Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: The Mechanics of Dialogue.

What are the rules for showing dialogue in text? What about dialogue where people talk over each other, or interrupt each other, or end mid-sentence?

The rules for writing dialogue are generally pretty straightforward, and most of us learn them in grammar school:

  • Start each new speaker on a new paragraph; don’t put different speakers in the same paragraph.
  • Diaglogue, in Romance languages, is enclosed in double quotes, and may optionally include a dialogue tag: “I’m going to the store,” he said.
  • If a dialogue tag is included, the dialogue ends in a comma, followed by the quote marks, followed by the dialogue tag, which begins in lowercase. If the dialogue ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark, the dialogue tag is still lowercase: “But what did he do with all the penguins?” she said.
Most writers, even inexperienced writers, are familiar with these basic rules.

But real-world dialogue isn’t always tidy. What if oyu want you novel to reflect the messiness of real dialogue, where people can interrupt themselves or each other, or lose a thought midway through?

There are a couple of writer’s tools that will see you through these situations: an ellipses (…), if the dialog trails off, or to indicate a pause or hesitation; and an em dash (—), if the dialog ends abruptly or is interrupted.

Here’s how it works:

A few weeks later, Felinnira stood in the garden, her face long. She turned toward Tsimbar as he came through the door. “I’m going to miss being here with you.”

“You don’t have to leave just yet.”

“It’s time. I’ve been away long enough. It’s been nearly a year since I became Sacrifice. The new Sacrifice will enter the garden soon.” She took Tsimbar’s hands in hers. “I am so grateful to you. I...I know that you’ve stayed with me out of service to the Quickener, but I have...I am happy we had this time together. I would like to...I know things are different now, and I left you all those years ago, so I understand if you have your own life now, and you don’t want—”

Tsimbar kissed her gently. “The answer is yes.”

“Oh.” She clung tightly to him. “I promise—”

He put his finger over her lips. “You don’t need to promise me anything. We don’t know what might happen. If you are with me, let it be from joy, not obligation.”

“Thank you.” She looked into his eyes, fingers running through his hair. “You really have changed.”

“It’s been a strange year.”

“A good one?”

“Yes. I’m grateful for it.”

“Me too.”
The key thing to remember: An ellipses indicates a sort of faiding out or trailing off, or an unfinished thought, something left unsaid. An em dash is an abrupt termination, or an interruption: a sharp and sudden truncation of dialogue.