A cue word, as I call it, sends a subtle cue to the reader for who’s speaking. Using a cue word(s) in dialogue helps to establish a character and adds to their characterization. In my Mayhem Series I have a foil character who says “Woot! Awesomesauce.” These words no one else in the series would ever say. They are uniquely hers. She also says “ship” rather than swear. In my Grafton County Series, an important secondary character uses “Minga” which is Italian slang used in place of WTF? And like my Mayhem Series character, no one else in the series would say her cue word. It is uniquely hers.
Think about the people in your life. Have you noticed subtleties in their speech? We all have favorite words and phrases. Our characters should, too.
In The Darkness by Mike Omer has the perfect example of cue words in action. They jump right out. Never does Omer describe the following eyewitness in detail. Instead, he lets the dialogue form a clear picture in the reader’s mind.
“Well, like I said, me and Jeff—he don’ live here no more because he moved out with his mother because his parents got divorced, so he and his mom moved in with his grandparents down south—we were walking around a while ago, I think it was a year and a half ago, because Jeff moved away last summer and it was just before then…I remember he was talking about how his parents were getting a divorce because they were fighting all the time, and we saw this guy.”
“What guy?” Foster asked.
“A guy where you built that tent over there. He dug a pit, he had a shovel and a bunch of other tools, and he wore some kind of maintenance suit, but we knew he wasn’t maintaining shit, because there are no pipes or wires or anything there, right? Jeff’s dad used to be a plumber working for the city before he got fired, because he drank all the time, so he knew there was nothing there—also this guy didn’t look like a plumber.”
“What did he look like?”
“I don’t know, man. He was white for sure, but we were too far away, and we didn’t want to get any closer because we didn’t want him to see us.”
Notice how he slipped in race? Most “white” people wouldn’t mention the guy was “white” right away. It’s another subtle cue word that adds brushstrokes to the mental image we’re forming of Paul, the eyewitness.
The author breaks up the dialogue by bringing the reader’s attention to the conversation through Tatum, the POV character, who’s not involved in the questioning.
The rhythm of the conversation was hypnotic, Foster asking pointed questions fast and short and the boy answering in long, serpentine sentences, their structure mazelike. Tatum could almost imagine this being a stage act accompanied by the strumming of a single guitar.
Did he have to bring attention to the dialogue? No, but by letting the POV character mention the contrast between detective and witness, it further cements the mental image and adds characterization for Tatum so we don’t forget he’s there. It wouldn’t be as effective if he allowed Tatum to dwell on it too long. One short paragraph, then segue back to the conversation. Notice where he places the cue word when we return.
“Because Jeff said he was someone from the Mafia and that he dug a pit to stash drugs in or money or a body, and we didn’t want him to see us—we’re not idiots—we stayed away, but we were careful to see exactly what he was doing, and this guy dug there all day, like nonstop.”
Boom — first word is because. Is there any question who’s speaking?
Notice also how Omer chose to exclude most body cues and tags. This demonstrates how to let dialogue do the heavy lifting.
“Did you tell your parents? Tell anyone?”
Now he adds a body cue, but not to indicate who’s speaking. He adds it to show indecisiveness.
Paul seemed to hesitate for a moment and stared downward at his shoes, biting his lips.
“You didn’t want to,” Tatum said. “Because you were hoping he’d stash money there.”
See how Tatum used the cue word? Empathetic people are like parrots. We can’t help but use the cue word when responding to someone like Paul. This subconscious act adds another layer to the characterization.
“It ain’t against the law to say nothin’,” Paul muttered.
“So this guy digs a hole.” Frustration crept into Foster’s voice (now that Tatum’s involved in the conversation it’s important to ground the reader). “Then what?”
“Then he left. So we waited until was dark, and we went there, because we figured maybe he stashed some money there, so we could take some of it—not too much, y’know. Jeff really wanted cash because his dad was unemployed, so he figured he could maybe help out a bit, and I wanted cash because…” He paused. His own motives probably hadn’t been as pure as Jeff’s.
“Because cash is a good thing to have,” Tatum said. “Go on.”
Even without the dialogue tag, the reader knows Tatum responded because he used the same cue word earlier. See how powerful they can be? Foster would never get sucked in like Tatum. It’s not in her character.
Do any of your characters use cue words?