Three Rumors About Dialogue

by Katie Axelson | 62 comments

Dialogue is one of those tricky things that can make or break your book. When I’m picking out a book in the bookstore, I always skim a passage of dialogue to help me gage if the writer’s good or not and therefore if the book will be worth reading.

photo credit

photo credit: moriza via photopin cc

In doing this, I've found some rumors writers must believe about dialogue. Luckily, there are alternatives that can make your dialogue shine.

1. Use “said”

Rumor: Writers should mix up tag lines with words like “asked,” “exclaimed,” “spit,” and “whispered.”

Secret: The word “said” is your best friend. Use it mercilessly. While those other words have their place in the dictionary, let them stay in that big book on the shelf. In your book, they slow down readers and break up the pacing of the scene you’ve tried so hard to create. Don’t do that to yourself. Use said.

2. Eliminate “ums”

Rumor: Characters are actual people. (Deep breath, it’s gonna be ok).

Secret: This is actually good news. The number of incomplete sentences, sentence fragments, and filler words are used in real-life conversation is alarming.

Since your characters aren't actual people, they can be wittier, more concise, and more eloquent than real people. In fact, they should be. Periodically your characters can hedge and fumble words but overall, they should speak smoothly.

3. Don’t use names

Rumor: Characters addressing each other by name creates intimacy.

Secret: No, it doesn’t.

Rather than intensifying the moment, it actually cheapens the scene. It reminds readers that your characters are not real people. Don’t reveal yourself to them like that.

If two characters of the same gender are involved in the scene, making names vital for clarity’s sake, use the name in the tag line (of course, accompanied with your favorite word “said.”)

How do you judge if the dialogue is good?

PRACTICE

Write a scene where two characters talk about Mother’s Day. Of course, post it in the comments and give feedback on a few other practices.

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Katie Axelson is a writer, editor, and blogger who's seeking to live a story worth telling. You can find her blogging, tweeting, and facebook-ing.

62 Comments

  1. MishaBurnett

    I tend to read dialog out loud, that helps me eliminate clunky lines. Using the “text to speech” function on my Kindle is good, too–if the dialogue works in that robot voice, it’s got to be good.

    Reply
    • catmorrell

      Thanks for the tip. Can you put your own stories on the kindle to listen to?

    • MishaBurnett

      Yes, you just need to convert the file to mobi format and upload it.

    • Scott Merk

      Great advice. I would humbly add:
      Read your scenes out loud as well. We tend to “fix” it in our heads. But when you force your voice to work through the imagery or narrative you will be more likely to find those areas that stick or hang up the smooth telling of that part of your story.
      Just an opinion as it helps me to diagnose problems when reading my (or other writer’s) work.

  2. Asm6706

    So happy the said rumor was debunked! I’m definitely guilty of trying to use other words, but it always feels forced. Glad to get the ok on this one! 🙂

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Said. Said. Said. Said. Said!
      There, I said it. 😉

  3. Elise White

    There’s not a whole lot of dialogue here – but here it goes…
    ————–
    Payday seemed to be the sun Trish’s life revolved around.

    “I can pay this after payday,” she’d say glancing down at her bills.

    “I’ll fix that after payday,” she’d say looking at her broken violin string.

    “I’ll go to Trader Joe’s after payday,” she’d say as she stared into her empty cupboard.

    Mother’s day, however, was not a day she usually gave much thought to. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother. She did. A lot. They just had an understanding that a day did not define how much Trish cared about her. Love was something they believed people should show everyday, unconditionally.

    At work Trish was checking her spending and earnings for the month on Mint. It was a sorry state of affairs. The beloved and long-awaited payday had passed and all her hard-earned money had been swallowed up by Trish’s all to familiar nemesis, bills.

    As she started to pull out her hair, a co-worker approached. “Hey Trish.”

    Startled, Trish sprang to attention, dropping her hands from her hair. “Oh, Hi Mandy.”

