A Conversation About ‘He Said, She Said’ (or Avoid Dialog Tags)

canstockphoto5739427“What are dialog tags?” he asked, inquisitively.

“Dialog tags are the little obvious fragments that writers add to the end of speech to identify who is speaking and what feeling the character is emoting,” she explained.

“So dialog tags are kind of like emoticons for writers,” he laughed.

“Exactly,” she agreed.

“Well, you didn’t have to tell me you agreed. I already knew that based on you saying ‘exactly,'” he snarled, offended.

“Why are you telling me you’re offended?” She put her hands on her hips and leaned toward him. She studied his expression a moment, then wagged a finger at him like an old schoolmarm.  “You should show your feelings, not tell them.”

“I don’t understand what you mean?” he queried, baffled.

“You’re a writer.” She straightened her back and folded her arms across her chest.  “You should show not tell. And of course this includes dialogue.”

He shrugged. “But I like to use ‘said’ after my dialog to identify who is speaking,” he said.

“That’s fine.” She put a hand on his shoulder. Her face softened. “Adding ‘said’ to dialog is okay when used in moderation. It generally doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Just don’t break out the thesaurus to describe how they’re talking. Your reader should feel that through your character’s dialog and action.”

“You’re kidding?” he vociferously expostulated. “You mean readers aren’t impressed with all those verbs and adverbs?”

“Those verbs and adverbs are distracting. They pull the reader out of the story.” She stepped back and waved a hand, as if grasping an invisible object and flinging it across the room. After a moment, she looked him directly in the eyes. “Those words scream ‘Look at me! Look how clever this story is written!’


“Really. In fact, you sometimes don’t need dialog tags at all.”

“And the reader can still follow along?”

“Yes. Especially when there are only two characters having a conversation.”

She watched him a moment as they stood in silence. He lifted his hand to his face and scratched his chin. He looked deep in thought.

“I guess that makes sense.” He reached for her and grasped her hand. His face brightened. “The words that come out of my character’s mouth should be strong enough to convey the emotion. If I need an added oomph then I should describe what the characters are doing while they talk.”

She returned his smile and squeezed his hand. “Exactly.”



5 Dialog Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

canstockphoto6243281This may read like Grammar 101, but I see these mistakes in a lot of unpublished, new author’s works. Unfortunately, these mistakes scream “Amateur!” and hurt the author’s chances of getting published.

If these rules are elementary, skip them. For everyone else, print them out and nail them to your monitor.

Problem #1:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date,” Kim said. “You know I’m involved with someone.” Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic.”

Don’t put two character’s conversations into one paragraph. It makes it very difficult to figure out who is talking.
Start a new paragraph every time a new character speaks.

Problem #2:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date You know I’m involved with someone.” Said Kim.

“Stop being so melodramatic!” Said Mallory.

The character’s conversation and the tag should not be two separate sentences. This is a basic grammar rule. Use a comma instead of a period, and make the conversation flow into the tag.

Problem #3:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date You know I’m involved with someone“, Kim said.

Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic“!

Always put terminal punctuation (commas, periods) inside the quotation marks.

Problem #4:
“I can’t believe you, Mallory! You sandbagged me with another blind date when you know I’m involved with someone. Ross and I are madly, deeply in love. I just think you’re jealous of our love. You always have been, but this time you’ve gone too far. Too far, I tell you! And, I will never forgive you. Not today or tomorrow or in a million years from now. Our friendship is officially over!” Kim said.

Mallory grabbed her arm to slow her down. “Stop being so melodramatic! Ross broke up with you. He cruelly, unceremoniously dumped you and he’s not coming back. No matter what you do or say, he will never come back. You need to make peace with that and learn to accept it. That’s why I set you up. Because I’m your friend, and always will be.”

The characters need a chance to breathe. Besides, no one really talks like this — and if they do, no one is really listening. Keep the dialog brief and to the point. The conversation above would be much easier to follow if it was broken-up into an exchange between the two women.

Problem #5:
“You sandbagged me with another blind date,” Kim said angrily. “You know I’m involved with someone.”

“Stop being so melodramatic,” Mallory said indignantly.

Repeat after me: Adverbs are not my friend. Adverbs are not my friend. Adverbs are not my friend. If you need to explain the emotion, then you’ve written flat dialog or a stale scene.

* Examples based on an excerpt from the mystery novel Prey of Desire.

Language of the Body: Add visual dialog to your conversations

canstockphoto13397004Do you feel like you’ve got too many “he said,” “she said” tags in your dialog? Are you leaning on adverbs to express your character’s feelings? Do some research on body language to add emotional and descriptive depth to your character’s dialog.

