Come Again?

Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, we looked at the actual words the character speaks. This week is about how those words sound. As writers, we want so badly for our readers to hear our characters’ voices as we do, and we often struggle with how best to ensure they do, with mixed results.

The task becomes even more difficult if our characters speak in something other than standard English with a fairly mid-Western accent. If they have a regional accent, or worse, speak an obscure dialect, how can we be sure our readers hear that? And what about speech impediments? Most readers will be familiar with lisps or stutters, but what about other issues, perhaps from a tied tongue, or cleft pallate?

If we write dialogue exactly as our characters speak, we run the risk of the reader not being able to follow. Take Jack for example, from my own WIP, Blood Dragon. He speaks a regional dialect I grew up with – it’s steadily disappearing and was only spoken by a small population to begin with, and is difficult for non-native speakers to understand. This passage:

“Time is running out. They said twenty-four hours. It has been seven and we have nothing. Pain doesn’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

If I had resorted to phonetic spelling, a technique newer writers may be tempted to fall back on, that passage would look like this:

“Time a’ru’n’ out. ‘ey sa’ twu’y-four ares. ‘s b’n se’n, ‘n ‘e ain’ go’ no’n. Pain ‘on’ do ‘t f’r ‘er, ‘r she’ ‘a’ ben’ a l’ul ‘fo’ now.”

Um. Srsly? You want to subject a reader to deciphering THAT?? Well, I don’t. If my reader has to slow down and try to reason out what my character is saying, my book is going to put a dent in their wall. So, how do I let my reader know he speaks something other than standard English?

First, while I was planning his character, I selected a few words to emphasize his dialect. Supposed became s’posed, probably became prob’ly, get became git. When Jack speaks those words, I use my modified phonetic spelling, but I don’t stop there.

I use his word choices, turns of phrase, and his grammar, to show the reader a little more of his actual speech. I make a couple of references to him being difficult to understand. “His habit of slurring words together and dropping entire syllables made his words nearly unintelligible.”  at one point, when he is speaking to someone unfamiliar with him. I have another character who knows him admonish him to speak correctly. Another frequently asks him to repeat himself. Here is my representation of him speaking that passage:

“Time’s running out. They said twenty-four hours. It’s been seven and we ain’t got nothing. Pain don’t do it for her, or she’d have bent a little by now.” 

My reader won’t hear him exactly as I do, but they’ll have an approximation.

Accents can be treated similarly. Most Americans are at least slightly familiar with a Southern drawl, or a Brooklyn accent. By simply telling the reader that the character has that accent, they get it. We can further show the accent with word choice, and one or two simple phonetic spellings.

My good friend and critique partner, Azure Boone, has a supporting character with a unique speech impediment, and she shows it brilliantly. Jeremy is also developmentally disabled, so she uses his phrasing, grammar, and word choices, to give the reader a sense of what he sounds like. Then she goes one step further, and uses just a couple of words exactly the way he pronounces them. Remember is mamember, and breech (he tells everyone he meets how he was born breech – a stellar technique for showing his personality) is pronounced bleech.

We can give our readers a pretty good representation of what our characters sound like if we use a variety of techniques, and trust the readers to be able to put it all together and interpret what we’re trying to show them.

Practice using all the tools I’ve covered in the last few weeks, formatting, dialog tags, action beats, unique character voice, and, finally, accents. Put them all together, add a little research and your own touch, and your dialog will become more realistic, and make your characters memorable.

This post concludes the dialog portion of Nailing Down the Essentials. Next week, I’ll move on to a different story element. Since I haven’t decided yet, if there’s an aspect of writing you’d like to see covered here, leave a comment. As I’ve said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve picked up a few things. And if it’s something I don’t know enough about to explore here, I’ll research it.

Have you found the dialog series helpful at all? Do you have other techniques to make your dialog stand out?

He Said, She Said

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I talked about action beats. This week is all about what the characters actually say.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on various critique and share-your-work communities/forums, as I’ve probably said before. Dialog content was one of the biggest issues I saw with writers who were past the stage of getting the format right, and who already had decent grammar and sentence construction. Their characters sounded the same, using identical vocabularies and figures of speech, perfect grammar, complete sentences, and pretty formal language, in some cases. They also had wonderful manners, never interrupting, even when the other person spoke at length about something boring. So, that’s where we are now.