    “I wanted to ask you to make 2 drawings for me, of my grandkids. I want to give them to my daughter as a Mother’s Day present.”

    Trish did the math in her head, One hundred dollars! “Oh, sure. I’d love to do that.”

    “Thanks,” Mandy smiled. “I’ll bring the photos for you tomorrow.”

    Trish was beaming. “Sounds great!” she said.

    She’d never been so excited about Mother’s Day in her life.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Not a lot of dialogue but it’s good dialogue, Elise

  4. R.w. Foster

    Awww. Does it have to be about Mother’s Day? :'(

    Reply
    • R.w. Foster

      Sorry. I was kidding. I’ll post my practice about Mother’s Day in a few.

  5. Karl Tobar

    It seemed to me on Mother’s Day our customers turned evil. More evil, that is. Their noses pointed a little higher, their dresses a little bit longer, their asses a little bit tighter. When three generations of Yacht Club snobs walked into the fish market I knew in a quick I’d be dealing with Satan.

    Hew two kids ran in first. They circled the lobby, circled each other, giggling, screaming. I clenched my teeth yet put on a smile, tapping my pen on the case. Then they walked in. Two women, gaunt-faced and bushy haired, khaki slacks and white high heels, clomped toward me. A mother and a daughter, I thought. Instead of telling the kids to behave themselves, they walked up to the case.

    “Happy Mother’s D–” I began.

    She wrinkled her bulbous nose as if in disgust. “Thirty dollars for a pound of albacore?” she said without making eye contact.

    I said, “It’s fresh. And delicious.”

    I winked at the old lady who still hadn’t uncrossed her arms. I believe she failed to see the charm. She said, “It doesn’t look very fresh. I know my seafood and this looks like it’s been thawed very recently.”

    “Everything you see in the case is fresh; we don’t freeze any of it. Our guys in the back are cutting and gutting every day, seven-to-three. Can you tell your kids not to knock on the lobster tank? Their going to stress the lobsters.” Across the lobby, a little girl of three or four did a relentless rapping of her stupid knuckles. The little boy breathed on the glass and traced his finger in the fog.

    The woman didn’t acknowledge that I had spoken. She moved along the cases, finger on her chin and eyebrows in V. “Why is this local halibut so expensive? Do I misunderstand the word ‘local’?”

    I opened my mouth to explain the competition we faced with local fisherman but the old lady left no space between her daughter’s sentence and her own. She said, “Karen, they obviously raise the prices on holidays. It’s how people in their social class get by. I mean, they don’t even sell snow crab.” They looked at each other and paused, as if for dramatic effect, and a humorless chuckle farted from their noses.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      LOL-humorless chuckle farted from their noses.
      That is officially the best thing I’ve heard all day. 😉

    • Karl Tobar

      That actually had me laughing, too. 😀

    • Paul Owen

      I’m still laughing at that last line, too, Karl! Great story

  6. Pamela Hodges

    “Good morning my dearest daughter,” the mother whispered. “I will clean your room for you when you are at school. I will wash and iron all your clothes and walk your dog.”
    “Thank you my dearest mother,” the daughter whispered. “I would like bacon and eggs for breakfast. Will you open my curtains please.”

    Reply
    • catmorrell

      That poor martyr mother. She needs to grow up. You drew emotion from me, which is a good thing.

  7. catmorrell

    Ellie turned to the new intern from the local high school. “The boss wants you to remove the jewelry parts from their individual bags and tags and then return the pieces to the larger baggie they were in.

    The girl received credits for her business class working in the shop. She was dynamic and hard working, but Ellie worried how well she listened.

    Ten minutes later the intern had a friend behind the counter helping her with the jewelry. Where did the friend come from and why was her baby on a blanket on the floor of the shop?

    “Okay troops” Ellie said. “Time to move this process to the hallway.”

    “But we aren’t done.”

    “NOW.”

    Ellie noticed all the parts in one container. “You didn’t put the parts back in their baggies”

    “Was I suppose too?”

