Tag Archives: dialogue in novels for writers

6 ways to improve your novel right now – by Louise Harnby…

These smart tips from Louise Harnby on cleaning up your prose in late edits also work well when you’re looking for those last thousand or so words you need to cut. For example, every time you eliminate a dialogue tag like “said,” you generally cut at least two words. Same with cutting filters (and this is an excellent primer on what that term means). In my “Power-Cutting” posts, I’ve also noted how often the phrases “to me” or “for him” can be cut; they act a lot like Harnby’s “anatomy-based action[s].” For example:

“He offered the book to me” vs. “He offered the book” when “I” am standing right there and the obvious recipient of the book.

I found a whole short-story-full of those kinds of cuts!

I’m currently deep in edits of my “Horse Show Book,” tentatively titled Three Strides Out (more mystery and horses!!), and hope soon to be able to edit at the level Harnby’s discussing here. That’s always a great milestone.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Give your novel a sentence-level workout. Here are 6 common problems, and the solutions that will improve the flow of your fiction and make the prose pop.

Review your novel for 6 common problems. None involve major rewriting, just relatively gentle recasts that will improve your prose significantly, and make your reader’s experience more immersive.

1. Assess invasive adverbs
2. Remove redundant filter words
3. Take the spotlight off speech tags
4. Pick up dropped viewpoint
5. Trim anatomy-based action
6. Turn intention into action

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Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash (revisited) #amwritng

Following up on an earlier post on hyphens from Connie J. Jasperson, here’s a handy discussion of the different uses of dashes and hyphens.

I’d like to add that, if you’re writing on a Mac, you can create an em dash by typing Space/Option/Hyphen. My new wireless keyboard, a Microsoft product, allows for most Mac keystrokes, but not that one, and I miss it.

There are other key combinations that can produce an en dash, but I seldom use this symbol so I don’t know them. Oh, and there are all kinds of symbols and special characters you can produce with various key formulas, especially math symbols. One day I’ll get around to exploring them all.

Another point of interest: both PC and Mac keyboards make using an em dash for interrupted dialogue really annoying. If you type dialogue like

“I thought I told you”

you can use an em dash to show that the dialogue has been cut off by an event or another speaker:

“I thought I told you—”

What you can’t see here because WordPress made the correction, is that, using smart quotes as we usually must, in Word, the quote marks after the em dash will be backward!

You can make them come out correctly by typing a period, as in

“I thought I told you—.”

In my experience, this construction doesn’t take the period, though some style sheets may differ. If you don’t want the period, you have to reposition your cursor (use the arrow keys), delete the period, then move your cursor again before hitting return.

I’ve tried storing the corrected text in Autocorrect, but so far that hasn’t worked reliably. However, good news! If you are using smart quotes, Find and Replace, that ever-useful tool, will usually turn the errant quote marks around.

One last snark about Microsoft keyboards: if you do want to use an em dash as I’ve illustrated to show interrupted conversation, you have to type a letter after the two hyphens, then space so the hyphens will convert to a dash, then backspace to delete the letter. I guess I could use Find/Replace creatively again to correct this, but it’s one of those little annoyances. Anybody got a better fix for em dashes on a PC keyboard?

Thanks, Connie, for another useful post!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

We’re halfway through week 2 of National Novel Writing Month. Today we’re continuing our review the rules for common punctuation. This essay first posted on Feb 6, 2019. As always, if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!


Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way…

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A Unsung Use for that Humble Verb, “Said”

Lightning strike--metaphor for the effect of a strategic use of "said."
Making writing zing!

Here’s a topic I’ve never seen discussed: a service the lowly verb “said” can perform.

We get showered with advice about dialogue tags. E.g., if you must use them, use only plain ol’ “said.” If at all possible, don’t use them. As I pointed out in my recent post on strategies for cutting, eliminating the dialogue tag by letting an action do its work can save words almost every time.

But I’ve found “said” to be a strategic device in its own right for managing the rhythm of scenes.

Scenes have peaks and valleys, riffs that build to a turning point in a dramatic exchange, then fall off, only to rise again—mini-crescendos, if you will. And each scene should end on a note of finality, of closure, rather than dribbling off into that bare line break. The high moments, where the scene will turn to its next compelling development, as well as the last line, need the weight of a tough nugget of sound that “punctuates” these peaks.

I suggest humbly that even where it’s not needed for coherence or clarity, “said” can be recruited to supply this rhythmic punch.

