Cue Words in Dialogue

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.

“Why not?”

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?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion, and will be a panelist at the 2021 New England Crime Bake. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

30 thoughts on “Cue Words in Dialogue

  1. Sue, thanks for a good post. I’ll share it widely. Pretty much all of my characters have their own special words or phrases and speech patterns. Those “cue words” enable the reader to more quickly recognize who’s speaking and also can indicate the personality, education, etc. of that character. Those little speech quirks also tend to endear the character to the reader more deeply and more quickly.

  2. Elmore Leonard was especially adept at characterization through dialogue.

    I like to be able to “hear” my characters voices (via voice journaling) so the rhythms are ingrained. Then the dialogue flows.

    • Leonard was a true master. I almost included a quote from him, but the post kept growing longer and longer.

      Me too, Jim. When we hear our characters speak, cue words become automatic.

  3. Great post, Sue. Very important addition to our approach to dialogue. I’ve used words repeatedly, by a single character, that only he would use. I was told or thought that I was using the word too often. Moderation in everything, but I like this. I’m going on a hunt for cue words for my characters.

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. Sue, I had not thought in terms of “cue” words.To differentiate among characters’ dialogue, I mostly concentrate on their distinctive speech rhythms–halting, clipped and sarcastic, etc.

    You’ve given me another tool to play with. Thanks!

  5. Always, Sue, because I hate dialogue tags! The toughest is when it’s two of the same sex in the scene. But I can almost always get around it with body language etc.
    People say a ‘said’ tag is invisible to the reader. It’s not to me.

  6. Great information, Sue. I’ve never thought in terms of cue words, but I need to go back and review some dialogue. It’s like adding another layer of color to a character.

    • You bring up a good point, Dale. Most of us add cue words without conscious effort. Cue words are just another craft element to look for during edits.

  7. I give my important characters such a distinctive speaking style and vocabulary that the average reader can tell who is speaking, but I’m not adverse to using a verbal cue here and there. I try not to overdo to the point the reader wants him to shut up.

    For secondary characters who appear sporadically, I prefer to use physical business as my cue to who they are. One of my characters is a housekeeper who considers herself more of a grandmother than hired help to the heroine, and she’s always angry because she’s not happy with what is happening with the heroine. Every scene, she’s mangling something with her hands as she’d like to mangle the hero. A bunch of tomatoes became violent puree in one of my favorite scenes with her.

    • A bunch of tomatoes became violent puree in one of my favorite scenes with her.

      Haha. Love it!

      You’re right, Marilynn. When we listen to our characters, cue words become automatic. If we’re aware of what to look for during edits, we can add or subtract to create balance.

  8. I’m with some of the others, Sue. I hadn’t heard the term “cue” for words, but I get what you mean. Cue makes me think of shootin’ pool which, BTW, I’m NFG at.

    I try to minimize… *correction*… eliminate dialogue tags and limit action beats. You’ve given me a new tool with “cue” to fix broken dialogue. Thanks, BFF. Good stuff!

  9. Great post, Sue! I hadn’t heard of this tricky little trick.

    It is now hanging from my tool belt. I plan to go back to some mss and see if I unconsciously used it; if not, yay! I get to work on them a little more…

    Thanks! 🙂

  10. Fantastic post, Sue!
    There are a great many nifty tools to try out here.
    I especially love this particular bit:

    “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?”

    That note about grounding the reader as we gain more participants to the convo is SUPERB. And, ironically, it stood out to me because it’s so subtle! Ha! All the writer really did was mention a single name and it brought us neatly out of Tatum’s inner focus, back to his external point of view.

    I feel that this kind of subtlety is exceedingly important for new writers to grasp. Like the “Because” utilized in the dialogue, it’s also a form of “tightening” tool.
    Get rid of all of the dialogue tags EXCEPT where they’re truly needed, like this petite but powerful tool and, Wham! You have instantly tighter focus.

    Very nicely done. I’ll be sharing this one around.

    • Thanks so much, Cyn!

      All the writer really did was mention a single name and it brought us neatly out of Tatum’s inner focus, back to his external point of view.
      I feel that this kind of subtlety is exceedingly important for new writers to grasp.

      I do, too. It’s an element of craft that new writers might not absorb while honing their skills, yet it’s an incredibly powerful trick (for lack of a better word) that breathes new life into characters.

  11. Sorry I’m off topic but I wanted to share with my TKZ community that today is…

    I Love To Write Day. Apparently inaugurated in 2002 and designed to be the world’s largest party for writers. So party on, writers!

  12. Thank you, Sue, for another great post. I didn’t know that cue words were, um, cue words. James Lee Burke uses this technique to great effect in his David Robicheaux novels. It’s a nickname — “Streak” — for David, but only the two people closest to him use it. One is a man and the other is a woman and they are rarely/never in scenes together when David is present. Easy peasy.

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