How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”

“Like?”

“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”

“Art.”

“Really?”

I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

9+

Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds

 

6+

The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Don’t—”

“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Sexually?”

From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?

10+

A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

2+

Listening to Your Characters


“I hear voices in my head, and if I remember correctly, I always did.” — Stephen King

By P.J. Parrish

So I’ve got my protagonist Clay Buchanan at a critical point in the story. He’s just done something awful, faced his “mirror moment” as James Bell calls it. And now he’s sitting in a dive bar, two sheets to the wind, thinking about what has brought him to this crisis.

My fingers are poised over the keys, waiting…

Waiting for him to tell me what is on his mind.

((((Silence))))

Clay? You there, buddy?

(((Cickets)))

Dude, I really need you to talk to me.

(((Goin’ dark)))

Oh man, is there anything worse than characters who won’t talk to you? It doesn’t often happen to me but when it does, it brings my writing momentum to a screeching halt. It is something I can’t just “write through” and hope I can go back and fix it later. Because when a character refuses to reveal himself to me, refuses to let me inside to hear his thoughts, I lose the heartbeat of my story.

Most writers, I think, hear voices in their heads. Yes, we visualize our stories, seeing the action unreeling in our heads like movies. But we also hear the speech and thoughts of our characters, as if we are mere conduits for voices that seem to have lives of their own. Writing is, after all, just “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” according to E.L. Doctorow.

Hearing voices is on my mind of late not just because of my recalcitrant character Clay. But also because I read about a fascinating project called Hearing The Voice. As part of medical project on auditory hallucinations at Durham University in the UK, researchers are surveying novelists about how they experience their character’s voices. They’ve gathered info from more than 100 authors, including Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.

And here you thought you were the only “loony” one.

The questions are intriguing: What does inner voice actually “sound” like? What is like to hear your characters or subjects out loud? What do writers do when they can no longer “tune in” to their inner voice? (Hello? Anyone want to interview me?)

Here are some interesting findings:

  • Writers tend to “experience their primary and secondary characters differently.  They have a sense of “inhabiting the interior life” of their protagonist and of looking out at the world through their eyes. But they report that secondary characters tend to be experienced visually.
  • Many writers are unable to “see” the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.
  • Writers’ engagement with their inner voice, and the role it plays within the literary-creative process, changes radically over the course of their careers. Early on, they report little separation between their own thoughs and those of characters. Over time, however, writers report that the inner voice becomes more complex, taking on echoes of other voices harvested from life and literature.
Now all this is fun for academic types, but what can we mere writers glean from it that’s useful as we face the task of creating full-blooded, idiosyncratic and memorable characters? Let’s break it down.
First, I am not talking about “the writer’s voice.” That is your style, the quality that makes your writing unique to you. It conveys your attitude, personality, and way of looking at the world. I’m talking about your character’s voice. This is the speech and thought patterns of your narrator and others who orbit around him or her. Each character you bring alive on the page must have her own distinct voice. It is one of most vital – and maybe difficult – elements of great fiction. No two characters should sound alike.
You make your characters’s voices come alive on the page two ways: through dialogue and through thoughts (sometimes called interior monologue). No two people talk (to others or themselves) the same way. Every person has his own distinct vocabulary, rhythm, dialects and tone. Other things that make voice unique: age, geography, intellect, education level, and — yes, I’m going there — gender.
A teenage girl living in the farm town of Morning Sun, Iowa, is not going to sound the same as a elderly Creole dockworker from New Orleans. A British solider in World War I is not going to sound the same as an American Vietnam vet.  If they do, well, you the writer are not listening.
I’m reading a terrific book by Thomas Cook called Sandrine’s Case. (It was an Edgar best novel nominee last year but Cook’s stuff is always good. His characters live on after you close the book). Here’s one dialogue snippet:

“Worked up?” I offered a vaguely contemptuous snort. “I feel like Meursault in The Stranger.

“Be sure you mention that to the press, or better yet, the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existential French literature.”

Which one is the supercilious college professor and which is the lawyer whose wife sends him to work with tuna sandwiches in bags? And here’s another:

“My grandfather would have shot you with one of the dueling pistols I still have,” he said. “But I fear I lack the courage required to defend my honor.”

This is another professor but in the legato rhythm, ripe vocabulary, and fey tone, Cook has conveyed volumes about this man’s background (genteel Southern) and personality (timid cuckold).

Here’s another example, this time from one of my favorite movie scripts:

Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out. Besides, uh, I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?

Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pauses then winks and walks away]

Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash…

Nuke LaLoosh: Hey, Annie, what’s all this molecule stuff?

In this exchange, we find out all we need to know about the intellectual level of these two baseball players.

Maybe we should also take a quick look at the mechanics of how we convey character’s voices. Dialogue mechanics are pretty straightforward. But I find some inexperienced writers have trouble with interior monologues. Maybe it’s because dialogue is SHOWING, but to convey a character’s thoughts, you must move into narrative mode, which technically is TELLING. And many writers believe that will slow things down too much. I disagree. A good interior monologue  gives the reader a window into a character’s soul. Yes, you can convey what a character is thinking or feeling through speech, facial expressions and movement. But sometimes readers also need to “hear” what is in their heads and hearts. It cements the emotional bond.

Interior monologues can be short or long. Short ones are one- or two-sentence thoughts inserted into an action scene or dialogue. Long interior monologues can go on for paragraphs or pages and because they slow the pace, you have to be careful where you put them.

Another mechanical consideration: Do you use “I thought” or “he thought” or do you simply signpost a thought with italics? I like to use both. Here’s a sample from my WIP, the thoughts of my stubborn character Clay:

YOLO. It was a dumb name for a restaurant, he thought. But then when he glanced at the matches he had snagged from the hostess he saw that it stood for You Only Live Once.

He ordered a Martin Mills bourbon. Hundred bucks a shot, but he wasn’t paying. He took a sip, closing his eyes in pleasure at the caramel taste.

Carpe diem, baby.

I used both techniques in the same interior monologue. Why? Clay’s thoughts about the restaurant are illuminating but sort of mundane, so I think “he thought” is sufficient. But by setting the “carpe diem, baby” off in itals, I am trying to say something unique about Clay’s rather louche personality. It’s a grace note, a kicker, an extra beat. If you use this, I recommend you set it off on its own line. And use it only for special moments or emotion, humor or info. By all means, write:

Oh God, what have I done? 

But never:

 I think I’ll have egg salad for lunch.

Some moments call for you the writer to directly “speak” what is on the character’s mind. I call this intimate interior narrator. You don’t use itals or attribution but when well rendered, the reader feels a psychic connection with the character. 

Alex stared at the back of Buchanan’s head, a spasm of disgust moving through him, like that time that rapist had reached through the bars of the Tallahassee jail and grabbed his arm, grinning and saying he had never touched that little girl. Alex had gotten the man off. Two months later, he quit his public defender job and signed on with a small Orlando firm specializing in corporate law. It wasn’t only for the money. He just wanted to feel clean.   

Even though this is me, the writer, in narrative mode, I am deep within my character’s psyche as he has a key memory, hence the slightly run-on stream-of-consciousness rhythm. If I were in an action scene, however, the rhythm would be staccato and tense.

And speaking of my characters, Clay decided about a half-hour ago that he was going to start talking to me again. Originally, I  had thought his mirror-moment had left him depressed. Then I thought it had left him angry. Well, I realized it was neither. I was confused about his motivation and well, I wasn’t really listening to him.

Now I can’t shut him up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to chapter 22 before he decides to clam up again.

 Carpe diem, baby.

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The Fastest Way to Improve Your Novel