Here’s an example to show what I mean. Imagine this as a scene ascending to its close:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it.”

Nothing wrong with that ending. But I suggest that it feels as if there’s more to come. If so, it doesn’t signal a solid scene ending, a turning point, as scene endings should. Let’s add the tag:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it,” she said.

No, “she said” is not “needed.” But if this is a peak transition in a scene or an ending line. “said” brings the moment home with a satisfying pop.

Obviously, like all writing choices, this one should be employed purposefully. Often you can tweak the crescendo line so it ends with its own strong beat. But it doesn’t hurt to have “she said” or “he said” or “they said” in reserve.

Have you ever used “said” this way? Share your examples!

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“White Space”: What It Is and Why It Matters

Big dialogue bubble in a blue sky with a red question mark inside.Over at Writers in the Storm, an extremely useful writers’ site, Ellen Buikema touches on a topic I’ve seldom seen addressed in the many blogs I follow: how writers can use “white space” to make pages more inviting to readers. These pointers apply both to fiction and non-fiction (though, of course, there’s that anomaly, the academic article, with which I am very familiar and which I personally enjoyed practicing and responding to).

Maybe you need some white space now? Okay.

Paragraphing decisions and, as a comment mentioned, dialogue contribute to white space. I do notice, though, that too much white space can create a page that feels jumpy and encourages skimming rather than reading for nuance. I say this because I’ve just finished a book in which almost all the paragraphs were one or two lines with runs of short dialogue between. So I like Buikema’s response urging “balance in all things.”

Page 1 of King of the Roses in Adobe InDesign

I kinda like my balance here!

I find that I like books at both ends of that balance. Sarah Waters’ novels ask me to find my way through rich, dense detail, while many of my favorite mysteries, especially noir, choose the terse, keep-moving option.

What are your favorite examples of these choices?

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“Ah, That Was Easy!” — A Quick, Simple Trick to Make Your Quotes Stand Out – by Anastasia Chipelski…

Here’s a thoughtful discussion of an issue that confounds a lot of us: how to add “attribution” to quotations and dialogue. In other words, how to clarify who said what.
Fiction writers, I know, sometimes feel hemmed in by admonitions to stick with simple “says” and “said.” Anastasia Chipelski shares some thoughts on how to handle nonfiction attributions. Fiction writers can remember to use “action beats” to escape ponderous repetition of “said.”
“I’ll try to answer your questions.” Derek shifted in his chair. “If they’re not too hard.”
And exchanges between two people won’t need an attribution on every line.

On my other blog, collegecompositionweekly.com, I summarize articles from research journals. One rule I follow is always to attribute claims to the source, which prevents me from implicitly endorsing them as truth. So I rely on “argues,” “claims,” “contends,” etc. Sometimes I fall back on “writes” or “states,” which leave the claim in the source’s corner when he or she does seem to be offering a verifiable fact.

These decisions always take a lot of thought. I personally think colorful attributions should be used sparingly. Let the dialogue and the action do most of the work. Thanks to the Story Reading Ape, as always, for sharing a useful piece!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on The Write Life:

As an editor, one of the first pieces of feedback I give to writers is to vary word choice and sentence structure. But there’s one place where I go in the complete opposite direction: quote attribution.

When I started managing a local alt-weekly five years ago, I inherited their style guide. I could change it, but I decided to give it a little test drive first.

A simple “subject says” is the best format for quote attribution

That style guide recommended that writers almost exclusively use a simple “subject says” format to attribute quotes. I bristled a little. Taking all the wonderful varied ways to frame a quote and jettisoning them in favor of “says” felt wrong, sparse and cold.

But …

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Punctuating Dialogue! Here’s How.

A single quotation mark.A single quotation mark.I wanted to write this, because I get so frustrated when I’m critiquing and I have to stop following the story line to correct the punctuation of dialogue. But I don’t have to write about dialogue because Reedsy has done it for me. If you’ve ever wondered, say, about what do with em dashes or how to punctuate a quote within a quote, it’s all here! Feast! The five basic comma rulesThe five basic comma rules

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A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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Another Good Article on Dialogue

From fellow writer alfageeek, here’s a link to a Scribophile piece on dialogue that provides some excellent elaboration on the piece I reblogged yesterday. Join in the discussion about “actions” as “dialogue tags.”

flipped comma1     !      Comma 1

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Are You Botching Your Dialogue?

