Tag, You’re It!

A fun game, but we’re not referring to it, we’re talking about the dialogue tag (and related punctuation).

Given what I’ve seen in my editing travels, dialogue writing seems to prove a bit tricky.  Because it never hurts to review—or learn something new—let’s look at a few examples.

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“Why would I do that” he simpered.

“I’m not the killer!” And she pointed. “Marcus De Teuer is!”

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night” He pointed out.

“It’s not like he …”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

“It’s Welland,” which was the intern’s real name.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat queried.

“Frank, it could be that the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple is the murder weapon,” Ronald wondered.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Jenny trailed off.

Which ones are correct?

Right, none.  😊  Now, some might claim literary license, and that’s fine.  But they’re still wrong.

Let’s consider what we can do to correct them, without going into eye-glazing grammar explanations (you can always google the “rules” and check out the various grammar manuals).

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

Dialogue tags are usually punctuated with a comma—unless the dialogue (speech) is interrupted.  Other punctuation would include the question mark, full stop, and explanation mark.  Ellipsis can be used to express a pause, a trailing off of thought.  But the comma is the more common.

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“You’re a loser,” she said.   /   She said, “You’re a loser.”

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“That’s not the murder weapon,” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

If we use an exclamation point or question mark for this example, we might want to change the verb “said” to reflect the punctuation.

“That’s not the murder weapon!” Detective Leo exclaimed with a fervent shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“That’s not the murder weapon?” Detective Leo asked, confused, shaking his pumpkin-sized head.

The example for this one has no punctuation.  Given it’s a question, the ol’ question mark would be perfect.

“Why would I do that” he simpered.

“Why would I do that?” he simpered.

When dialogue is interrupted by an action or a thought, use em dashes to set off that interruption (don’t use commas).

“I’m not the killer!” And she pointed. “Marcus De Teuer is!”

“I’m not the killer”—she pointed—“Marcus De Teuer is!” 

Maybe we could add this:

“I’m not the killer”—she pointed an accusing finger dramatically—“Marcus De Teuer is!” 

Use a comma or rearrange this one.

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night” He pointed out.

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night,” he pointed out.   /   He pointed out that Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night.   /   He pointed out, “Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night.”

Never use ellipses for interruptions.  They’re used, as noted earlier, for pauses, trailing thoughts, a character not certain what to say next.  Use em dashes.

“It’s not like he …”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

“It’s not like he—”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

A bit awkward.  Who’s speaking?

“It’s Welland,” which was the intern’s real name.

Make sure information/facts are logically arranged (and not haphazardly tacked onto dialogue).

“It’s Welland,” the intern stated. “That’s my real name.”   /   The intern’s real name was Welland.   /   “It’s Welland,” the doctor told the detective.  “That’s the intern’s real name.”

The comma is fine here.  The verb, not so much.  Is it a question?  Did Pat query something?  No, Pat made a comment, stated a fact.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat queried.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat informed them.

If a character is wondering something, like good ol’ Ronald here, then he is asking himself a question or has a desire to know something.  It’s a silent action.  You talk to someone, suggest an idea, put forth a theory; you don’t wonder at someone.

“Frank, it could be that the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple is the murder weapon,” Ronald wondered.

If a character is wondering about something, you might approach it this way:

Ronald wondered if the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple was the murder weapon.  Should he share this idea with Frank?

The ellipsis tells the reader the character has paused or trailed off.  No need to state the obvious.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Jenny trailed off.

But feel free to add something else of note.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Curious, Jenny picked up the crumpled letter.

There are other components (rules) related to dialogue and dialogue tags, but these cover the more common issues to be found.

The best way to get a handle on writing dialogue is not just to read books, but to review them.  Highlight dialogue; notice the punctuation, the structure.  Apply it to your own work.  And, if you’re not sure, the internet is a wonderful source of information.  If you don’t know how to use an em dash, for example, type: when to use an em dash in dialogue.  Voila!  Bob’s your uncle.

