Monthly Archives: January 2014

Dialogue Tags: Keep It Simple

When it comes to using dialogue tags in fiction writing, I can sum up my philosophy in four words: he said-she said. That’s all you need. I could end this post here, but let me expand on the subject.

The worst offense in dialogue tags is to use fancy words for “said.” Why? The dialogue should speak for itself. Words like “opined” or “exhorted” or “exclaimed” get in the way. Leave your thesaurus in the other room when writing dialogue tags.

Guest blogger Alythia Brown put it better than I could on Joanna Penn’s excellent blog: “On your never-ending quest to find a new way to say he said or she said, please don’t go overboard with substitutes. If you pepper every speaking phrase with a fun-filled synonym for said, it can be distracting and, well, annoying. It takes the reader’s attention away from what the characters are saying. Said can somewhat pass for an invisible word. Readers are accustomed to and skim right over said. However, you should still be mindful of its word count in your manuscript and try to find creative ways to keep it down…”

My system for dialogue tags is:

First line of dialogue: character’s names (John said. Mary said).

Second line of dialogue: he said/she said.

All subsequent lines: no tags at all.

Here’s an example:

“You stole my cat,” John said. (Note the lack of an exclamation point. The words should convey the emotion.)

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mary said.

“Why?” he said.

“I’m allergic to cats,” she said.

“Yeah right.”

“Come to think of it, I’m allergic to you.”

This offhand example underscores another point about dialogue tags: let the action speak for itself. There is conflict and sarcasm (and underlying anger) in that scene, but I chose not to litter it with exclamation points or synonyms for the word ‘said.’ The words should carry the emotions.

Here are more tips on dialogue tags:

Fiction Writer’s Mentor

Lit Reactor


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Book Review: “Someone,” by Alice McDermott

There is a scene in Alice McDermott’s seventh novel, Someone, that perfectly displays the keen powers of observation that the author imparts to the main character, Marie. She is 10 years old and her mother figures it is high time she learns how to make Irish soda bread. The recipe is written out in her mother’s beautiful script. She insists Marie follow the recipe and offers no help.

This might seem on its face a routine scene, but McDermott infuses it with deeper meaning. When her mother announces she must take a trip downtown and leaves Marie to finish cooking, Maries sabotages the soda bread. The crafty Marie realizes that if she learns how to cook, her mother will force her to share in the household duties and she would rather go out and play with her friend. It is the child in Marie that doesn’t want to grow up too fast.

Later in the scene, McDermott foreshadows darker events through Marie’s deft description of the seemingly quotidian. Her mother attempts to salvage the soda bread and serves it to the family. McDermott writes, “The day had gone cloudy and the dining room was dim. My father had returned the piece of bread to his plate, but as if to convey sympathy, he still held the edge of it gently between his thumb and index finger—perhaps not wanting to hurt my feelings any further by letting go of it completely.” Then McDermott, through Marie’s description, drops a bombshell. Still looking closely at her father, Marie observes, “His other three fingers, held delicately aloft, were trembling. His broad hand against the white cloth and the china plate was a color I had not expected: the gray fingernails sunk too deeply into the swollen yellow flesh.” The reader will learn soon this was a sign of the illness that would claim her father.

But the scene isn’t over yet. Later that evening, Marie and her mother have an impromptu talk in Marie’s bedroom. Her mother confides she is worried about Marie’s father and they would stop by the hospital “to see if they couldn’t fix him up.” She tells her daughter for the second time that day, “You’re growing up.”

“Someone” is told episodically, not in chronological order. The scenes are snapshots of events throughout Marie’s life, beginning during the period between the two world wars. Her parents are lace-curtain Irish and their Brooklyn neighborhood is centered on family, friends and the Catholic church. Her brother, Gabe, is serious and studious. He is devoted to God and becomes a priest, but after a short time he leaves the priesthood and must face his own struggles. Gabe stubbornly stays in Brooklyn, even as the neighborhood declines and many of the neighbors move out to the suburbs. Marie marries a kind-hearted man and they move out to Long Island, where they have four children.

Throughout, there are the challenges families face: births, childhood, sickness and death, human frailties and failings. All are rendered in McDermott’s elegant, powerful prose.

Through all of life’s disappointments chronicled in this story, McDermott seems to be saying that family provides the stability and strength to see Marie through her life. McDermott is one of my favorite writers and it is always a joy to read her work. “Someone” does not disappoint.

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