Tag Archives: dialogue

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


Filed under dialogue, Editing, grammar rules, punctuation, self editing

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.


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.


Filed under Myths and Truths, self editing, style, Writing

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

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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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World-Buiding: Not Just for Fantasy or SciFi!

world building photo

I recall being asked about my enthusiasm for Patrick O’Brian’s 20-novel series about British sea captain Jack Aubrey and his eccentric friend Stephen Maturin as they navigated the Napoleonic Wars. Why would I keep returning to these books, beginning with Master and Commander (in 2003 a movie starring Russell Crowe)? I’d answer, “What’s amazing about these books is that you enter such a complete world!”

This memory has come back recently as I’ve traveled through new reading experiences: sampling indie authors, returning to old favorites, and meeting new traditionally published and often best-selling authors. Like all readers, I’ve found books that work for me and books that don’t. A writer myself, I’m always interested in what makes a book spring into gear or stall out, even if only for me, since I want to sort out strong and weak strategies in my own work.

I know that “voice” can override glitches that try to pull me out of the story. I’ve enjoyed books with plot flaws because I enjoyed hearing the writer talking to me through characters, description, and style.

Image of earth planet on hand

But there’s another important quality akin to voice: the writer’s ability to build a world.

In fact, I’ll take a big chance here: the ability to build a complete, believable world may make a difference if being traditionally published is ever a goal.

What builds such a world?

The quality that makes a book impossible to put down is our total immersion in its reality. That metaphor implies that when we enter a book’s world, we lose sight of our familiar world in which we have to clean house and go to work and wash the car. For that to happen, this new world must be divorced from the mundane. It has to provide us with a set of eyes that see differently, that notice things we would not have noticed until the author seized our gaze.

Writers of historical fiction may find monopolizing our imaginations easier to achieve; even touches of daily life illuminate corners of a universe that takes us out of our own. For example, in Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests, there’s the sound of shillings clunking into the gas meter, there’s the slog across the yard to the outdoor WC. But modern stories should also be flush with such mind-capturing details. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes me into a Trenton, New Jersey, hair-braiding salon, an atmosphere completely alien to me but starkly evocative in the world she invites me into. I had never seen this corner of a modern city. I walked with her, across the divide between our worlds.

globe concept of idyllic green world

But the trust that sustains that journey is fragile. It can be shaken in many ways. Somehow, above all, a creator of worlds must convince us that her world really could exist, really does exist, even if only in mind.

A sense of accuracy is essential. Creators of worlds in sci-fi and fantasy have more leeway than authors in other genres; details need mostly to be consistent. True, in historical novels we are at the mercy of an author’s research. Patrick O’Brian never sailed on one of the ships he wrote about; how can we trust his depictions of 1800s British naval life?tall-ship-silhouette-1449207-639x931

He seduces with details: How the ship’s company had to tap their biscuits to knock the weevils out before eating; how the men at the cannons had to arch their bodies to avoid being killed by the guns’ recoil. If he knows these things, surely he knows the rest. Again, we’re sucked out of our daily worlds into his by the precision and clarity of what he puts before us. We’re too busy absorbing all the surprising pieces of his universe to look away.

Accuracy is especially vital if you’re writing for a specific community that knows its own contours well. I felt kicked out of a horse book when, among other glitches, the writer had a teenage girl galloping up on one of her farm’s “yearling thoroughbreds.” Now, they do back late yearlings on Thoroughbred farms, since the young horses will all officially turn two on January 1, and these babies often run their first races before they actually turn two. But if this is a real farm, training real racehorses, no teenage girl will be galloping around pastures on a newly broken baby destined for the track. When just a few pages later, a character attached crossties to a bridle. . . !

But this need for convincing accuracy lies at the heart of the world-builder’s dilemma. Immersion depends on strangeness. The details that capture me cannot be details I could have supplied myself. Want me to stick with you on a spring morning in the countryside? Don’t tell me about the bright blue sky or the fluffy clouds or the green fields. I know about those without your help. No, tell me something I wouldn’t have noticed or cared about until you opened my eyes.weird bleu world Depositphotos_12196361_s-2015

Yet if we are to believe, we must be able to connect these new worlds to landscapes where our usual compasses will work. The minute a reader says, “Oh, that would never happen!” or “People wouldn’t act that way!” or “I know that’s not true!”, the trust is gone.

So world-builders must construct double journeys: along a mysterious new road that keeps us gasping, yet one that parallels the world we do know. For example, Bev Pettersen’s Backstretch Baby showed me specifics of racetrack life I hadn’t witnessed myself, but the details that did match what I’d seen for myself prepared me for what she wanted me to accept. I felt I’d entered her version of a world I’d been in before, a version that was going to show me something I’d never have guessed.

In dialogue, this essential double journey shows clear.

Dialogue must be accurate to its time and place. Our characters need to “talk like real people.”

And yet nothing can be deadlier to our immersion in a story’s world than characters who talk like real people. All the little “hellos,” “how are yous,” “fine, thank yous,” with which we coat our exchanges have to be mercilessly expunged. Dialogue has to sound “natural” to the worlds we know while obsessively, ferociously, devoting itself to building the one we don’t.

flipped comma1   flipped comma1              small comma 2     small comma 2

Rereading National Velvet recently showed me how dialogue contributed to the world of this stunningly realized plot. Here’s Mi Taylor (the Mickey Rooney character in the movie) to Velvet early on—he’s just given her money to put down on the raffle ticket for the Piebald:

“. . . And see this, Velvet, I’m a fool to do it. That piebald’s as big a perisher’s the fellow that tipped me the five. ‘M going up to look at him this afternoon and likely I’ll be sorry when I see his murdering white eye.”

“Can we come too, can we come too?”

“You got yer muslins to iron.”

“MUSLINS!” said Velvet, outraged.

“Yer ma’s just wrung ’em out of the suds. I seen ’em. For the Fair.”

“I’m not going to wear MUSLIN,” said Velvet with a voice of iron.

“You’ll wear what yer told,” said Mi placidly. “I’ll slip up after dinner. Nearer one. I got them sheep at twelve. . . .”

If you’ve read the book, you know that its world forms around families and dreams and how they play out or fail in the environment of a small English village in the 1930s. The detail of what the Brown girls will wear to the fair and the distinct voice in which Mi delivers that detail become, in this dialogue, a demonstration of how authority functions in this world, warning of the challenge to that authority from the magical horse with the “murdering white eye.”

bay arabian horse runs gallop

World-building is a little like trying to catch skittish mice. We want to entice readers along the paths we’ve laid with tiny bits of carefully laid-out cheese. If the cheese is stale, they’ll turn up their noses. If the tidbits are too far apart, asking for too much empty wandering between offerings, they’ll venture off the path. If the cheese isn’t recognizable as cheese, if it’s too alien, they’ll be too wary to bite.

When I read your book, I want to follow that path without looking back or aside. I want to be captured. I want to find myself helplessly enclosed in your world. You have a double journey to accomplish; I want you to keep me pressing toward the vista straight ahead.


Romantic woman using laptop







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