Over the years, after looking at countless manuscripts at writers’ conferences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one thing that can sink or elevate a manuscript right from the jump.
That thing is dialogue.
If it is flat, sodden, unremarkable and (worst of all) sounds the same when coming out of different characters, there’s a letdown. Readers may not analyze it that way, but will feel it subconsciously. The dialogue becomes one of those “speed bumps” that lessens reading pleasure.
You know who really notices? Agents and editors. To save time, most of them will turn immediately to the first chapter of a proposal, to see if the writer can write. Dialogue is one way they can tell.
If your dialogue is crisp, filled with tension, and unique to the characters, the industry pro immediately gains confidence in your ability as a writer.
Which kind of makes dialogue important, don’t you think?
And that’s why I’ve written this book:
Dazzing Dialogue-cover_digital
It is available as an ebook at:
In this book I’ve tried to pull together everything I’ve learned and taught about writing dialogue. The nice thing is that the techniques do not have to be housed in the blubber of irrelevant text, war stories, rants, and veiled self-promotion. I’ve always preferred reading––and teaching––nuts and bolts, techniques that can be easily understood and immediately put to work.
We start out with a definition of dialogue. I like what the noted playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: “Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.”
Knowing just that much will go a long way toward making sure you don’t write irrelevant talk.
The book covers the essentials of dialogue, like tension and story weaving. There are abundant tools you can utilize right away, like the voice journal and the parent/adult/child method for instant conflict.
And something I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve put in a section on all the punctuation rules for dialogue in fiction. This can be used as a simple reference guide when you’re unsure how to render dialogue in your manuscript. Like, does the punctuation always go inside the quote mark? (Yes). Is there always punctuation? (Yes). What about semi-colons in dialogue? (Maybe you can guess what I have to say about that!)
And I’ve included some great examples from novels and film. Like this nugget from Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate (basis for the classic Dustin Hoffman movie). Here young Benjamin Braddock is at the hotel desk, getting a room to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson. He is quite sure that everyone in the hotel will find out what he’s up to. Notice how much inner tension is rendered by the dialogue alone.
“Yes sir?” the clerk said.
“A room. I’d like a room, please.”
“A single room or a double room,” the clerk said.
“A single,” Benjamin said. “Just for myself, please.”
The clerk pushed the large book across the counter at him. “Will you sign the register, please?” There was a pen on the counter beside the book. Benjamin picked it up and quickly wrote down his name. Then he stopped and continued to stare at the name he had written as the clerk slowly pulled the register back to his side.
“Is anything wrong, sir?”
“What? No. Nothing.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. “We have a single room on the fifth floor. Twelve dollars. Would that be suitable?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said, nodding. “That would be suitable.” He reached for his wallet.
“You can pay when you check out, sir.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said. “Right. Excuse me.”
The clerk’s hand went under the counter and brought up a key. “Do you have any luggage?” he said.
“What?”
“Do you have any luggage?”
“Luggage?” Benjamin said. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“What?”
“Where is your luggage?”
“Well it’s in the car,” Benjamin said. He pointed across the lobby. “It’s out there in the car.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. He held the key up in the air and looked around the lobby. “I’ll have a porter bring it in.”
“Oh no,” Benjamin said.
“Sir?”
“I mean I—I’d rather not go to the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself. If that’s all right.”
“Of course.”
Benjamin reached for the key.
“I’ll have a porter show you the room.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said, withdrawing his hand. “Well actually I’d just as soon find it myself. I just have the toothbrush to carry up and I think I can handle it myself.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
To which I can only say, “Go thou and do likewise.” And I hope my book will help you along the way.
Speaking of dialogue in your own fiction, what do you have to say? Who writes some of your favorite dialogue?
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The Fastest Way to Improve Your Novel