As I said last week, if I can help even one person with my editing tips, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.  Educate.  😉  Maybe I’ll do some more educating next week.  It’s rather fun.

“Have an awesome week, my friends,” she said with an encouraging smile.

What’s in a Name?

Not much if—as writers—we use it so frequently that it detracts from the storyline.  It’s like overusing the comma, dash, hyphen, or “he said” and “she said”.  Overuse of anything lends itself to tedium.

There are many great storylines out there, but they get lost through repetition.  If readers find a multitude of references to good ol’ Roger on one page, they may not be tempted to read through to the end.  That’s not only a loss for the writer, it’s a downright shame.

Yes, editors help—it depends on the type of editing as much as it does on the editor.  He/she may comment on the redundancy, but not change it or offer examples of how to approach the story with a fresh(er)/crisp(er) slant.

“Hi there,” Ron said with a smile and placed down the coffee cup onto the table in front of the window by the door in the small room.

Julie said nothing. She simply turned to Ron and stared into Ron’s grass-green eyes.

Ron noticed rue of some kind in Julie’s baby-blue eyes. “What’s wrong?” Ron asked, his voice filled with genuine concern. Ron walked across the room to stand before Julie’s chair and hold her hand, but Julie yanked back her hand.

Mistrust was now reflected in Julie’s eyes. Julie stood up and walked to the far corner of the small room, away from the window. Ron smiled dissarmingly, hoping Julie would feel less threatened.

Julie sat down in the other chair in the corner of the small room and Ron walked over to sit on the rug before Julie.

Rather long, given the action, and repetitive.  If we had a dollar for each time we read Ron or Julie’s name, we’d have a nice fat wallet.  Maybe something exciting, frightening, or romantic is about to occur.  But given the repetition, are we that eager to find out?  If there are 20+ mentions of Ron and 24+ references to Julie on one page, would you be tempted to read on for very much longer?  It suggests lack of professionalism and/or care on the writer’s part.

Maybe we can shorten it and make it less tiresome to get through?

“Hi there,” Ron smiled, placing the coffee cup on the table by the window near the door in the small room.

Julie said nothing, simply turned to him and stared into his grass-green eyes.

He noticed rue in those baby-blue eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked as he walked over to her chair, his voice filled with genuine concern.

When he took her hand, she yanked it back.

Mistrust clouded Julie’s eyes and she stood up and walked to the far corner, taking a seat on the only other chair.

Ron smiled disarmingly, and walked over to sit on the rug before her.

A little better, but still needs work.  How about we rearrange a bit more and add the odd adjective or adverb to give it more pizzazz?  And what genre might this be, so we rearrange/add accordingly?  Suspense perhaps?

“Hi there,” Ron smiled blithely as he entered the small dimly-lit room, placing the porcelain coffee cup on the table by the narrow window.  Seeing a large hairy spider scurrying across the top, he slammed his palm on it.

Julie said nothing, simply turned to him, her face expressionless, and stared into his grass-green eyes.  

Rue was reflected in those lovely baby-blue orbs. “What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly as he walked over, his voice filled with concern.  Crouching, he took her slim hand in his.

Feeling the remnants of the crushed spider, Julie yanked hers back, mistrust clouding her eyes. She lurched to her feet and stomped to the far corner and sat in the only other chair.

Ron sighed softly, wondering how he might win over this troubled young woman who’d murdered easily and often.  Smiling disarmingly, and donning an expression of humility, he walked over and sat on the threadbare rug before her.

Writing takes practice.  So does proofreading and editing.  And there’s nothing wrong with writing a story or book without looking back while doing so.  But do make sure to revisit it—with a critical eye, not a writer’s ego.

There’s no quality in quantity when the same names (words and phrases) are used in [over]abundance.  But there is quality in quantity when a number of revisions are made—to make a story the best that it can be.

