How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. But there are dialogue tags, and there are excellent dialogue tags. You want the latter, obviously.

dialogue tags, who to write dialogue, how to write great dialogue
Don’t clutter your scene with dialogue tags, let what’s being spoken take center stage.

When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china).

You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing.

Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including, yes, those pesky dialogue tags!

The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

What Editors Want

I had the great fortune to hang out with some editors recently and talk about writers. Especially new writers.

What is the #1 most important thing an editor wants from a new writer?

Is it astronomical talent and mind-blowing prose?

Writing is important, of course, but…

Is it a story worthy of the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Percy Jackson and the Olympians?

Story is important, oh yes, but…

If an editor is interested in your work and the writing and the story are solid, the number one thing they want is:

Willingness to revise.

Sure, a book starts in an oddly sparking synapse somewhere in your brain, ends up jotted on a journal page and blossoms from there. But if that book is going to hit the real world, a lot more people are going to be involved in bringing it to life. That includes agents, editors, designers, sales reps, librarians, booksellers, etc. etc. etc. And while not all of those people are going to be giving you direct input, it’s important to remember that they’re all on your team.

So when an agent or editor ask you for changes (and they will, I guarantee it)… hear them out, see it from their perspective and go into the process with an open mind. Then revise your butt off and turn out a book that’s all the better for it.

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize its real name: “revision.”

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases:

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say these phrases are inherently bad. They’re not. But as writers, you should always be aware of your descriptions. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

But every time you write something about eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on these descriptions and to give your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily convey emotion in your work doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you outsmart the Four Horsemen in your manuscripts?

Thinking To Yourself

Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:

I’m so bored, she thought to herself.

I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.

Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!

That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!

The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Simple, effective!

If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then… press the delete button.

Why I Write For Children and Young Adults

“Why do you write for children and young adults?”

This is a question I had to answer twice yesterday. Once for my MFA adviser, the other for an editor at Chronicle Books. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!

As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.

Young adulthood is such an engaged, volatile, dynamic time in someone’s life. That’s why I write for the people who are living through it. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.

My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.

It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why I write for children and young adults… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.

How to Write An Action Sequence

More writers should be wondering how to write an action sequence. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when a lot of action is called for.

how to write an action sequence, writing action, pacing, plot
How to write an action sequence even this guy would be proud of.

Cinematic Action Sequence Writing

This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.

Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:

He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.

Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!

Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow

As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.

Things to Keep in Mind When Writing Action

This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequences and run through these revision tips:

  1. Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
  2. Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
  3. Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
  4. Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
  5. Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.

There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!

* All awkward action sequences aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.

* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.

Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, you’ll never write alone.

Too Many Characters in a Manuscript

One sin I see a lot of writers committing is the character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new characters for her to meet!)

If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.

Keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of second- and third-tier characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.

Introduce us to characters for two reasons:

  1. They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
  2. You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.

Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.

If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?

If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.

Don’t forget that you’ve created these people and given them names and faces. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.

Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.

Struggling with when and how to add layers to your work? My professional eyes on your manuscript can help.

Introducing Climactic Details

Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. Dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.

The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.

A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As the novel builds and builds, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.

The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”

No. It gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.

This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).

Do not introduce an event or person or thing or consequence in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)

Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.

If you introduce something a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if you’ve been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.

Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me to review your manuscript and give you hands-on plotting advice.

Past, Present and Future

Sometimes a writer forgets that their characters have pasts and futures, just like all of us do. There’s not an hour goes by that I don’t, personally, think about something in either the past or the future. It can be something mundane or something huge that I’ve either lived through or am dreaming about.

A lot of the time, especially when I’m writing a first draft or an early revision, I forget that my characters must be like this, too.

Every character must feel the weight of the past, present and future at every moment.

Not in an overbearing or obvious way, of course. Please don’t take this as free license to write something like:

Just sitting in chem lab, Judy felt ready to explode: not only was her embarrassment at the audition yesterday still fresh in mind but the callbacks would be tomorrow! To top it all off, her stomach rumbled so loudly that people all the way across campus could probably hear it.

But there is something compelling about keeping all three of these balls in the air at the same time. A lot of manuscripts suffer from a lack of tension. There’s not a very clear feeling of what is at stake in the moment. Sometimes, adding a past and mixing it with over the future just might be the ticket to increasing tension.