    Ellie sighed. A long day was just beginning.

    Reply
    • Shelley

      Effective dialogue exemplifying the lack of attention so many young people lack.

    • jennastamps

      Good job demonstrating that the tone of the dialogue from both characters was quite different, even in this short passage. Effective choices, nice job. Here’s just an idea if you wanted to expand this–you could add a little conversation between the new intern and her friend to further back up the concept of the intern’s distractions. Just a thought though, it’s great the way it is. 🙂

  8. Karoline Kingley

    These are good guidelines, but there are definite exceptions; especially when a book is set in a different time/place. My first novel took place in the Renaissance era, so naturally the dialogue differed from that of modern books.

    Reply
  9. Alexandru C. Pleșa

    Hey! said Mike, from across the room. What are you doing in a flower shop? I never knew you as a flower lover.
    I’m not. It’s just… mumbled John
    It’s just what? Are you having a crisis again?
    No. It’s just that tomorrow is mother’s day, said John.
    But I tought that your mother died two years ago, said Mike lowering his voice.
    That doesn’t mean I don’thave to love her anymore, ended John.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Don’t forget quotation marks, Alexandru. They help out the reader tremendously.

  10. Shelley

    “Why is choosing a Mother’s Day card so difficult?” said Laura as she stuffed another card back into the rack.
    “I know,” said Lila. “They all sound too sweet and gooey. We’re not that kind of family. I think we should just make our own cards. Then we can say what we want.”
    “That’s the best idea I’ve heard yet,” said Laura. “Your place or mine?”

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Love it, Shelley. I actually heard nearly this exact conversation between a bride and her mother the other day.
      “Can we do that at your house?” the bride asked.
      “No,” the mother replied, “I don’t want to get my house all messed up. Let’s do it at Third Girl’s house.”

      I think the third girl was is the matron of honor but it was still hilarious to hear her home volunteered to be messed up.

    • Karl Tobar

      shouldn’t “asked” and “replied” be replaced with “said?” 😉

  11. Chase G

    I’d totally be open to tips. This one was spur of the moment.
    “Can I help you?” said the Hallmark clerk with a smile too big to be unmedicated.

    “Yeah, I’m looking for a card for my mother… yanno… for mother’s day.” I said as I stared at the wall full of brightly colored pieces of overpriced cardboard.

    She smiled, “I know that silly. Mother’s day is two days away. I mean what KIND of mother is she?”

    I could feel my cheeks reddening, “Oh… I don’t really… I mean… she likes
    sentimental crap. You know, not really into the funny cards. Unless, of course,
    you have those Garfield ones that borders funny and sentimental. Like, ‘You’re
    a wonderful mother and I guess I’ll just have to keep you…’”

    The girl gave a charming smile, “Oh… I don’t mean like THAT… I mean what kind of Mother is she? Is she single, unmarried, freshly divorced, never married at all, jilted, jinxed, cursed,”

    As much as I tried to keep my composure, I think I gasped, “WHAT?”

    “Look, we don’t judge here. We just want them to know that they are special. So, is she nothing but a giggalo? Or is she a ‘I never wanted him, I only wanted you’…” she said without flinching.

    I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I finally managed to say, “What about still
    happily married and I still love you after all these years?”

    The clerk’s face dropped, “Oh… over there…” she pointed to the back corner. After looking at the six cards, I picked the one that said it with a straightforward,

    “Thanks for not leaving” and junk.

    I left $3.75 and my anger on the counter as I left the most sentimental place on earth and headed to the local bar.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Great practice, Chase. I loved the scene. As far as feedback look specifically at the dialogue, I’d only put the tagline (she said) in the same sentence as the dialogue itself. For the most part, any action can stand alone (The clerk’s face dropped. “Oh… over there.”)

    • Chase G

      Thanks Katie!