The Kid in Me & You

Who doesn’t love a good children’s book?  There’s always a little bit of a kid still in us, no matter what our age. But perhaps you’re considering writing a children’s book?  If so, do it!

Figure out what type you’d like to write: early reader, picture book, chapter book, middle grade, YA, etc.  Challenge yourself.  Have fun.  Write to your heart’s content . . . or until the imagination drowses . . . then pick up again the next day.

Before you submit your completed work to a publisher or editor, confirm that it’s professional quality.  This means, yes, you’ll have to edit it.

While you want to be aware of how you express yourself on paper / on the screen for a younger audience, most of the basic editing “rules” still apply.

Have a dynamic opening—you want to catch your readers immediately (reel them in from the get-go).

Remember the opening of Charlotte’s Web?  Young Fern asks why her father has an ax.  Mrs. Arable says he is going to the barn to do away with the runt of a pig litter.  The little girl immediately races out to stop her father.  I don’t know about you, but I was sucked in right away (in fact, I didn’t put that book down until I finished it, a sobbing, blubbering mess).

Ensure that the plot/storyline are entertaining; young(er) readers get bored with bad, silly, or boring plots just as easily as older ones do.

Offer an intriguing (entertaining) main character and ensure the other ones are strong/personable/memorable.

“I am Sam”.  Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham was a favorite.  Simple.  Fun.  Entertaining.  But, then, so were most of his books—all with memorable and fun characters.

If your main character is searching for something, or perhaps themselves, or may think aloud a lot, talk to themselves, or have things to share, consider adding a “buddy” that he/she can bounce ideas off of or enjoy adventures with.  There are many friendships to list from childhood, but think of Charlotte and Wilbur, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Bently and Daisy, Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Roo, Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat.

Make certain dialogue serves a purpose and isn’t repetitive.

Show, don’t tell; ensure action and dialogue make the story come alive.  Keep the “he said” “she said” to a minimum.

Avoid using the same words too frequently, and don’t be overly descriptive or detailed.  Maintain your young readers’ attention.

Provide appropriate transitions when moving to a new scene or chapter.

Be clear.  Keep the flow and action consistent and logical.  The story and action have to make sense (even if in a fairy/fantasy world).  Provide reasons for actions/reactions.  If Mr. Moose and Mr. Caribou have to fly to Alaska on a magical sled, ensure the reader knows why—even if they’re doing it for a lark.

Keep the writing tight and pace steady/smooth.

There you have them, a few suggestions.  Editing your own work, as many will attest, is not always easy or enjoyable (the moans and groans can prove plentiful, so can the caffeine breaks).  Think of editing as a challenge.  Pull on your editor’s hat and have at it.  You can do it . . . and you may even have fun.

They Did What?!

I [truly] applaud new writers’ enthusiasm for their newfound craft—it’s wonderful.  What I’d love to see approached with the same passion?   Editing.  Not just in terms of checking spelling and facts, and getting true/historical places and events correct, but re logistics and layouts … and “ability/capability”.

If Reggie just climbed into his Benz, how come he’s suddenly talking to the passenger from the outside?  If Lina stepped into the hallway, how did she end up [back in] the auditorium?  If Flavio grabbed Margie’s hand, why is he reaching for in the next paragraph?

think:  crisp and clean

How is Karen able to curve her mouth in response to Ned’s merry greeting?  How does someone wrinkle his/her eyes in reply to a flippant comment?  I’d love to know how Barry spun his head to view his girlfriend’s approach (sounds painful to me).  And Val’s eyes bouncing across the room—ouch, poor Val! 

think:  reasonableness and plausibility

Does it really matter that Zoey reached for the doorknob, turned it slowly, opened the door, stepped in, turned on the light, and peered around the empty room?  Do we need to know that Edwin was still looking apprehensive, so Anna extended a hand and touched his face, and he leaned his face into her palm, laying his own hand over it? 

