WRITERS WORKSHOP: Dialogue (Basics)

***The brownies in the featured image were made with Callebaut chocolate (my must-have baking cocoa) and Reese’s snack cups.  The Lego velociraptor is part of this set.***


Punctuation: The basics.

I rarely use should, but in this case, you really should know these basic punctation marks and placements in order to be understood.

“I never said she took my money.”
“I never said she took my money,” said Lenny.
Lenny said, “I never said she took my money.”
“I never said she took my money,” said Lenny. “It must’ve fallen out of my pocket.”
“To be fair,” said Lenny, “we never said she took our money.”
Lenny smirked. “I never said she took my money.”
“I never said she took my money!” said Lenny.
“Didn’t you say she took your money?” said Lenny.
Lenny smirked. “I never said she took my money, ok?”

Italics as a form of “punctuation for emphasis”

Sprinkle it in. Too much gets tiring to read. It can also come across as you, the writer, being insecure about your ability to get your point across. A basic guide you can follow is:  Use it to ensure a very specific interpretation of the dialogue line, and omitting it can lead to confusion:

I never said she stole my money.”
“I never said she stole my money.”
“I never said she stole my money.
“I never said she stole my money.”
“I never said she stole my money.”
“I never said she stole my money.”
“I never said she stole my money.” 

CAVEAT: Italics can revert to normal type if you’re converting a story file among different programs, ie. Scrivener → Word → Pages, and as you convert to publishing platforms. Make sure you check in with your editor and formatter.

Exclamation points.

Use sparingly! It makes everyone sound like preteens having meltdowns! I can’t emphasize this enough!

Dialogue tags:

Use “said”. Just…do it.

Using adverbs and other words that mean “said” can make you sound childish because this is a convention commonly used in children’s picture books.

Weird dialogue tags take the focus off what your character is actually saying.

Most importantly: What goes in between the quotation marks is unfiltered character thought. Once you’re outside those quotation marks, it can become authorial intrusion in that you’re unnecessarily directing the reader to have a specific interpretation. Again, it can read as lack of confidence in your ability to get something across or worse, your lack of confidence in the reader to understand what you’re saying.



  • Beats are burst of action within or in between dialogue lines.
  • Use them to avoid: Talking heads syndrome.
  • Examples of beats: “I never said she took my money!” said Lenny, as he flung his phone across the room. “I never said she stole my money,” he whispered as he signed his name on the witness report.
  • How they work for pacing. Beats imply the passage of time. Even dialogue tags can alter the passage of time:
    • “I swear to god. I never said she took my money.”
    • “I swear to god,” he said. “I never said she took my money.”
    • “I swear to god.” He shoved himself away from the table. “I never said she took my money.”
  • How they work against you: Too many beats (too much action within and between dialogue lines) can slow the pace and diffuse tension.
  • How they can improve your story: by changing the meaning of dialogue.
    • “I never said she took my money,” Lenny whispered as he slammed the car door.
    • “I never said she stole my money!” said Lenny as he gently placed the wallet in his grandmother’s hand.

 photo TRex with cookie.jpg-large_zpsjtfg8o39.jpg
For more info on this Lego set, or to buy it, click here.

Caesuras (Si-zure-as): Breaks in dialogue

Emdash is for interruptions. (Abrupt break in dialogue)

This signals a an abrupt break in dialogue due to things like the character getting attacked, the character suddenly realizing something and switching topic, another character interrupting while the first one is in the middle of a sentence.

It’s called an em-dash because it’s the length of a letter M. You can use whatever you want but be aware of making a conscious and consistent choice.

  • Make sure to have a good grip on who’s talking. Your characterization should be solid enough that a reader can tell who’s talking without dialogue tags (speech pattern, word usage, etc).
Lenny grimaced. “I never said she took m—”
“Don’t even get try to explain your way out of this mess.”

(cut off at a natural cutoff point. Like after a syllable or sound. Don’t separate the S and H of “shampoo” or the T and H of “thankful”.)

“Guys, you’ll never guess what happened. She—”
“Killed your dog?”
“—took my money.”

Ellipsis (The plural form is ellipses.):

Use an ellipsis (…) for when the dialogue line trails off. Again, you can use whatever you want to use but be aware of formatting issues when using different publishing platforms. Some programs automatically convert 3 periods into one “character” as an ellipsis, some don’t. Check your formatting so you don’t have an ellipsis trailing off over two lines.

“I never thought she’d…” He crouched to the shine his flashlight in the space under the house. “She took it. My suitcase full of money.”

You can also use an ellipsis to literally give the character “time to think.” “I uh…Well, it’s been several years since I last seen’er…Uh…I never said she stole my money but they went after her all the same…”

Dialogue Sample:

“They sending them younger ‘n’ younger,” Davey said to me, soft-like but the pale fella heard and took umbrage. He showed us his mining badge.
Kelly Vanger, IGS. Inspector of General Systems.
“What kind of name is Kelly for a man,” said Davey.
“Hush now, Davey,” I said. “We’re talkin’ to the new boss of half of Popolos.”
“Yeah,” said Kelly, looking a little more solid, a little more glad to be here.
“What can I do for you,” I said to him.
“Can I uh, can I uh see your catalogue,” he kind of muttered.
Davey laughed and slapped the counter hard enough to make the glass eyes roll in their little oily sockets. “We ain’t got no catalogue,” he said.
“We ain’t got nothin’ to rent out, period,” I said. “It’s the day before New New Year’s Eve. E’ry last one of our models is out on a date. E’ry last one’ll be gone for the holiday.”
“Come on,” said pale little Kelly-boy. “You gotta have a spare back there or something.”
He rubbernecked, tryna see into our workroom. We had the lights off on account of it being almost New New Years, and power gets kinda shady on holidays what with e’ryone baking and making calls to the multi-Earths.
“I said we ain’t got none,” said Davey.
“Look,” Kelly-boy said, “I’m really in a bind here. I haven’t seen my wife for two whole months. Can’t you just give me…I dunno, give me anything you got back there. I don’t even care if it has a head as long as it’s got the uh, the other parts.”
From “Spiffy One Up” in FRESH CUTS: BREAKING.

And that’s it for the Writers Workshop we did on Dialogue: The Basics.

The bookstore we usually hold these workshops at will be relocating next month. Follow this blog and follow me on Twitter for updates on a different venue for the next workshop.

If you’d like a topic covered, leave a comment below!

Connect with me by leaving a comment below, on Twitter (@JoanWIP), or Facebook.

Buy my books on Amazon! #Horror #SciFi #Fantasy #Self-Rescuing Heroines #Occult #Ghost Stories
 Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning, has been called “Disturbing” and “The side of Wonderland no one wants to talk about.”

Fresh Cuts 1: Breaking, has ranked in the top 100 under Supernatural and Occult. Reviewed as “Twisted” and “Hilarious”.


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