    • jennastamps

      I got a good view of the character of that clerk through your dialogue. What a funny scene, funny because of the irony. Nice job. 🙂

    • Paul Owen

      I liked it, Chase. The clerk’s disappointment near the end made me laugh. I liked the flow of your dialog; felt like I was standing there listening in

    • Giulia Esposito

      I almost died reading this! Imagine someone asking you these questions! I thought it was really good dialogue, and since I didn’t notice any words that stuck out oddly, I’d say this is good.

    • Chase G

      Thank you Guilia!

    • Princess Hannah Royon

      Wow! This dialogue is really good. It didn’t made me cringe at all. Most often, I use dialogues to find out if a story is written well or not. Plus, just reading the dialogue made the scene materialize in my mind without the need to have too many descriptions. Good job! 🙂

    • Chase G

      Thank you Princess.

  12. Margaret Terry

    “Mama, why do they call it Mother’s Day?” Matthew was nestled on my lap,
    head tucked under my chin. His hair was still damp from bath time and I could
    feel the last few wisps of his baby curls tickle my neck.

    “They call it Mother’s Day because it’s a day for moms to remember the
    love.” I opened his hand to begin the game and began drawing circles on his
    palm with my finger. “Round about, round about, went the wee mouse.”

    “Is that because Mother’s forget the love?” Matthew yawned. “Why do they
    forget?”

    “Oh, mother’s never really forget the love, honey.” I continued my slow
    rhythmic circling in his palm. “We just like to have a special day to remember
    how much of it we have.”

    Matthew pulled his hand away and sat up to face me. “Well, you
    don’t need a Mother’s Day, mama.” He toyed with the top button on my blouse.
    “I love you everyday!”

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Awe, what a sweet kid! For this practice it’s fine but if this were part of a longer piece, I’d be sure to include a tagline (he said) now and then.

    • Margaret Terry

      thx, Katie! Good advice…

  13. Boyd

    Bentley carefully picked a bouquet of ten flowers from the tree. Thankfully, he had thought when he stumbled across it on his way to his Fantasy League team meet, it was in bloom. Not many wild trees in the area bloomed during this season, most barely had leaves.

    “Hey!” he called out to Tom, who had kept walking and wasn’t wearing any gloves despite the cold. “Do you think these will do for Mother’s day?”

    The bouquet was of red, green and blue flowers, all from the same tree. They had distinctive black markings on each of their petals.

    “Do you have any idea what those are, Bent?” Tom said, pivoting to motion towards the tree.

    “They’re flowers.”

    The tree let out a slight hiss as Bentley plucked another from a low hanging branch.

    “Yes. Yes, they are, Bent. Just like football is ‘sport’, and just like our Fantasy League is ‘role-play’, and how I couldn’t expect you to pay the correct homage to either of those as strategical games, comparable to warfare on a base intellectual level,” Tom took his Fantasy League seriously, and spoke to Bentley with a whispered patronization.

    “The flowers are like football?”

    “Let me finish,” said Tom, glaring. “Based on your over simplification and generalization of what appears to be just about everything, and trusting that botany is no exception, it would be silly of me to assume that you have any idea that tree is, in fact, the Prunus Pachycianda. Which is only found in this area, and wasn’t cataloged until after development had built every house around us and more.

    “We call them Stonedei,” Tom continued, “and you’re lucky you remembered to wear gloves today. It’s well known that during bloom the stalks of the flowering buds secrete a unique cyanide blend that has an LD50 of fuck all.”

    “Yeah,” said Bentley, “What of it?”

    “They’re poisonous, you buffoon.”

    “Well, I know that!” Bentley responded, “I’m just wondering if you think they’ll be -enough-.”

    Reply
    • Margaret Terry

      haaaaaaaa – you got me! You actually got me with “Do you have any idea what those are, Bent?” Beautiful set-up, terrific dialogue, fast paced and believable – great job!

    • Katie Axelson

      Great practice, Boyd. One thing I didn’t bring up in the post that I considered including is unnecessary adverbs accompanying the word “said.” For example, you didn’t have to say “Let me finish, said Tom, glaring.” We know he’s glaring. We can hear it in his words.

