Dialogue 101

A number of years ago, I put myself out there to edit other peoples work. I didn’t represent myself as a professional with years of experience—that would have been a lie—but I explained that I had acquired a pretty good sense of what is considered good writing versus amateurish by going through the agent to publisher to editor to published process.

Candidly, I wanted experience, and at fifty-cents-per page, I offered help in punctuation and format, word usage, and some perspective on whether the plot flowed, stumbled, or was dead-on-arrival.

I had no idea how undervalued my services were to be. Thirty excruciating pages into one project, I offered the man his money back. What follows is an example of how the entire work was written. While this exchange is NOT from his book, it mimics the format he invented:

Hal asked if it was a “black mercury marquis.” “Yes” Dov said surprisedly. “They were there…shut up.” “Who do you think it is? Zack asked.” Yacov exclaimed “Might be your government…through his mind.” “It’s too early…”

Here’s the exchange I borrowed for the above example as published in my first book:

DialogueI was compelled to ask him, as kindly as I could, “Has it been a very long time since you read a novel?” Had he looked at any novel written in the last few decades, he would have seen how dialogue is presented. Even if he wouldn’t have gotten everything perfect… it would have been editable.

An exercise: how many things can you correct/enhance in that small portion of a page shown above? From my first published work, I look at it now and I’d be embarrassed if it hadn’t gone through the formal editing process by a professional, at a time I was a newbie.

Basic Mechanics of Dialogue

If you’ve read anything about writing dialogue you will have picked up on the universal admonition that “He said” is the attribution that should be used in most cases:

Ex #1: “She’s the most brilliant artist on the team,” Ralph said.

Balancing use of the speaker’s name with the pronoun is an art; the rule is to be clear about who’s speaking if there’s more than one male in the conversation.

If the line is a single clause, as in Ex #1, then putting the attribution at the end of the line is preferred, but sometimes, based on the context, attribution first may is preferred:

Ex #2: Ralph said, “She’s the most brilliant artist on the team.”

Attribution can be omitted if the action makes the speaker clear:

Ex #3: Ralph slammed his hand on the table. “She’s the most brilliant artist on the team.”

Resist putting an exclamation (!) point at the end of the line. Ralph’s slamming of his hand is all the emphasis the line needs.

If the line is longer than a single clause or single-clause sentence, break it up with the attribution at the break:

Ex #4: She’s the most brilliant artist on the team,” Ralph said. “Losing her will cripple our ability to meet deadline on the project.”

There are two sentences. The attribution is closed with a period. The continued quote begins with upper case.

Ex #5: “You have to remember,” Sharon said, “that the rule is last hired is first to go.”

A single sentence. The attribution is followed by a comma and the quote continues with a lower case letter.

Ex #6: The long quote spanning multiple paragraphs:

“Let me tell you my life story,” Floyd said. “I was born… and completed college at fifteen.
“Graduate school took me only two years…”

In this example, the first paragraph of the quote does not have a close quote. The second—and subsequent paragraphs—begin with an open quote. The final paragraph of Floyd’s ramblings will have a close quote.

Clean and Lean Dialogue

You will be tempted to use attributions that include narrative. Scene: a couple at a restaurant table:

“You’re very cute when you laugh,” he flattered.
“I like to laugh,” she beamed.
“Would you like to come back to my place?” he invited.
“Let’s finish dinner,” she smiled.
“Yes, let’s finish dinner,” he grinned.

This may seem overdone, but it’s the way so much first-draft dialogue reads when anything other than “said” is used. Let’s clean it up:

“You’re very cute when you laugh,” he said.
She looked up from her plate to meet his gaze, a blush on her cheeks.
“I like to laugh.”
“Would you like to come back to my place?”
She looked at her plate and teased some peas away from the potatoes.
“Let’s finish dinner.”
He saw the shallow, rapid rise and fall of her chest as she further tickled the peas.
“Yes,” he said, “let’s finish dinner.”

In the second example we’ve done two things. First, we’ve eliminated much of the attribution. You’ve got two people in a closed conversation. It’s clear who’s saying what, and we’ve used “said” because action is written into the exchange.

Bonus: This is called showing not telling. Telling is “she beamed.” Showing is describing her meeting his gaze and the blush that is the beam. At the end, she doesn’t just smile which is ambiguous: Is she thinking that he has a snowball’s chance in hell? But when her breath turns to a mild emotional pant, and she mindlessly plays with the peas, it’s clear she’d distracted by the night’s potential. His subtle agreement needs no helper verb. He received her message.

Here’s an entire scene from my most recent novel.

Angela was midtown doing errands for Stuart. When she arrived home, I helped her through the door with her bundles. She didn’t look happy.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fine. I’m fine. But I saw something… I don’t know… never mind.”
“You can’t do that. We’ve been through too much together for you to start a conversation then pull it back in.”
“Well… I saw David on the street.”
I took a deep breath. “Did you speak to him?”
“No. He was across the street.”
“Did he look well?” I asked.
“He wasn’t alone.”
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“So they weren’t just friends—”
“No. They were close.”
“I’m happy for him.”
Angela continued unpacking. I excused myself to my room.

Two people. Minimal attribution or stage direction. You don’t need an emotion or action tagged to each line of dialogue to understand what transpired. The dialogue should be sufficient.

Accessory Punctuation in Dialogue

It’s generally accepted that an ellipsis—three periods in a row, no spaces—at the end of a line of dialogue indicates that the speaker has trailed off. I also use the ellipsis to indicate a pause in speech. That’s not universal. It’s my personal style… and you’re allowed to have your own methods as long as you’re not violating any cardinal rules, such as using semicolons for commas. You also have to be consistent. When an ellipsis appears mid-sentence in dialogue in any of my novels, that’s what it means.

The emdash—a double hyphen as a single line—at the end of dialogue indicates an interruption. I have seen, to borrow from the above scene:

“So they weren’t just friends—”
“No,” Angela interrupted. “They were close.”

This would have been redundant and introduced an attribution slowing the exchange.


There will likely be a “Dialogue 102.” There’s a lot more to say. Your comments are always welcome. Post a few lines of your dialogue if you’d like a critique.

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