think:  brevity is often better/best

Does everyone wear cotton?  How about mocha-brown suits?  Blue ties?  Do they all drink red wine?  Characters, like real-life people, should have diverse interests and beliefs, and be different.  They don’t all smile or grab hands.  Not everyone likes to play kissy-face.  And some folks are simply not nice.

think:  repetition = tedium

As writers, we want to pull in our readers as soon as possible and we want to keep them interested, so that they read [eagerly] to the end.  Providing unnecessary or repetitive details wears thin very quickly.  Mentioning certain facts/factors and then, later, not referring to them again—as in loose ends not being tied up—is also a faux pas.  Don’t get readers excited about a [potential] storyline or plot twist, then leave them dangling!

think:  short and sweet

Yes, it’s extra work, but having an outline is a very good thing.  Point-form is fine.  List plot surprises, incidents and events, and outstanding occurrences that should be returned to (tied up).  Refer to the outline, and often.

Remember, the final product is a reflection of you, the author.  Make it the best it can be! 

The Grand Opening . . .

. . . of a book should reel the reader right in!   You/we don’t want the “it was a dark and stormy night” start, so it’s been often stated.  And correctly so.

That said, though, dark and stormy nights do have the ability to provide a few frissons, if depicted with the right details . . .

It was a darkly ominous night, filled with strident thunderclaps and blinding lightning, as Edoardo rode along the overflowing stream.  His quest was simple: kill the escaped convicts who’d burned down his farmstead and slew Olivia.

The example above gives the reader a pretty good indication of what the plot’s about and what will [likely] transpire.  The mood is menacing: a potentially dangerous storm, purposely (spitefully) destroyed farm, murdered woman (wife/lover), evil fugitives, and vengeful man.  Perhaps he’s the protagonist—hero—perhaps not.  The reader has to continue to discover who he is.

A powerful plot requires a powerful opening, and winning storyline.  Make sure that happens from the get-go.

Details and descriptions should be . . . detailed and descriptive.   Consider the examples below, A versus B.

A   The gang rode quickly across the corn field, toward the hills.

B   The dogged gang, anxious to lose the persistent posse, drove their weary horses across the withered corn field, toward the tree-lined hills.

Characters should be distinct; they have habits, traits, favorite expressions, accents perhaps.  They don’t all sport blond hair or blue eyes.  Characters are different sizes and shapes . . . have varying purposes/pursuits . . . come from diverse backgrounds.  Just like in real life.

John’s blue eyes looked into her gray ones.  “How’s it goin’?”

“It’s goin’ great,” she said, looking into his eyes.

Uh . . . yawn.  Not everyone speaks the same.  How about:

John’s sapphire-blue eyes peered searchingly into her ash-gray ones.  “How are you doing today, my pet?”

“I’m doin’ pretty good,” she replied, not quite meeting his gaze.

But I digress . . . a little.  These suggestions are something to bear in mind when penning that opening.  You don’t want it to be flat, but stirring.  Remember: reel . . . in . . . the . . . reader . . . right . . . away.

That first sentence/paragraph should not only introduce the plot and character(s), and establish a mood, but also present you—the writer, and your style.  Determine your voice and maintain it.  Readers will often read the first page to determine if they will purchase the book; ensure they do by offering the best [most dynamic] writing you can.

How often can I stress the importance of that opening sentence/paragraph?  Not enough.   And one last thing I’m also going to stress—make certain that dynamic opening carries throughout the book.

Pique the reader’s interest and keep it.

The Awesome Realm of Adverbs & Adjectives

Adding adverbs and adjectives—not in overabundance, but within reason—enables readers to more readily visualize the action and characters.  They detract from the flatness of the “he said” and “she said” dialogue tags, and the “she walked across the room” and “he looked at her” type of sentences.

Consider the examples below.  With the addition of an adverb or adjective, or two, don’t they offer more “images” into what is transpiring, how someone is feeling?

“I’m visiting Darren later,” Martha said with a smile.

1.    “I’m visiting Darren later,” Martha smiled sunnily.