The next time you’re at the mall food court, eavesdrop on the people at the next table. I’ll bet you hear different speech patterns, vocabularies, and habits. Besides that, most people, when speaking casually, don’t bother with complete sentences, or even perfect grammar. And we interrupt each other constantly, and finish each other’s sentences, fill in words for each other – all the things Miss Manners would rap our knuckles for. To write good dialog, we need to incorporate all those things.

Let’s look at some examples:

“Hello,” Maria said.

“Oh, hello.” John sat at the next table. “Did you watch Two And A Half Men last night?”

“Yes, I did. I like the new episodes, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. What are you doing this weekend?” 

And so on. Boring!

Let’s fix it up.

“Hey, John! How’s it going?” Maria said.

“Hey, girl.” John sat at the next table. “Man, I watched Two And A Half Men-“

“I did too! I love it now that that arrogant asshat is gone-“

“Oh, yeah. Man had issues. Me and Jack and Jill are getting together this weekend for a Two And A Half Men marathon. Wanna come?”

OK, so it’s a poor example, and the characters have problems if they’re watching sit-com marathons, but you see the difference. The second example is more like something you’d actually hear people say. Complete with imperfect grammar, though it isn’t awful, interruptions, a little slang. It’s less stilted and formal than the first example.

One way to give each character a unique voice is to plan for it. Some people can do it off the top of their head, but it usually takes a little practice. When you’re planning your characters, deciding their physical descriptions and backstories, go ahead and give them a voice. Decide if they have a particular phrase they’re overly fond of, if they consistently misuse words, if they always interrupt.

While you’re at it, give them an accent or speech impediment, too, because we’re going to look at that next week!

Just Beat It!

Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, I took a look at dialog tags as a method of attributing speech.  This week, we’ll cover what is sometimes called an action beat, dialog beat, or descriptive beat.

No matter what you choose to call it, the action beat is a pause in the dialog. Done well, it serves several purposes.

“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table.

  • To show the reader what the character is doing as she speaks.  
  • Notice, in the above example, the speaker is named. By following standard format and putting the character’s action in the same paragraph as her speech, we know who is speaking. If I had started a new paragraph with the word Maggie, the meaning would be entirely different. Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging would have been in response to someone else’s speech.
  • We also know, from Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging, that, even though she insists she doesn’t care, she is either upset or angry about whatever precipitated the outburst.

Even with such a simple example, not particularly well done, that one little action beat has shown the reader 3 different things. What happens if we expand on the action beat a little, and add other techniques?

First, straight dialog, without action beats:

“I don’t care!” Maggie said. “I never want to see him again.”

“It’ll be okay. You just need some time to get over him,” Arin said. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”

“Please don’t say you told me so this time.”

Here, we know Maggie and Arin are talking about a man whom Maggie is upset with; Arin is Maggie’s older sister and has a habit of saying I-told-you-so. That’s about it.

Now, let’s do it again:

“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table. How could he have done such a thing? “I never want to see him again.” A deep breath helped her swallow the tears.

“It’ll be okay.” The microwave beeped and Arin rushed to take out the steaming bowl. “You just need some time to get over him.” Cane thumping every time it struck the floor, she crossed to the sink. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”

Maggie slumped into the hard straight-back chair and propped her elbows on the scarred table top. Would she ever learn to listen to her sister? “Please don’t say you told me so this time.” It would hurt too much.

By adding direct character thoughts, interior monologue, a few adjectives, and a little more action, we now know a great deal more about what’s happening. Maggie is upset with a man who did something to hurt her, and is about to cry. Arin is the older sister, is cooking, and walks with a cane. They’re in a kitchen where the table and chairs are probably old. Arin’s I-told-you-so habit hurts Maggie’s feelings.

