."

"You are..." he says, "... four hours late."

"You are," he says, "four hours late."

Now let's combine it with a dialogue tag:

"You are --" He says and looks at his his watch. "Four hours late."

"You are" -- he says and looks at his watch -- "four hours late."

"You are..." He says and looks at his watch. "Four hours late."

"You are..." he says and looks at his watch. "... four hours late."

"You are," he says and looks at his watch, "four hours late."

Okay, one more 😁 Note that the meaning of a sentence somewhat changes, depending on what punctuation is being used.

"You have arrived," he says and looks at his watch, "four hours late."

"You have arrived," he says, "four hours late."

"You have arrived," he looks at his watch, "four hours late."

"You have arrived." He looks at his watch. "Four hours late."

"You have arrived" -- he looks at his watch -- "four hours late." 


III. Punctuation

(Bad) Punctuation

Punctuation helps in clarifying dialogue. Bad punctuation helps in pushing away potential readers 👹

Do you know where to use what? Neither do I :-) but whatever you do, be consistent. Here are some examples that appear to be a fairly common approach in some countries / languages...

Dutch punctuation

Peter said: "I know."

"I know," Peter said.

"I know," Peter said, "and so does he."

"I know," Peter said. "And so does he."

US punctuation

Now, unfortunately, English has rules for this. And as usual, they make little sense :-) In fact, the way you write differs from the way you say things, in other words, the comma is not just a 'pause' moment.

Yep. That sounds silly. But do a search for spelling rules when it comes to commas...

Here are the same phrases, but now as they are supposed to be spelled in English. Fortunately we'll just replace the colon with a comma, and we're done for now. Trust me, sometimes that feels very alien to those of us who are Dutch...

Peter said, "I know."

"I know," Peter said.

"I know," Peter said, "and so does he."

"I know," Peter said. "And so does he."

The 'he said' trick

Sometimes it's unclear when to use a comma, and when a period. There's a little trick that helps.

"There is a mistake." He picks up the book. "It's right here."

"There is a mistake," he picks up the book, "it's right here."

"There is a mistake." He picks up the book, "it's right here."

You can't replace 'he picks' with 'he said', so the first line above is the right version. You'll run into the other examples often though, even when they're frowned upon, or simply outright wrong.

You typically use the comma when the sentence hasn't finished, or when it is followed by something related to an expression, way of saying things, etcetera. Things like growl, say, smile, hush, whisper, shout, bark, and many more. As a rule of thumb: if you can replace the 'pronoun + verb' with 'he says' or 'he said' then it's probably safe to use a comma.

Another way to look at it is 'action' then a period and a capital, 'effect' then a comma and a lowercase.

Sometimes you have to use a comma, like in this one. Without that comma you don't know what he pointed out. Just like you wouldn't put a 'he said' all alone...

"There's a mistake on page thirty," he pointed out.

"There's a mistake on page thirty." He pointed out.

"There's a mistake on page thirty." He said.

And sometimes all variations are correct, but may have slightly different meanings. What is spoken out loud, and what's not in the next examples?

"I'm too busy," she sighed, "come back tomorrow."

"I'm too busy." She sighed. "Come back tomorrow."

"I'm too busy." She sighed, "come back tomorrow."

More about commas (horrible little things) here.

The difficult dialogue tags

Some words are hard to categorize as dialogue tag versus action beat . Which of the following do you consider a full replacement of 'he said'? 

he said
he pointed out
he grunted
he wheezed
he whispered
he wished
he continued
he laughed
he snickered


Proper paragraphing can seriously help readability! More about that here

The 'em-dash

The 'em-dash' requires some extra attention. In absolute, unbiased, objective 😎 terms, it is nothing but an overlong dash. You may run into some variations though...

According to the CMOS (17th edition, p396) there are actually more variations on the dash, en-dash and em-dash.

  • Dash is a single dash, or -
  • En-dash is a bit longer, sometimes depicted as --
  • Em-dash is another, even longer dash, sometimes depicted as -- or ---

Most  (fiction) writers won't be bothered though, and will use a double dash to denote an em-dash and forget the other flavors. Most word-processing software (Word, GoogleDocs, you name them) do replace a double dash with an em-dash, and ignore the en-dash as well. So, I'll do the same thing, a dash is '-' and an em-dash is a '--' even though I know that's wrong... Have mercy on my editor!

1. '--' is sometimes used as a replacement for the 'em-dash'. Strictly spoken, the 'em-dash' is a kind of 'longer' 'supersized' dash. I don't like the '--' in that case, but it strongy simplifies life.

2. I've also seen '--' used in scientific literature to attribute a quote to its source:

'Facts are stubborn things' -- Mollet

3. Most authors don't discern between the regular dash and the em-dash, and software such as Word tries to decide for you which one you wanted... Use '--' and leave it up to the publisher.

