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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Dialogue

The Editing Agenda: Tackling Tags

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

While I’ve made several posts in the past about dialogue, today it’s time to tackle tags. During my experience as an editor, I’ve corrected a ridiculous number of tags. In fact, they’re probably the biggest issue I run into—apart from maybe commas. What makes them such a struggle for writers? Honestly, I think the methodology has a lot to do with it. When many of us write, my included, we tend to get the story down on paper as quickly as possible and worry about the structure later. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, eventually we have to the editing stage. So what better time to hunt down the little boogers and spruce them up? This article will focus on the ins and outs of tags: what works as a tag, what doesn’t, and why diversity in tags can sometimes be a downfall.

Tag, You’re It!

The general purpose of a tag is to describe who is speaking and to indict tone of the dialogue.

Some tags may be very simple: “Put the water on to boil,” said Tommy.

Others may be more elaborate: “Why would you do this?” she asked in a strangled voice.

They can even be coupled with an action: “Of course,” he said, waving goodbye.

But all tags are used to further clarify the dialogue within the given context. Oftentimes, they are a way of depicting emotions as well as what is being said. But BE CAREFUL about using tags to convey emotion, especially if you’re relying on adverbs to do so. Usually, a much better way of illustrating these emotions is to use characters’ body language, facial expressions, and even the words themselves. While including some emotion in a tag’s description is okay, too much falls dangerously into the telling category. The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself, “Can this be shown better through the character’s actions or by others’ responses?” If the answer is yes, your tag probably could use some tweaking.

Example A (adverbial tag): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked impatiently.

Example B (alternative): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked, crossing her arms and pursing her lips.

While Example A definitely conveys Jane’s emotions and signifies that she is the one asking a question, it definitely lies more in the realm of telling. There’s no clear image of what the character is doing to show that she’s impatient, and it doesn’t engage the reader. Example B fulfills the function of a tag, and it does a much better job of showing how Jane feels without stating anything directly.

Not It!

A tag isn’t a linked reaction the dialogue. This concept can be tricky, because a lot of actions sound like they could be tags—but they aren’t. For instance:

“Well, of course I didn’t!” Joanie giggled.

Giggling, while an action often associated with what someone has said, is a reaction to the dialogue being spoken, not a description of the tone used or a simple signpost for who said the line; therefore, it’s NOT a tag. Here are a few other actions often mistakenly used as tags:

  • Coughed
  • Laughed
  • Hissed
  • Nodded
  • Smiled
  • Sighed

The best way to catch these pesky creatures is to make use of the search and find feature on your word processor. It can home in on all those non-tags (sometimes referred to as bookisms) for you in a matter of seconds. Once you’ve found all the subpar tags, get to work revising and tweaking them until you have a solid base sprinkled with appropriate actions to convey emotions. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep It Simple

There’s still some debate over this technique, but I think editors and publishers as a whole have come to the consensus that when it comes to dialogue tags, keeping it simple is best. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some diversity in your tags or pepper them with action where necessary—in fact, using action with tags is a necessity to avoiding a phenomenon called talking heads—but tags are one place where variation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The word said is one of the best markers you can use in dialogue. It serves the primary function of dialogue, to depict who is speaking, and accompanying actions can be used to further enhance the scene by conveying emotion and even tone of the dialogue. While it may feel like using “said” multiple times in a scene would be tiresome to the reader, quite the opposite is true. Readers treat the word like a signpost: it directs them without interrupting the flow of the narration, and that makes for a smoother reading.

If you want some extra tips on using tags, I highly recommend checking out this article by Writer’s Digest. They give excellent examples and go even more in-depth about showing vs. telling when it comes to dialogue and tags.

The Grammar Grind: Quotation Marks

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Quotations marks are rather simple to understand. They are used to capture word for word what somebody has said. They can also be used to indicate sarcasm or to set off a term, though italics are often preferred in such cases. Implementing quotation marks is a bit trickier. Many people struggle with the specifics, such as determining whether to use single or double quotation marks and where to place punctuation surrounding quotations.

This post will address those issues as well as a few others. Please keep in mind all rules discussed follow U.S. standards for quotation marks. Other countries follow a different standard, particularly for single vs. double quotation marks and punctuation placement. The field of journalism (newspapers, magazines, online publication, etc.) also often uses different style guidelines.