2.    “I’m visiting Darren later,” Martha smiled darkly.

3.    “I’m visiting Darren later,” Martha said flatly with a fleeting smile.

4.    “I’m visiting Darren later.” Martha offered a patient smile.

Example 1 suggests Martha’s happy, looking forward to seeing Darren while example 2 says she’s not happy to be doing so.  In the third one, Martha seems uncommitted; she doesn’t really care one way or the other and the fourth indicates a number of things, but more than likely, she doesn’t care for the question and doesn’t want to give a detailed answer, or she’s heard the question before and is repeating the response.  It’s all in the interpretation.

Jeremy looked at Doris and smiled.

1.    Jeremy eyed Doris closely and smiled warmly.

2.    Jeremy scanned Doris from head to foot and offered a flat smile.

3.    Jeremy regarded Doris for several seconds, then smiled fleetingly.

4.    Jeremy stared at Doris with a cool smile.

Example 1 suggests Jeremy likes what he sees, or is pleased with Doris’ reaction, and responds accordingly.  The second example tells us Jeremy isn’t overly pleased with her and the third one has a similar connotation.  Example 4 implies he’s annoyed with Doris, or is angry perhaps.  Again, it’s all in the interpretation.

Just how many ways can we smile?

happily bleakly angrily stoically sadly
cheerfully merrily bittersweetly patiently peevishly
dully smugly blissfully thankfully grimly

And what type of smile might we provide?

happy bleak angry stoic sad
cheerful merry bittersweet patient dull
impatient enthusiastic blissful thankful grim

Just how many ways might a character have “said” something?

cheerfully slowly aloofly frostily eagerly
uncaringly warmly morosely earnestly pointedly
quickly harshly easily callously kindly

The sky’s the limit.  Choose the right adverb/adjective for the situation and action—right as in mood/feeling and in meaning (it’s amazing—and not in a good way—how many people seem to pull a word from the thesaurus without checking its definition).  As I always say, be as professional as possible.

Adverbs and adjectives can truly add so much to a story . . . as long as the writer doesn’t add too much, as in too many.

Remember: everything in moderation.

He/She/It . . . Did . . . Again?

Show, don’t tell is a pretty common expression when it come to the world of writing.  Good “advice”.  Too bad not all [new] writers embrace it. 

Sally looked down the trail and then started walking along it.  She was tired of walking.  She saw a stream.  She got onto her knees and dipped her hands in the cool water.  She cupped some water and sipped thirstily.  When she had her fill, she stood up and looked northward.  She then walked along the trail toward the hills. 

A lot of “she” did something, but nothing terribly descriptive or detailed is presented.  It’s pretty flat and wouldn’t entice a reader to continue reading, unless said reader was using the book as bedtime reading (to prompt a few quick zzzzzs).

Not that you should add copious amounts of details—that could become equally annoying and lend itself to a different degree of dullness. 

Pretty, young Sally looked anxiously down the winding, dusty trail that went for as far as the eye could see, and then started walking quickly along its narrow, pebble-filled path.  She was tired of walking and having to keep a watchful eye.  She saw a curving, burbling stream about twenty yards ahead and left the trail to walk along the prickly plants and high weeds and wizened shrubs.  She got onto her jean-covered knees and dipped her dry, scratched hands in the cool rippling water.  She cupped some refreshing-looking water and sipped thirstily.  When she had her fill, and felt better, she stood up and looked northward toward the small, tree-lined hills.  She then walked returned to the welcome, winding trail and headed toward the beckoning hills. 

More description and details provide more visuals—but be mindful of how much is added and whether it’s truly useful.  Does it enhance the story/plot/action?  Does it create clear pictures, deliver snapshots?