With a little more effort, we could show the reader much more – physical descriptions, settings, characterization, conflict, action, mood, and much more. In addition to all that, action beats serve another purpose or two. They solve the dreaded Talking Head Syndrome, where one character says something, then the other character replies, on and on, ad nauseum. They break up long blocks of dialog that make it seem the character is preaching. They make dialog feel more realistic, mimicking the patterns of natural speech, where people pause occasionally, then go on speaking. They draw the reader deeper into the point-of-view character’s head, letting them see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and even think, the same things, without the constant reminder, dialog tags, that they’re reading a story.

Of course, just like any good thing, overusing action beats ruins the effect and renders them useless. Each one needs to earn its place in the dialog and serve a specific purpose.

All these qualities make learning to use action beats effectively well worth the time involved. There are many ways to learn to use action beats, besides simple practice. Examine the dialog in some of your favorite books to see  how the authors use them, and for what purpose, as well as when they avoid using them. Write some simple dialog and decide on a goal, what you want to portray with the action beats, then find as many ways of accomplishing that as possible.

Next week, we’ll start examining the actual words the character says.


Who’s Telling Who?

Dialog ballons

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I posted a really basic overview of several facets of writing dialog. Now, it’s time to focus in more tightly and have a more in-depth look.

Dialog tags serve as attributions, telling the reader which character is speaking. When I was in High School – more years ago than I care to admit – we were required to use descriptive dialog tags. Points were marked off for every said, asked, or replied, and the tag would be crossed out, leaving the speech unattributed. If anything was left unattributed, either on purpose or because the tag was crossed out, the teacher crossed it out, refusing to read it, then marked off for incomprehensible dialog. So we had lists of descriptive verbs to use instead of said. Words like: admonished, advised, exhorted… Plain old said bored the reader, and our teacher did her best to keep us from such a dreaded fate.

Imagine my surprise at learning Mrs. Smith was *gasp* wrong! Back then, I knew that some of my favorite authors didn’t use outlandish words to replace said. They also often left several lines of dialog unattributed, expecting the reader to understand that when there are two speakers, they generally take turns. I didn’t have access to any writing craft materials in those days, so I had to study my favorite authors, and attempt to emulate what I liked about their writing.

Now I know the reasons behind…

The Missing Descriptive Dialog Tags

Our goals as writers should be to disappear, let the reader forget they’re reading a story and get lost in our world. So we do whatever we can to help them get lost. One of the simplest ways is to be unobtrusive. If the reader has to stop and figure out what pontificating sounds like, they’re worrying about their dictionary rather than the story. Readers don’t have to think about said, so it becomes less intrusive, and lets them stay deeply involved in the story.

During a conversation that’s more than one or two lines for both speakers, the use of said will stand out. And here’s a huge revelation: readers can be trusted to follow a few lines of dialog and know who’s speaking. As long as we follow standard formatting, 5 or 6 lines are easily understood. Of course, we don’t want long exchanges with no way for the reader to know which character said what unless they go back to the beginning to count lines. Yup, it happens regularly.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

And Now, The Disappearing Author!

If our goal  is to disappear, and said is less intrusive, wouldn’t it be better to use no dialog tags? Well, yes. Yes, it would. The trick is, using no, or very few tags, effectively. Occasionally, a tag is simply necessary to let the reader know who is speaking and how, but normally, dialog tags really aren’t necessary.

We still have to be sure the reader knows who’s speaking. There are several techniques for doing that, and using a combination of them is often the best approach. The good thing is, those techniques also serve to make our dialog more realistic, more like people actually talk. So, by using them, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.

No two people speak exactly alike, so giving each character a unique voice will make it less necessary to use dialog tags. People don’t often sit and look at each other, and exchange roughly equivalent bits of conversation. They squirm, adjust clothing, play with their hair, eat or drink. And that’s just if they’re sitting. We can use those little actions, or action beats, to let the reader know who’s speaking, as well as make our dialog more interesting.

We can let the reader know how something is said through word choice, context, action beats, and description. Using an adverb with said is pretty much on a par with those descriptive verbs. Rather than telling the reader that the character spoke plaintively, use all those other techniques to show it.

Next week, I’ll take a look at giving each character her own way of speaking, complete with accents, patterns of speech, vocabularies, and favorite expressions. The following week I’ll cover action beats. Both will tie in with showing how the character is speaking.

