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.

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.

In a nutshell, simple double quotes to start and stop spoken sections, no lower / higher quote signs, no smart quotes, no nothing. Simple, straightforward:

He says, "It's fine."

The accentuate sections, express sarcasm, and sometimes thoughts:

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

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 spot the 'sarcastic' part of her thoughts:

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

My advice: 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...

More on quotation signs on Wikipedia:

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

1. Dialogue


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.)

Another good introduction you'll find here:


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?

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!

Write full sentences as well.

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.

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. He reached a decision. "We kill his cat," he said slowly.

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.

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!

Action beats versus dialogue tags

Both are c(l)use 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 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.

"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 😁

"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." 


2. 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."

English 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 above is better version. You'll run into the others often though, even when they're frowned upon.

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.

3. Paragraphing

Proper paragraphing can seriously help readability! More about that here

4. Group conversation

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


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. 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 crosstalking 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 all pay 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.


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...

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