@jamesscottbell

Over the years, after looking at countless manuscripts at writers’ conferences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one thing that can sink or elevate a manuscript right from the jump.
That thing is dialogue.
If it is flat, sodden, unremarkable and (worst of all) sounds the same when coming out of different characters, there’s a letdown. Readers may not analyze it that way, but will feel it subconsciously. The dialogue becomes one of those “speed bumps” that lessens reading pleasure.
You know who really notices? Agents and editors. To save time, most of them will turn immediately to the first chapter of a proposal, to see if the writer can write. Dialogue is one way they can tell.
If your dialogue is crisp, filled with tension, and unique to the characters, the industry pro immediately gains confidence in your ability as a writer.
Which kind of makes dialogue important, don’t you think?
And that’s why I’ve written this book:
It is available as an ebook for $2.99 at:
For those of you who like writing books in print (so you can highlight physical pages) I’m working on that version now.
In this book I’ve tried to pull together everything I’ve learned and taught about writing dialogue. The nice thing is that the techniques do not have to be housed in the blubber of irrelevant text, war stories, rants, and veiled self-promotion. I’ve always preferred reading––and teaching––nuts and bolts, techniques that can be easily understood and immediately put to work.
We start out with a definition of dialogue. I like what the noted playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: “Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.”
Knowing just that much will go a long way toward making sure you don’t write irrelevant talk.
The book covers the essentials of dialogue, like tension and story weaving. There are abundant tools you can utilize right away, like the voice journal and the parent/adult/child method for instant conflict.
And something I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve put in a section on all the punctuation rules for dialogue in fiction. This can be used as a simple reference guide when you’re unsure how to render dialogue in your manuscript. Like, does the punctuation always go inside the quote mark? (Yes). Is there always punctuation? (Yes). What about semi-colons in dialogue? (Maybe you can guess what I have to say about that!)
And I’ve included some great examples from novels and film. Like this nugget from Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate (basis for the classic Dustin Hoffman movie). Here young Benjamin Braddock is at the hotel desk, getting a room to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson. He is quite sure that everyone in the hotel will find out what he’s up to. Notice how much inner tension is rendered by the dialogue alone.
“Yes sir?” the clerk said.
“A room. I’d like a room, please.”
“A single room or a double room,” the clerk said.
“A single,” Benjamin said. “Just for myself, please.”
The clerk pushed the large book across the counter at him. “Will you sign the register, please?” There was a pen on the counter beside the book. Benjamin picked it up and quickly wrote down his name. Then he stopped and continued to stare at the name he had written as the clerk slowly pulled the register back to his side.
“Is anything wrong, sir?”
“What? No. Nothing.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. “We have a single room on the fifth floor. Twelve dollars. Would that be suitable?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said, nodding. “That would be suitable.” He reached for his wallet.
“You can pay when you check out, sir.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said. “Right. Excuse me.”
The clerk’s hand went under the counter and brought up a key. “Do you have any luggage?” he said.
“What?”
“Do you have any luggage?”
“Luggage?” Benjamin said. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“What?”
“Where is your luggage?”
“Well it’s in the car,” Benjamin said. He pointed across the lobby. “It’s out there in the car.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. He held the key up in the air and looked around the lobby. “I’ll have a porter bring it in.”
“Oh no,” Benjamin said.
“Sir?”
“I mean I—I’d rather not go to the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself. If that’s all right.”
“Of course.”
Benjamin reached for the key.
“I’ll have a porter show you the room.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said, withdrawing his hand. “Well actually I’d just as soon find it myself. I just have the toothbrush to carry up and I think I can handle it myself.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
To which I can only say, “Go thou and do likewise.” And I hope my book will help you along the way.
Speaking of dialogue in your own fiction, what do you have to say? Who writes some of your favorite dialogue?

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Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane





I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
 
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
 
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
 
Key Ways to Layer Depth:


1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.


2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.


3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.


4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.


5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
 
 
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
 
 
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


 
Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
 
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

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A Short Course on Dialogue Attributions

@jamesscottbell


“So what’s the deal on dialogue attributions?” the young writer asked.
“I’ll tell you,” said the wise old writer. “It’s not complicated, but it’s important.”
“I’m ready to listen!” the young writer asseverated.
The wise old writer slapped him. “Don’t ever asseverate anything again. Just listen.”
Make Said Your Default
An attribution is there to let the reader know who is speaking. The simple saiddoes that and then politely leaves. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said is not creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it.
           
This is almost always a mistake.
Readers don’t really notice said, even as it serves its purpose. Any substitute word causes the readers to do a little more work. (More on that below.)
On the flip side, it’s possible to use said in an abusive fashion. This is done sometimes in hard-boiled fiction, like this:
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?” Jake said.

“Not on Tuesdays,” Sam said.

“That’s weird,” Jake said.

“Weird is in this year,” Sam said.
In this case, saidis forced on the readers for no reason. It feels like you’re getting tapped on the head with a rubber hammer with every line of dialogue. So leave out the attribution altogether when it’s obvious who is speaking.
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?”

“Not on Tuesdays.”

“That’s weird.”

“Weird is in this year.”
Should You Use Asked? He Asked
There are some teachers who say you should never use asked after a question mark. It’s redundant, they say.
I find that a bit too picky. I use said after a question mark, but also asked sometimes, for variety. I have no rule about it. I use what sounds right at the time.
No one has complained yet.
Use Alternatives Only If Absolutely Necessary
On occasion, you may need to find a substitute word. Whispered, for example.
What about growled?Barked? Spat? Expostulated?
Be careful. Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words of the character should tell the reader how the words are being spoken. Instead of using a thesaurus, work harder at making the words and the action more vivid. Let’s not see this:
“Put that down!” Charles shouted with emphasis.

“But it belongs to me!” Sylvia declared.

“Put that down,” Charles repeated, a bit more sedately but still with insistence.

“You are such an insistent type,” said Sylvia bitterly.
Ouch. And sedately? Bitterly? That brings us to:
Kill Most Adverbs, But Have Mercy On Some
I’m not the Terminator on this one. I don’t go out on a mission to kill all adverbs and never stop until every one is dead. I do think it’s best to let the dialogue itself, and surrounding action, make clear how something is said.
But on occasion, if it’s the most economical way to indicate something, I may use an adverb. Even though writing sticklers may feel their knickers getting in a twist over adverbs, I write for readers. Most readers don’t care about the occasional adverb. Nor do they wear knickers.
Occasionally Put Said in the Middle 

Every now and then, just to mix things up, put said in the middle of the dialogue. Put it in the first natural spot. 