What’s Your Favorite…

Line of dialog from your WIP? Why?

Nailing Down The Essentials: Dialog

Recently, I’ve seen a lot discussions about the various elements of a story. Because of some of the questions, and yes, some of the replies, I decided to put together a new Writer Wednesday Series. Each week, I’ll take a look at some aspect of one of the story building blocks.

Basically, it’ll be the kind of stuff I searched for when I came back to writing fiction seriously, after a couple of decades just dabbling. I needed a refresher of the techniques and rules I’d learned long ago, as well as all the skills I still needed. So, I’m going to begin each element with just the broad strokes, then tighten the focus.

Some if it will be very basic stuff for some of you, but it might clear things up for others. If we don’t have an understanding of the very basic rules and techniques, the  more advanced skills won’t do us a lot of good. And rest assured, once I’ve covered that basic stuff, I’ll start on more advanced things.


Dialog, The Rules:

The art of writing dialog, or conversation between two or more people, is, for some writers, one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction to grasp. The goals are to make it sound real, the way actual people talk, keep it interesting to the reader, and make it understandable. If we don’t follow some standard formatting and punctuation, the reader will have a hard time following the dialog. Readers don’t like to work to be entertained, so if they can’t understand what we’re writing, most of them will toss it across the room. Or at least, click away. Since we want them to keep reading, and to enjoy it so much they tell their friends, we better keep the writing understandable.

Formatting and punctuation for grammar is pretty straight forward, once you know the rules. Now, if you’re one of those writers, who think the rules don’t apply to you because your story is so amazing, the reader will carry it home on stone tablets if need be… Well, just be aware, very few readers would go that far for the greatest works of fiction in the world, let alone your story. Besides, if you don’t know and understand the rules, how can you possibly break them consistently and effectively?

Formatting and Punctuation

So here we go, some of the basics of formatting and punctuating dialog.

  • The paragraph changes every time the speaker does.

“How are you doing?” John asked. The conversation opens.

“Busy lately. You?” Mary said, tying her shoe. The speaker changes, so we have a new paragraph.

“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Another new paragraph, since the speaker has changed again. If we added a 3rd person here after John, we would start a new paragraph.

  • Every word spoken aloud is enclosed in quotations.

“How are you doing?” John asked. If John said something further, we would open a new quotation for those words, and close it when he stopped. If, instead of saying something else, he does something else, like walking on down the street, we would write that without quotations.

  • Punctuation that goes with the words being spoken aloud is inside the quotations.

“How are you doing?” John asked. Notice the question mark after doing is inside the quotes. If an exclamation were warranted, it would be inside as well.

“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Here, I ended the speech with a period, since I didn’t use a dialog tag. *see below*

If, instead of the above, I had used a tag, it would be: “Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse,” John said, paying for his coffee. If a dialog tag is used, a comma replaces a period at the end of the last sentence being spoken. Question marks and exclamations are not replaced by a comma.

  • We can use attributions, or dialog tags, to let the reader know who’s speaking. The use of dialog tags is becoming less favored than it once was. Now, the preferred method to let the reader know who’s speaking is to make it clear through word choice, sentence structure, action beats. I’ll delve into all that in another post. It used to be fashionable to use all sorts of creative dialog tags to keep from boring the reader with said. Who can forget the ever popular “Oh, no!” he ejaculated.?  Now, said and asked are considered sufficient, and nearly invisible, or unobtrusive, to the reader. Personally, I prefer to use almost no dialog tags.
  • When using a dialog tag, following the closing quotation, the next word is not capitalized unless it is a proper noun, since it is a continuation of the same sentence.

“I’m glad that’s finished,” Mary said. The comma replaces the period after finished, and since Mary is a proper noun, it’s capitalized.

“Me, too,” he said. Again, the comma replaces the period after too, and since he is a pronoun, it isn’t capitalized. 

Next week, I’ll look at dialog tags, action beats, and breaking up the dialog.

Is there anything about dialog in particular that drives you nuts?