Single vs. Double Quotation Marks
Choosing the incorrect type of quotation marks—single or double—is the primary error I see in articles and manuscripts. But the U.S. rules for single vs. double quotation marks are very simple and direct. Single quotation marks are used if and only if they are placed inside double quotation marks (i.e. when there is a quotation within a quotation).

Example: Mary said, "She told Fred, 'Get out!'"

Grammar Girl has an excellent poston this subject and also discusses the difference between the terms quote and quotation.

Curly vs. Straight Quotation Marks
Though few people really notice, there are actually two styles of quotation marks: curly quotation marks (”) and straight quotation marks ("). Curly quotation marks are used to set off dialogue, titles, terms, etc., while straight quotation marks are only used to indicate measurements—a single mark to indicate feet and a double mark to indicate inches. However, since they are often sleeker and are more pleasing to the eye, straight quotation marks are often used as a replacement for curly ones, especially on websites and printed publications such as magazines and journals. But why do so when using straight quotation marks is technically incorrect?

It all has to do with typography. When typographers design fonts, they choose the type of quotation marks that best fits with the overall appearance of the typeface. When they use straight quotation marks instead of curly ones, they are opting for a better-looking design over a minor technicality. Browse through a few well-designed websites, and you'll quickly see what I mean. The truth of the matter is, rules dictating a distinction between the two styles are becoming a thing of the past.

Punctuation Placement
Punctuation placement is another toughie for people to get straight. Again, this mainly has to do with stylistic differences between the U.S. and other countries. For the U.S., periods and commas always go insidequotation marks, no matter what the case. If you have a single quotation with a double quotation, the period or comma should go inside both sets of quotations.

Example 1: "Let's try the next room," suggested Sally. "I don't think this one is big enough."

Example 2: Greg explained, "She looked me in the eye and confessed, 'Not this time.'"

There also should never be more than one punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, even when quotation marks are used. If a quotation is a statement, use the appropriate comma or period—not both.

Semicolons and colons are next in the hierarchy of punctuation. They should always be placed outside the quotation marks and take precedence over commas and periods.

Example: You don't always have to say "no"; you could suggest other options instead.

Question marks and exclamation marks are at the top in the hierarchy of punctuation. They will always take precedence over all other forms of punctuation. When coupled with a quotation, they should be placed logically within the sentence.

Example 1: Why would Jane have said, "The sky is green, not blue"?

Example 2: Judy exclaimed, "You're such a prude!"

If the sentence itself is a question or an exclamation, place the ending punctuation outside the quotation marks (Example 1). If instead the quotation is a question or exclamation, place the ending punctuation inside the quotation marks (Example 2). Notice that there is still only one form of punctuation at the end.

Finally, never use quotation marks when paraphrasing. Quotation marks should only be used to capture word for word what someone has said. When determining whether or not a statement is being paraphrased, look for an occurrence of the word "that" before the stated material. If present, "that" signifies the speaker is using his/her own words to reiterate someone else's message; hence, no quotation marks should be used.

Example: Johnny stated that Sally got lost on her way to the park.

Quick-Tip Overview
1. Single quotation marks should only be used inside of double quotation marks.
2. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
3. Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.
4. Question marks and exclamation marks should be placed logically within the sentence.
5. Question marks and exclamation marks take precedence over all other forms of punctuation; semicolons and colons rank next, followed by periods and commas.
6. Never use quotation marks when paraphrasing.

Detailed Dialogue

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

In my Why Good Writing Matters series, I covered dialogue as a whole. Now I'd like to go more in-depth with dialogue and give suggestions for sprucing it up and making it natural and easy to follow. Just as variation in  prose shapes good writing, so does variation in characters' speech. Sentence length and style, topics of conversation, and vocabulary/language are the main areas where dialogue can be enhanced. That dialogue can then be used to accent the surrounding prose.