Sally’s pretty face creased with worry when she reached an endless, winding trail.  May as well go for it, she decided.  Quickly yet cautiously, she picked her way along the pebble-filled path.  Twenty yards ahead burbled a serpentine stream lined with prickly plants, tall weeds and wizened shrubs.  Dropping to her knees, her scratched hands cupped cool water.  She drank deeply and when her thirst finally eased, she stood.  Brushing dust and grit from her worn, dirty jeans, she returned to the trail, determined to head northward—to the beckoning tree-dense hills in the not-too-far distance. 

Somewhat better . . .yes?  Writing a book with “she did”, “he did”, “it did” as the frequent action is rather like characters having “said” something 10-15 times on one page.  Uneventful.  Static.  Uninspiring. 

Editing/proofing isn’t fun for most people (I get that), but it is a necessity.  Take some time to read aloud what’s gracing the screen.  Does it sound good?  Honestly good?  Writers’ egos are fragile things (this I can attest to) and, perhaps, there’s a fear factor involved when it comes to correcting material, be it by someone else or oneself. 

But consider this: one doesn’t perfect one’s craft if one isn’t willing to question and challenge, and develop it.

Where do I Put it?

Of late, I’ve been receiving manuscripts for editing with the same issue: misplaced punctuation in dialogue.  It’s like . . . uh, I’m not sure where to put it, so maybe I’ll just throw it there.  Looks good.  I’m good.

I like the exuberance I sense in people’s stories; it spills across the page/screen like an overflowing spring stream.  I don’t so much like that little time has been applied to give their [good] stories the proper editing/proofreading they require.  It seems that some just type, type, type and never return to reread what’s been written.  It’d be great to see the aforementioned exuberance applied—just a wee bit—to the “final product”. 

So, my dear friends and fellow writers, here’s some quick guidance on how to punctuate dialogue in North America.  Notice the placement of commas, periods, and other punctuation marks.

♦  “Say, what’s happening over there?”

♦  “Please stop making all that noise,” she said with a roll of the eyes, “and get ready for dinner.”

♦  “Hold on!”

♦  “Hey, what’s up?”  With a grin, Glenn raced over to the group.

Anything within quotation marks is separate from the rest of the sentence.  Use capitals for full-sentence dialogue/quotes.

When closing a quotation, ensure the period or comma falls within the quotation, not outside.

Utilize commas to introduce text, except when using “that”.

♦  With a shake of her head, Reena said, “It’s not good, John.  You’ll never get away with it.)

♦  Jake told us that “I’ve given up smoking once and for all, really and truly.”

When using a dialogue tag, you would use a comma before the closing quotation marks.

♦  “It’s gorgeous out today,” Jerry declared with a grin.

Dialogue tags, by the way, aren’t necessary if it’s obvious who is speaking.  So, per a couple of previous posts, please don’t feel that you need to add “she said”, “he said”, “Margaret said”, “Wilber said” every time a character speaks; readers can figure it out.  Really.

Don’t leave out punctuation that adds dimension to a sentence, like a question mark or exclamation point.

♦  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

♦  “Don’t worry about it!” he said. 

The second one conveys more emotion, don’t you think?

Often, question marks, exclamation points, and em dashes fall within closing quotation marks—often, but not always.  It depends on the connotation.

♦  Here’s to Edgar, touted “the most likely to succeed”!

♦  Floyd declared, “I’ll win that award, no matter what”—and proceeded to immerse himself in the pursuit.

And single quotes?  Employ them within double quotation marks to denote quoted text within dialogue.

♦  Roger scratched his head and asked, “Was it Shakespeare who said ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ or someone else?”

♦  “Barry said, ‘I’m a real winner’.” 

Don’t forget that a new paragraph is required every time the character/speaker changes.  This will help define who is speaking and what is transpiring.  It also means dialogue tags can be kept to a minimum (and we like that).

One thing some writers seem to forget to do: search for rules.  Don’t take a stab (guessing) at what punctuation should be added to dialogue—and where.  Don’t place it wherever the mood (guess) strikes.  Look . . . it . . . up.  In other words, look . . . professional.  Even if there’s an editor down the road, it never hurts to learn something new . . . does it? <wink>

I Said . . . so Did He . . . and so Did She

I’ve posted on this one at least a couple of times over the last two years—the enthusiastic over-use of “said” in fiction writing.