Book Review: Short Stories by Angel


Born: November 19
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Angel was born in the small town of Humboldt,TN. She’s currently going to college
online at The International Academy of Design and Development going for her Associates degree in Web Design and Development.
Angel is a mother of two. When she’s not writing, she enjoys playing video games, listening to music, reading, and relaxing.

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A Short Story by Angel

Publisher: Sugar and Spice

Erotic Romance – Contemporary

Menage – f/f/m, m/f/m

Purchase “Desires” on Amazon

Blurb: Daphne is a single mom who isn’t sure if she’s ready for love and commitment. She was used to having her way. Almost every fantasy she’d ever had, Gideon fulfilled. Will she leave or will her every Desire come true?

Summary: Truck-driver Daphne fantasizes about sex with Star and Gideon. Gideon arrives and he and Daphne have sex, and he reveals he loves her. Her regular casual hook-up, Daemon, shows up and joins in the fun one last time.

My Thoughts: Nit-picky stuff first, distracting little crap. The mechanics of the writing are pretty good, without major grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes, and I only spotted one or two typos. The sentences are fairly well constructed and easy to read.

There’s quite a bit of action between the sheets in this short story, but it isn’t as detailed as it could be. With little in the way of emotion or description of sensation, the sex scenes were almost – not quite, but almost – anatomy lessons. The character growth and conflict resolutions feel a bit contrived.

Angel spent a lot of time in the characters’ heads with them reflecting, and showing their backgrounds, rather than in current action or dialog. In a short story, there just isn’t enough words or time to do that.

Over-all, I’m giving this story 2 ½ Flames.


   A Short Story by Angel

Publisher: Sugar and Spice

Genre: Contemporary Romance with Paranormal elements.


Purchase “Wanting” on Amazon

Blurb: Heather and Jasper had been through everything together. After his divorce, she thought she’d never reach him again. Will she be able to heal him and his son?

Or will he forever leave her Wanting?

Summary: Jasper’s wife screwed him over, and his friend Heather was there to pick up the pieces. Heather puts her life on hold to help Jasper, but doesn’t admit to him that she loves him. He finally figures it out, and reveals that he loves her, too.

My Thoughts: The mechanics of the writing – grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence construction – are all good. I didn’t have to try and puzzle out what Angel was saying.

The story opens in real-time, but moves quickly into a long flash-back to show why Jasper’s head was so screwed up. I think the story would have been better served by limiting the flashback to a paragraph, two at most, and spending more time with the growth of Jasper’s relationship with Heather.

Jasper and Heather both spend time fantasizing about each other, with one real-time sex scene. There was some emotion and description of sensation, but the scenes didn’t get as much page-time as they deserved.

Heather is Pagan, a witch, and works spells to help Jasper and his son heal from the betrayal of his wife. Though the scene was a bit glossed over, the parts that were shown were accurate.

Over-all, I’m giving this story 2 ¾ Flames

Falling In

A Short Story by Angel

Publisher: Wicked Nights

Genre: Contemporary Romance with Paranormal elements.

Purchase “Falling In” on Amazon

Blurb: Miriam was in love with her best friend. Will her love be able to penetrate

the poison and ill content another woman has placed in his heart?
Or will she be forever ‘Falling In’?

Summary: Miriam is in love with her best friend, Sean, but he’s involved with another woman. When the other woman dumps him, he’s actually relieved. Miriam confesses her love, and Sean realizes Miriam is the one for him.

My Thoughts: Again, Angel shows good writing mechanics – grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence construction.

Angel spends quite a lot of time with the characters reflecting on their feelings, but it is balanced a bit with action and dialog, which keeps the story from being too slow. After Sean’s thoughts of wanting to work things out with his current love, I was surprised at how easily he accepted being dumped.

Miriam’s natural abilities and beginning study of witchcraft are well portrayed. Miriam’s lack of self-confidence seemed a little at odds with a woman who just tells her best friend that she loves him, out of the blue.

Overall, I’m giving this story 3 Flames.


These stories feel to me like they’re written fairly early in a writer’s journey of learning the craft. As Angel continues to write, I believe she will grow and progress. She has potential that’s certainly worth watching.