Dialogue as Prose
One of the great things about dialogue is that it can be used for manipulating the reader and building plot. For instance, if you have a scene where you are unraveling delicate information, incorporating backstory, introducing new conflicts, or a combination of these, one option is to explain the actions of the events through characters' conversations. Take this scene from Catching Fire (Book 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy):

             She [Madge] saw my reflection behind her and smiled. "Look at you. Like you came right off the streets of the Capitol."
            I [Katniss] stepped in closer. My fingers touched the mockingjay. "Even my pin now. Mockingjays are all the rage in the Capitol, thanks to you. Are you sure you don't want it back?" I asked.
            "Don't be silly, it was a gift," said Madge. She tied back her hair in a festive gold ribbon.
            "Where did you get it, anyway?" I asked.
            "It was my aunt's," she said. "But I think it's been in the family a long time."
            "It's a funny choice, a mockingjay," I said. "I mean, because of what happened in the rebellion. With the jabberyjays backfiring on the Capitol and all."

Notice all of the context surrounding this short stretch of dialogue. There is mention of a place called the Capitol, and it is clear by Madge's comment that Katniss looks out of place. By the next few sentences, one can ascertain the Capitol is a place of influence. A small amount of backstory regarding the pin is then mentioned, and the subsequent dialogue serves as an introduction for more history on the symbol and the place called the Capitol. It is clear from their conversation the symbol has become somewhat taboo and holds a dark past directly tied to the Capitol. All of this information is revealed to the reader through simple conversation, and the style allows the author to control how much of the information the reader absorbs in this scene.

Although this wasn't true for the above excerpt, sentences in dialogue don't always have to be completed and can actually be very useful in building suspense and tension. Take this short exchange from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5 of the Harry Potter series):

            "Don't call them that!" Hermione said furiously, but Umbridge did not appear to have heard her. Still pointing her shaking want at Magorian, she continued, "Law Fifteen B states clearly that 'Any attack by a magical creature who is deemed to have near-human intelligence, and therefore considered responsible of its actions—'"
            "'Near-human intelligence'?" repeated Magorian, as Bane and several other roared with rather and pawed the ground. "We consider that a great insult, human! Our intelligence, thankfully, far outstrips your own—"
            "What are you doing in our forest?" bellowed the hard-faced gray centaur whom Harry and Hermione had seen on their last trip into the forest. "Why are you here?"

Each time a character speaking is cut off, tension and anger emits from the other characters, shown through the intense remarks and accompanying body language. The suspense then builds, as inevitable confrontation approaches.

Reasons one might choose this method of prose:

1.      This is a great way to control which parts of the plot unfold and what information is relayed to the reader.

2.      This method can be used to switch from one character's thoughts to another (reserved mainly for limited omniscient narrative). For example, if Character A is the main focus of a story, a conversation with Character B can then act as a bridge into Character B's thoughts and point of view.

3.      Dialogue can simply be used as an alternative kind of prose to keep the reader's interest.

Vocabulary and Accents
Vocabulary and accents can clue readers into a number of attributes about a character, including educational background, origin, and preferences in friends. However, it can also be used to purposely lead the reader astray. At some point in our lives, most of us make our own choices about accents, whether consciously or subconsciously. And although it's true that cultures and subcultures have a great influence on our speech, so does peer pressure.

During college, I had a professor who taught linguistics. In his first lecture, there was nothing out of the ordinary about him or his lesson; he taught us the basics of how language worked and spoke with the same accent as everyone else. At the end of his first class, he turned and informed us that the whole lesson had been an experiment. When he spoke next, his accent was no longer the one we'd heard all throughout the lesson; it was unmistakably West Virginian, something none of us were accustomed to. The reaction was immediate. Several students giggled quietly. Others started whispering to their friends. After several moments of the commotion, the professor raised his hand to signal silence to the class and resumed speaking with a Midwestern accent, the one he'd been using.

He informed us that he could tell many of us weren't used to second accent. He went on to confess that accent he had been using to teach us during the whole lesson was in fact not his own, that he actually spoke with a West Virginian accent. However, like our class, his peers in school often laughed and him and judged him. It was at that point he chose to teach himself how to speak with a Midwestern accent so that he would be viewed as normal.

Just as with my professor, characters sometimes choose the way in which they speak. Incorporating dialects in writing can provide a richness that no other method will. However, the dialect should be consistent and not overdone; you'll know you've done a good job if others can easily follow the text and understand what the character is saying without having to pause to figure out articulation. A great example of a well-written accent is Hagrid's in the Harry Potter series.