Body language can bring your conversations to life. It subtly strengthens the dialog, and plants mental images in your reader’s head. Consider the following:

Angrily = Shoulders retracted, head leans forward, fists closed, neck and forehead veins bulge,
Apologizing = Eyes lowered, hands clasped together
Defensively = Arms crossed, fists closed, brows furrowed,
Fearfully = Shoulders raised, eyes wide open, mouth scrunched.
Forced Politeness = Oblong smile, eyes pointed, stiff posture
Friendly = Broad smile, open palms, arms outstretched
Interested = Eyes raised, Body leans forward, Long gaze
Leave Me Alone = Shoulders hunched, Chin to chest, Eyes nearly closed
Lying or Withholding Information = Rapid blinking, Avoids eye contact, hands hidden, nods head frequently, places finger between lips, ankles locked
Nervously = Biting fingernails, Forehead sweating, Change of complexion, Dry mouth, Repeated fidgeting (with item, running hands through hair, changing positions, tapping fingers), clammy hands,
Pensively = Hands to cheek,
Responsibility = Shoulders square, chin raised, chest out
Sexual Interest = Lips parted, hands touching the other’s shoulder, feet pointed toward the other, fingers touching hair
Tensely = Swallowing, Gulping

Want to read more? Check out:
Knock ’em Dead with Verbs


Six simple steps to edit your manuscript


I’m deep in the throes of editing a book right now. It’s tedious. It’s time consuming. It’s also a critical step in storytelling.

Ultimately, I think there are two levels in the editing process. Level 1 is The Narrative Flow.  It’s the part where the story is really constructed. I analyze the story structure. I break it down scene by scene to see if the book has tension. I look at the characters and ask, “Are they vibrant and fully developed?”

Level 2 is The Scrub. This is where I look at the individual sentences and words themselves. I look for spelling errors, point of view shifts and all those lazy adverbs. I believe the Level 2 edit is what separates the professional from the amateur.

In editing my current project, I thought I’d share my checklist of “Things to Look For When Editing Your Manuscript.” I may add to the list as time goes by.


1. Spell Check. Spell Check. Spell Check. You won’t believe the words I misspelled while cranking out my initial draft.  It’s embarrasing. (See what I did there?) One of the most insightful, meaningful things my college English professor told me was, “Your story is almost as creative as your spelling.”

2. Circle Every Adverb.  I’m not going to say that I’m publishing an adverb free book, but I will say that I’m rewriting 75% of the sentences that rely on adverbs to explain the emotion, rather than body language, facial expression or character action. Short descriptive sentences that convey emotion are far more interesting to read.

3. Circle Every “he said” and “she said.” Generally, this goes hand in hand with the adverbs, he said lazily. (See what I did there? Sometimes I amuse myself.) A constant stream of “said” gets monotonous. Worse, if the word appears over and over again on a page, it will distract the reader. I try to limit the “said” and replace it with a little snippet of character action. One of the best tricks in the book is to break-up a paragraph of description, and slowly reveal that info around the conversation.

4. Circle All Those Boring, Passive Sentences. You know the ones — where the subject doesn’t perform the action. Look for the culprits in front of the verb, such as “was,” “had been,” “are” and “were.”  Delete them and release the verb. :) (Passive: The police had been tailing Andy for hours.  Active: The police tailed Andy for hours. )

5. Circle Sentences Beginning with an ING word.  Starting a sentence off with a gerund (a verb ending in ing) is a great way to break-up monotony in sentence patterns. However… most people (myself included) butcher the grammar. I often read sentences in amateur writing where the ING clause isn’t supported by the noun. (i.e. “Walking along the beach, two sharp stones cut my foot.” As written in that sentence, two sharp stones are walking along the beach. )  Another common error is a conflict in time — where the action in the opening clause is out of sync with the action happening in the main part of the sentence. (i.e. “Opening the front door, Thomas raced outside to greet them at the car.” Chronologically, Thomas opens the door THEN he runs outside. The way the sentence is written, he is opening the door and racing outside at the same time.)  Grammar aside, sentences that begin with a gerund can read like Yoda-speak and break the narrative flow. Use sparingly.

6. Confirm the Point of View in Each Section. We all do this. The dominant point of view in a section is Character A, but in one paragraph — often one tied to dialogue — the point of view jumps to Character B.  Character B sees something, thinks something, or feels something. Most people who are much smarter than I am will tell you that this creates confusion for the reader. Sometimes it does;  sometimes it doesn’t. It will, however, make your writing feel choppy and disjointed.

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