4. Some publishes don't care about the em-dash either, and use a regular dash instead. This actually is a formal variant, even according to the CMOS.

5. Then, finally, software that is aware of the difference sometimes uses the wrong type. Word, for example, does mess up now and again.

Moral of the story... don't bother. If you go published, leave it to the publisher and / or your editor. Stick to a double dash for now and disable any smart software. A double dash is easy to remove or replace if you need to get rid of it.

Spaces around an em-dash

In newspapers they typically enclose an em-dash with spaces, in books they don't. It's a choice, but whatever you do, be consistent.

IV. Group conversation

How to write group conversations? First of all, there are two types:
  • organized, one way, controlled, a boss to his employees, a Sergeant to his soldiers
  • disorganized, messy, uncontrolled, friends in a bar, classmates in a break
It's the disorganized category that causes most problems.


WP Board member dieFabuliererin said it like this:

' Here's my suggestion as someone who still tries to avoid writing group conversations. Firstly, try to get some inspiration. Lilly-rain's 'She's One Of The Boys' on Wattpad where the MC has group conversations with her five brothers! If you find reading group conversations stressful, then try watching shows like Friends where characters speak in a group because the dialogue is scripted but made to appear casual.

Once you get an idea for how they work, try to write down all the key points that you want to include in the conversation, and allocate them to different characters. I'd recommend using '(character's name) said' for every character instead of searching for more elaborate dialogue tags- this can all be done later. Don't worry if you don't include all of them! In real life, some people hardly contribute to group discussions whereas others practically lead them.

After you've got the key ideas, add in some short quirky dialogue snippets of agreements, disagreements and banter from the characters that maybe you haven't used yet. This'll make the dialogue seem even more casual. Next, add all your body gestures and action, making sure to get around most of the group. Again, don't feel like every character has to be involved, some will just be standing there and listening.

Finally, add a few fancy dialogue tags -- but don't be afraid to keep some of the 'said' in there -- and you've got yourself an amazing group conversation!

Hope this helps! If you like, feel free to send me a draft and I can give feedback if you still feel unsure. '


I liked her summary, so I pasted it above.

I noticed she's still active on WP, and you can find her work here:

Just tell her I sent you there, and she'll charge you double :-)

Next's an example from Kind's Kiss, which is a bit messy. Many things go on simultaneously, so you have to try to avoid confusing the reader. Upfront: it's okay to break the rules if that works for your story!

Keep in mind that a real group conversation is almost impossible to transcribe, as it tends to be very fluid, with all participants cross talking and interrupting each other. It's perfectly fine to break the rules if that helps the story. Some things work just differently in writing than in the real world.

The one thing I don't really like is endless monologues, in which one person explains the world to another person.

A little example below matching dieFabuliererin's approach, some tags, deliberate misunderstandings, people going through multiple conversations at once, background effects, all that and the kitchen sink 😅


From Kind's Kiss, chapter 38. La Belle Helene, here's a bit of chaos 😉

David frowns, looking at the latter. "Is that a Poire Belle Helene?"

William nods fervently.

"And that?" David points at the glass, his frown deepening.

In the background, Laura Branigan's Self Control starts playing.

William empties his mouth. "Lemon cheesecake caramel with peanut butter!" he exclaims.

"There's no accounting for taste," Aaron comments, looking for his second banana. He successfully spears it, presents it to the world, then takes a large bite and swallows. With his eyes half-closed he mumbles, "Ah... Bliss--Man, we missed you."

William nods. "Yep. That, and the free lunches."

"You're impossible, the two of you. All of you." Camelia comments.

Lug just smiles.

Aaron opens his eyes in exaggerated shock, then gets halfway up, mock offended. "My brother is impossible, let me apologize on his behalf. And, as his eclectic selection in ice cream and friends prove time and time again, he has no taste either." He grins and makes a mock bow in first David's, then Camelia's direction, making absolutely sure we're all paying attention when he turns to me and bows more deeply. "...except when it comes to girls," he adds in a stage whisper.

His brother punches him, and Aaron's spoon nearly takes out my left eye. I suppress a little smile. Their bantering makes me uncomfortably comfortable.

"Hey, stop hurting my guests! I still need them. Well, some of them, at least." David's pointed stare does stop Aaron and William's ice cream battle. For now.

"For what?" I ask.

David looks down and hesitates. "I euh..."

"Out with it," Lug says.

"I asked you all here... " David starts.

"You don't want my second kidney?" Aaron asks his brother.

William shakes his head. "Nah, one is enough."

"You never asked me," I point out.

"About my kidney, why would I?" William asks, frowning at me.

Did he just make a joke, or is he serious? I can't tell.

Example (how not to do it)

If your work reads like the text below and you don't understand what's wrong with it, then you might want to re-start at the top of this page, or even go here: what comes before the plot...

(The author might have had lots of fun writing this, but I doubt many readers will stick around for the next chapters and the squeal -- I mean sequel 😅)


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