Incorporating Body Language
Body language is also a topic mentioned in my previous article on dialogue, but it's important enough to repeat. One sure sign of amateur dialogue is the occurrence of talking heads. This term can be applied when characters engage in conversation without having accompanying body language or action to propel the plot. Often when talking heads emerge in a book, it's unclear who is speaking. You don't need to have a tag on every line of dialogue, but they are necessary when clarifying identity or when there is an abundance of action. Even when few tags are needed, body language should take the place of adjectives and adverbs.

Dialogue is difficult to master, even for the best of writers. It's a fine balance between exposing plot while remaining concise. Use a combination of all the aforementioned methods to achieve the most efficient and natural dialogue. Also, keep dialogue short and appropriate for the character/scene, and avoid stating the obvious. Pay particular attention to dialogue in tense action scenes; a character will not have time to stop and ramble when they are under attack. Judgements, and therefore words, will likely be quick and brash during these scenes.

Why Good Writing Matters: Dialogue

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Dialogue is one of those pesky details of crafting fiction that can make or a break a good story. Good dialogue can make characters really come to life. However, when written poorly, dialogue can make the story flat, unprofessional, and even annoying. It's a tricky thing to get right. I don't think the answer is as simple as "You're either good at dialogue, or you aren't," either. So how does one approach writing dialogue that will make it both real and interesting to the reader?

Keep It Simple
Dialogue holds a number of emotions for the characters that say them. It is a tool for interaction between characters and one for conveying characters' thoughts and emotions to readers. What they say and how they say it can tell the reader more about a character than the author may realize. Depending on the dialect, one might be able to tell a location from which the character originates and sometimes their educational background. So it's easy to get wrapped up in what a character should say, especially when you're trying to explain a complex situation. While you want to be clear with what the character is saying and feeling, you also want to leave out some information, allowing the reader to pick up on cues from the other context. Not doing so can be frustrating to the reader, making them feel as though you don't think they're smart enough to figure out the subtler meanings on their own. Keeping the dialogue as simple as possible can minimize these issues. Say what is necessary for the scene, moment, or what have you, and leave it at that. Make the dialogue unique to the individual, but avoid being overly wordy.

Why this method works: Simple dialogue is real dialogue. There aren't many individuals (that I know at least) that go around spouting off their every thought and desire. We have a way of involuntarily communicating with our bodies that let other people know how we feel about a situation without having to say anything at all. We're also good at saying as little as necessary to get our words across, assuming that the other person will know enough about us and the context of what we said to pick up on the full meaning of our words. We're emotional creatures, and we're often eager to express ourselves without much planning. Good dialogue will have this feel to it, but it will also include a subtle agenda.

If your dialogue is forced, it will be obvious. Bad dialogue is one of the easiest things to pick out, even for non-writers. So it's important to get it right. The best way to pull off this balancing act is to let your characters be who they are. Start out by having them say what you think they would say rather than what you want them to say. You can always go back and edit out unnecessary text later.

Avoid Talking Heads
While good dialogue adds a dimension of realism to a scene and can really be a good means of portraying the personality of a character, it's rendered ineffective when used alone. A large block of dialogue that isn't coupled with anything else, such as appropriate tags or body language, is a phenomenon referred to as talking heads. This type of dialogue will sometimes includes a small amount of body language in ending tags, such as "he said and smiled" or "she asked, raising her hand," but these small gestures don't really tell us much about the situation or the characters involved. They don't give a dimension of realism and layers to a character and/or situation that well-written dialogue would do.

Not every line of dialogue needs a tag, not every body movement needs to be captured. However, in an effort to avoid having to much dialogue and too little body language, it's a good idea to first consider how the character being spoken too might react physically, and attempt to portray his/her body language first, before adding in any dialogue. This will ensure that only necessary dialogue is used, and it will also enrich the dialogue, making it more believable. Again, keeping it simple is usually the best way to go.

I know that it gets tiresome to hear that old practice makes perfect advice, but that's the heart and soul of good writing. Every good writer starts out as an amateur, and every fantastic novel starts out as scribbles of uninteresting crap. It takes time--and yes, practice--to transform those scribbles into a work of art. And no matter how good your writing is, there is always room for improvement.