It seems common in manuscripts by new(er) writers, so I felt compelled (once again) to review why using “said” with zealous abundance might not be in the writer’s, or reader’s, interest.  Literally.

“Yes, sir,” Malcom said with a nod.  “I’ll report my findings as soon as possible.”

“You’d better,” she said.  “And make sure you share them with Winters too.”

“I’ll do that,” he said.

She sighed and said, “Don’t forget to call after the meeting later; I need to know what’s transpired.”

“Yes, Mary-Anne,” he said and disconnected just as his executive assistant, Lee, entered.

“Looks like it’s gonna be a long day,” Lee said as he placed a folder on Malcolm’s desk.

“You said it,” Malcolm said with a sigh.

I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that flow like this . . . as flat as flapjacks.  There’s no need to always state that a character said something.  Dialogue can stand on its own a lot of the time.  Readers are pretty smart and can gather who is speaking from the action and details.

This isn’t to say that “said” shouldn’t be used.  By all means, utilize it, but with a critical eye, and ear.  It serves a [valid] purpose, but it’s not always a terribly exciting word and, sometimes, dialogue needs more, particularly in a tense or action-fraught scene.

Do you think people will have “said” something when a bomb is about to detonate or a giant lizard is about to eat a bunch of tourists?  I suspect people would more likely have “declared”, “shouted”, “screamed”, “shrieked”, “commanded”, “cried”, or “bellowed”, to name but a few more thrilling and descriptive words.

Can’t you imagine Bob’s face as he shrieks a command to a fear-frozen coworker, as opposed to says?  Shriek, to me, suggests his face would be tense, his brow creased, his lips tight, his throat dry; maybe he’d be gesticulating or taking action as he shrills.  Say, to me, evokes an image of an unemotional face, someone who’s non-reactive.

How about we take the previous example and “activate” it a bit?

“Yes, sir,” Malcom promised with a quick nod and roll of the eyes.  “I’ll report my findings as soon as possible.”

“You’d better,” she advised with a hint of a threat in the tone.  “And make sure you share them with Winters too.”

He swallowed heavily and jabbed the pen into the edge of the desk.  “I’ll do that.”

She sighed loudly.  “Don’t forget to call after the meeting later; I need to know what’s transpired.”

“Yes, Mary-Anne.”  He disconnected just as his executive assistant, Lee, entered.

“Looks like it’s gonna be a long day,” Lee commented with a dry smile as he placed a folder on Malcolm’s desk.

“You said it,” Malcolm muttered, rubbing his temples.

It’s not an exciting scene to begin with, but we can make it a little more interesting or add a little more tension.  Always give thought as to how you can create more gripping or dynamic dialogue and scenes.  Pull those readers in; don’t make their eyelids droop from fatigue.

It’s difficult getting started on that first story, be it a short one or a novel.  There are many things to learn and apply.  It all comes with time and practice.  And that’s okay.  We all have a learning curve.

Churning something out, however, without reviewing, proofing, or editing, is something to avoid.  Per a previous post on this blog: there’s no need to be “perfect”, but do aspire to be the best that you can be.

I’m fairly sure, of the many manuscripts I’ve edited thus far, most haven’t read their final drafts aloud.  Do so.  This may sound daft but, trust me, it’s a worthwhile endeavor and it really doesn’t take that long.  You’ll be amazed what you will “hear” and pick up.

Hope what I “said” makes sense.

Which Word Works?

This week I felt compelled to review word usage in fiction writing (or any writing, for that matter).  The right word conveys the right emotion, message, action.

New writers sometimes feel a need to use words or phrases (and I’ve been there, I readily admit) to impress, or seem more “worldly” perhaps.  Occasionally, when editing, I come across ones that I’ve never seen before!  Wow, how impressive indeed—into the dictionary I delve!