This post from Kristen Lamb’s blog gives some good basic guidelines for using and punctuating dialogue. These principles can be surprisingly hard to master, so a good primer is always helpful. The one I see most often is the use of an action as if it were a dialogue tag. To add to Kristen’s list, I’d say, “Watch out for that darn Autocorrect in Word. If you have it turned on and you accidentally type a period instead of a comma after the dialogue, Autocorrect automatically capitalizes the next letter, so you end up with two punctuation gaffes, not one.
Thanks, Kristen!

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 10.43.36 AM

Today we are going to talk about dialogue. Everyone thinks they are great at it, and many would be wrong. Dialogue really is a lot tricker than it might seem.

Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals wouldn’t bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders.

I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are…

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How Would You Solve These 4 Writing Challenges?

Buble quote speech on cloud space for text

Writers who want to create a compelling story never stop looking for solutions to certain eternal problems. Sometimes, though, a particular story you want to tell runs you smack up against these problems. That’s the case in the book I’m working on right now.

This is the second book in a three-part project, in which university professor Sarah Crockett must come to terms with the disappearance of her eleven-year-old daughter while finding herself entangled with other endangered children over the course of the books. The first book is out for beta reads right now; the new one resides in five notebooks, slowly evolving from a handwritten first draft to a word-processed second. Something about this second book has made me think hard about some of the conundrums writers face.

Do you face these problems in your writing? How do you solve them?

Confused business man, short term memory loss

Writing SCENES, not streams of thought

It’s all too easy to simply let the characters spin out their thoughts and emotions in what just feels like the loveliest prose. After reading about a page of this stuff in my own writing, I recognize how deadly it is. Sarah presents a particular challenge: She has a professional life, and there’s a lot she can’t talk about with her colleagues. (Your conviction that your ex-husband murdered your child doesn’t make good conference-banquet banter.)

So how do you solve this? How do you insert the necessary backstory or information readers need without letting your characters blather away?

Writing scenes where things HAPPEN

Blue computerI remember seeing commentaries on Breaking Bad episodes in which the writers and directors discussed their worry that long scenes of information-heavy dialogue would turn off viewers. They used movement within the setting as much as possible, and of course there was so much action in other scenes that the talky ones never felt static. (By the way, I much prefer commentaries that feature writing and staging problems and solutions, not how much all the cast members love each other!)

Dialogue can be quite dramatic—even violent, both in meaning and in the way it’s conveyed. But I’m faced with too many scenes that are mostly dialogue. My worry, though, is that too much effort to make a scene active can lead to contrived events.

So how do you solve this? If you’re not writing a Mad Max script where nobody can catch his breath long enough to talk, how do you keep dialogue-heavy stories lively?

Finding the PERFECT word

Lightning, green field

I’ve (mis)quoted Mark Twain on writing before: the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. How do you tap the lightning? The thesaurus helps, but often the word I’m looking for isn’t really a literal synonym. Just as often, it’s a metaphor, especially in a verb. Here’s one I like that popped up out of the blue, from the first chapter of the new book:

For Clauson, interrogation was a daily, a material, practice. His gaze was scissoring me apart even as I tried to decide how I felt.

No thesaurus is going to give me that.

What tricks do you use to chase down those lightning-bolt words?

And while we’re on the subject: Making metaphors WORK

Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit: the metaphors that take me beyond clichés but slip into my prose as easily as my cat into my lap. Recently they seem more prone to circle me warily, making me snatch at them, half the time scaring them away. Here’s one from the first chapter I’ve struggled with:

From the way Clauson seemed to sag as I stared back, I knew he felt what I did: the pull of our history, a chain weighted with an impenetrable anger, so dense and resistant to reason no acid could have dissolved it. I think he knew he had just added a link. He had said the wrong thing.

I don’t dislike it, but it lacks the perfected aptness of, say, Sarah Waters’s metaphors in The Paying Guests:

Frances felt a rush of the abandonment that had overwhelmed her a few nights before. The feeling was like a wailing infant suddenly thrust into her arms: she didn’t want it, couldn’t calm it, had nowhere to set it down.

How do you solve this? What strategies do you use when you’re looking for imagery that leaves cliché far behind, yet doesn’t tangle you up in illogic and improbable comparisons so bad they’re sometimes even funny?

Frustrated man at typewriter

Share your solutions! (Stealing from each other allowed!)

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