One way to practice dialogue is by observing before writing. Listen to conversations on the train or in a store as you pass by people. Watch how the intended recipient of those words responds. Note any body language used, even if it's pointing or a simple nod. Keep in mind why you think the responder uses those actions, and what they might indicate to the speaker.

Another good observation exercise is to go to the park and people watch. You don't need to get close to anyone or even hear any words being exchanged. Observing the body language of those around you can give you a good idea of people's emotions, and it makes for excellent notes for accompanying dialogue. If you've ever been around a group of toddlers or young kids, you'll notice that they are especially adept at using body language to communicate. That is because body language is their primary form of expressing their feelings. They are keen to interact with others and have no problem showing how they feel. If you ever get the chance to observe these wonderful creatures, do so. You can learn a lot from them.

Another way to practice dialogue is by doing writing exercises. They can help you with just about any type of writing, but I've found them to be exceptionally useful with practicing dialogue. The more you write dialogue, the easier it will become, and the more natural it will start to sound.

Below are some writing exercises I've come up that encourage use of body language to convey characters emotions. Each has an explanation beneath it as to the specific skills gained from the exercise.

Writing Exercises/Prompts
1. Image a bank robbery scene. There are between fifteen and twenty customers on the floor, all being held at gunpoint by one of the robbers. The other, also carrying a gun, is dealing with a cashier, getting her to hand over all the money upfront that she has access to. The other employees are in a storage closet, guarded by the same robber who is keeping an eye on the customers. Now, try writing this scene without using ANY dialogue. You can focus on either robber, the customers on the floor, or the employees in the storage closet.

Skills: By focusing on not having your characters saying anything, you'll be able to accomplish two things. First, you'll have a better understanding of how to incorporate natural body language into your dialogue. Second, you'll find the key moments where there is a clear need to have something said in order to avoid confusion. This will help eliminate unnecessary dialogue in scenes where you do use it. You will also get a feel in this exercise for how dialogue works when there is a big group of people involved, and it's a great way to explore and practice use of the five main senses.

2. Two colleagues who don't get along well are being forced to work together on a project. It's day 3 of day 5 on the project, and things are getting heated between them. They've managed to get most of the way through the project, but they've now reached a critical point and are getting hung up on the details. Write a scene dictating the outcome of their collaboration on that part. Does one character get his way over the other? Do they put their differences aside and speak as co-workers would, or do they let their anger get the best of them and use dialogue that typically would not be suitable for the workplace? Pay particular attention as to what the other co-workers around them do. Do they become involved, or do they remove themselves from the situation? How does that affect the two main characters in this scene?

Skills: Writing a critical scene where two characters are under a time crunch and dislike each other help to cut down on superfluous conversation. It will keep the dialogue to a minimum and again rely heavily on body language. This will also help you practice using real-life dialogue as a means of solving a problem between two characters.

3. Two teenagers are out on their second date together. It's Valentine's Day, and they've chosen a quiet restaurant to share their evening together. One character is reserved and shy but is genuinely enjoying her date. The other is more outgoing and somewhat talkative, but he is turned off by the lack of participation that his date is showing in the conversation. Write a scene that shows what happens between the two as the guy starts asking more about the girl. Does she open up, or does she get embarrassed by being put on the spot and clam up? Does the guy learn more patience in waiting for his date to speak, or does he get irritated by her seemingly rude behavior? Does the date end well, or do they decided not to see one another again?

Skills: Sharing an intimate meal with someone is a common, real-world situation that often comes up in storytelling. Sharing a meal with someone whom you have affections for raises the stakes a bit and forces characters to divulge information that they may have been keeping secret. It's a situation in which romance can blossom of course, but it can also be intimidating for some and cause them to clam up. Practicing an exercise like this is a good way to get to know your characters and explore how they are most likely to express their feelings for one another through dialogue.

If you use these methods when writing dialogue, you should see improvement over time. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally right away. Many writers struggle with this area of writing--I'm one of them--and writing dialogue is not as easy as it sounds. Using language and reading others' body language in real life are second nature to most of us. But if you break it down, communication is a rather complex subject. So it's no wonder good dialogue is so difficult to capture on paper. In fact, concise and realistic dialogue is probably one of the hardest things to get right in a story.