Don’t aim for impressive; go for impression, the [desired] effect you produce in the mind of your readers.

At times, the selected word works, at times, not.  So, why was it chosen?  Because it sounded good?  Not a valid reason, my friends.  Because it’s popular?  Not a valid reason, my friends.  Because you really want to demonstrate how grand your vocabulary is?  Not a valid reason, my friends.

Upon hearing the news of her death, sadness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, ruefulness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, dispiritedness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, forlornness flowed through him.

The bolded words share a similar meaning (to a degree) yet are not the same.

sadness:  causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or sorrow

ruefulness:  causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or regret

dispiritedness:  a feeling of low spirits

forlornness:  sad or lonely, chiefly from being abandoned or forsaken

Utilize the word the best works for the dialogue, action, scene—and not because a “bigger” word seems “better”.  Ensure the word or phrase is appropriate to the circumstance(s).  And if you want to use a new word, go for it, but check the definition.  Is it accurate for what is being written/conveyed?  Remember: the dictionary is our friend.

They say short and sweet is best, and that can hold true for words.  Sometimes, the clearest, most persuasive word is the shortest one.

And, if you’re writing a historical novel, think about how your characters speak—modern-day phrases and expressions really don’t have a place here, unless time travel is involved.

The same holds true of speech/dialogue.  Someone of royal blood or a person in a governmental position would not likely use “gonna” or “wanna”; he or she would speak with more precision and professionalism.  Moreover, characters—like everyday persons—would speak differently and employ unique phrases or expressions.  Contractions may or may not be used, given who the person is and where he or she hails from.


The minister looked as his assistant.  “Bro, like I was tellin’ ya, I was wondering if we’re gonna like the proposals Major Martyn will propose, ya know?  I heard he’s kinda odd when it comes to—”

“No worries, sir, I’m sure you’re gonna like them just fine,” his assistant said.

How about something like:

The minister regarded Lester, his assistant, closely.  “I wonder if Major Martyn’s proposals will be practical.  I’ve heard he’s rather odd when it comes to—”

“No worries, sir,” Lester interrupted with an amiable smile.  “I’m sure you’ll find them appropriate.”

Incorrect word choices (or arrangements) can result in clumsiness, vagueness, and/or ambiguity.

Example of incorrect word usage:

“George, from here on in we will live our life together, don’t you think that’s awesome?  We can rely on each other, my honey-bun,” Margaret derailed George’s train of thought, like she knew precisely what he was so totally enthralled with.

Example of better word usage:

With a patient smile, Margaret derailed George’s train of thought.  “Going forward we’ll live our lives together.  We’ll have each other to rely on.  That’s amazing, don’t you agree?”

Avoid misusing words; again, check the definition if you’re not quite sure.  Make certain the context is correct.

Keep an eye on jargon, too.  It may work for a character or two, but it may not for others, and it may not work in descriptive sections.  Clichés can be appealing, at times, in the right situations, but they can also prove trite if not silly, so use them wisely.

Say what needs saying, and don’t “over-stuff”; you only need so many feathers for a comfy cushion.  Wordiness, unlike a dictionary, is not our friend.

ClipartKeydotcomABCaIn summation:  ♦  be careful when utilizing a word that’s unfamiliar  ♦  use a dictionary if you use a thesaurus, to be certain the new word you want to use is the right one  ♦  do not write to impress or sound like you know it all  ♦  watch for repetition (have you used the same word/phrase too many times?).

Reading aloud helps . . . really.  Try it.  See if it doesn’t help you with your word selection.  If something doesn’t sound good to your ears, it probably needs reworking.

This could easily be a five-page post because there’s so much to advise re word usage, but no one wants to plow through a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng post, so here you have the main food-for-thought points.  I hope they help.

On that note, I bid you a short and simple adieu.

Judy Hogan Writes

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