“I think I’d better leave,” Millicent said, “before I lose my temper.” 

If one character uses the name of the other character, for emphasis, you can break up the dialogue this way:

“Rocky,” Mickey said, “this is the biggest fight of your life, especially considering you’re now seventy years old.” 

Use Action Beats For Variety, But Not Exclusively
Because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize the physical to assist the verbal. This is called the action tag.  
           
The action tag offers a character’s physical movements instead of said, such as in Lisa Samson’s Women’s Intuition:
Marsha shoved her music into a satchel. “She’s on a no-sugar kick now anyway, Father.”

He turned to me with surprise. “You don’t say? How come?”
The action tag can follow the line as well:
“Come along, dear.” Harriet spun toward the door.
Warning: this is notto be done every time in place of said. Some writers have attempted to write entire novels without once giving an attribution. But the problem is this: every time there’s an action, even an innocuous one, the reader forms a picture. Too much of this becomes labor, because the reader’s mind is asking for the significance of the picture. The reading experience begins to feel like a series of speed bumps on a road.

John crossed his legs. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Mary tapped her finger on the table. “I haven’t decided.”

John sighed. “Think about it.”

Mary reached for her drink. “I can’t think.”

John scratched his nose.

“This place is creepy.” Mary looked around the restaurant.

John cleared his throat. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have come here.”

See what I mean? Use an action tag only for variety, never exclusively.


The young writer looked at the wise old writer and said, “Is that it?”

“That’s it. Easy, huh?”

“Easier than I thought,” articulated the young writer, smiling wryly, tapping his finger on the table.

The old writer slapped him again. “Just for that, you pick up the check.”
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What’s wrong with said?

By Joe Moore

What’s wrong with the word said? Why is it that some writers, particularly new ones, feel that “said” is so boring they are compelled to find new ways to tag dialog? I think that said may be the best word ever invented. What other word can be used in any story with no adverse effects on the plot or characters? What other word is as transparent, invisible and nondestructive as said?

So if all that’s true, why do so many authors need to look elsewhere for a better word? It’s like a man married to the most beautiful woman in the world but decides to stray and cheat. Said is already the best choice; why go looking anywhere else? And in my opinion, straying from said too often will make the writing look amateurish.

So when an unfaithful author strays from a perfectly happy relationship with said, where do they go? They go to: exclaimed, murmured, screamed, whispered, pleaded, shrieked, demanded, ordered, cried, shouted, and my all-time favorite, muttered. If the dialog is so weak that the writer has to re-explain what emotions or motivations are being conveyed, there may be more serious problems lurking.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” the officer commanded. Really? Does anyone doubt that “Stop or I’ll shoot” is not a command? Is it necessary for the author to assume that the reader is that dumb? In this case, no dialog tag is even needed. The officer raised his Glock. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

Then there are the extreme dialog tags, the ones in which humans speak like animals. Here’s a fact: snakes don’t talk nor do dogs or lions or bears. I don’t believe that human speech should be tagged with the sounds animals make.

“I’m going to kill you,” he hissed. No he didn’t. First, it’s physically impossible. Second, it’s melodramatic. And it makes the character look silly. In a serious, dramatic moment, it can stop the reader cold and kick them right out of the story. If a writer wants to compare a character to a snake or dog, that’s fine. But humans don’t talk like snakes because snakes can’t talk. Don’t believe me? Try saying ANYTHING while hissing. Are people staring at you?

Then there’s the laughing and crying dialog tags. “I will defeat you,” he laughed. “I hate you,” she cried. No they didn’t. But here’s what could have happened: His laughter bellowed throughout the room. “I will defeat you.” Between sobs, she shook her clenched fist at him. “I hate you.” Wow, suddenly they don’t sound like carnival freaks.

Finally, there are the dreaded adverb tags. “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do,” he said angrily. “Thank you so much,” she said gratefully. If the character’s words are already filled with anger or gratitude, the writer doesn’t need to double-explain it. The reader gets it. Don’t insult their intelligence.

Remember, your characters’ power is in their words, not in how you tag them. If needed, said will do just fine. Or better yet, don’t use a dialog tag.

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