    • Boyd

      Ah, yeah, I can see that. Reading back on it that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the tip (and the prior tips, and all the tips)!

  14. jennastamps

    This post was so timely for me! I just wrote a chapter today for my book that is primarily dialogue, and I would love some feedback for it (I know there is lots of room for improvement). I hope it’s okay that it’s about a marriage proposal instead of Mother’s Day.

    —-

    Jeff told me that the ring we had chosen together wouldn’t be ready to
    pick up from the jeweler until December 16th. This date was already
    sentimental; it is his parents’ wedding anniversary. His intricate plan
    for becoming “fiancé of the year,” however, was in the works long
    before that date.

    “I’ve been asked to pick up my cousin from the Salt Lake airport this
    Sunday [the fourteenth],” Jeff said, “so I was wondering if you would
    like to go with me.”

    “Of course I would like to. But you know I’ve got three finals on
    Monday. I honestly don’t think I can spare the study time.” I looked at
    Jeff’s exaggerated pleading eyes. “If you really want me to, I will
    try to prepare early so I can go.”

    “It would really mean a lot to me. Thanks,” he said.

    He drove, of course. I was glad that Jeff had some directions written
    down, because I certainly didn’t know how to get there (I suffer from
    what I consider a severe case of “road sign dyslexia”). Something was
    strange though. For some reason, he didn’t want me to see that little
    piece of paper–he kept referring to it discretely and then hiding it in
    his shirt pocket. And then, I sensed that our long drive to the
    airport had become a little longer than necessary. I had been to the
    airport before, and I didn’t remember it being that far from Provo.

    “I think we might have passed it, it’s not supposed to take this long,” I
    said, a little concerned about any wasted minutes on my pre-finals
    night.

    “I don’t think so. I think we’re getting closer,” Jeff said, obviously
    not as sure of our whereabouts as I would have liked him to be.

    “No, really. I am sure we’ve been driving too long.”

    “Well, I might have made a wrong turn a while ago, but I think we’re back on track now.”

    “We should just stop and ask for directions,” I suggested. (Uh oh,
    aren’t those fighting words? The words that come between all those men
    from Mars and those women from Venus?)

    “No, I’ll find it.”

    “Seriously, we should just stop at that gas station right there and ask. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for being lost.”

    “No, I’m not stopping there. People that work at gas stations usually
    aren’t from around here, so I’m sure they wouldn’t know the area that
    well.”

    “What?! That is the weirdest thing anyone has ever said. And it can’t be true. Just stop.”

    He didn’t stop, and neither did my frustration. He kept right on
    driving until we got to a residential neighborhood, and pulled over.
    Finally!

    “Okay, let’s knock on this door and ask them if they can help us find the airport,” I said.

    “No, not that door,” he said.

    Whatever. “Okay…how about that door? They have a light on.”

    “No, I don’t have a good feeling about that house.”

    Now this was getting ridiculous. I decided to not listen to him anymore
    and I made a bee line for an older couple that was out in front of
    their house in the yard. I told them that we were lost, and asked if
    they could please help us find our way to the airport.

    Jeff rushed up from behind me and interrupted my request with a vengeance.

    …”Or, actually, could you just help me find this address instead?” He
    pulled out that mysterious little slip of paper from his shirt pocket
    and showed it to the man.

    The man said, “Oh! You’re very close. Just go right around the block this way, and you’ll find it.”

    What? What about the airport? This didn’t make any sense. I now knew
    something was up, but I had no clue as to what this wacko scheme
    was good for. (Let’s just blame it on my finals-on-the-brain.)

    “Jeff, why did you do that to me? Why did you let me get mad like that? I don’t like to be mad.”

    “Well, it was all part of the plan…a little bit!”

    Okay, so his strategy wasn’t perfect.

    We got back in the car, drove a few houses farther, and parked again.

    “This would be a good place to knock. I have an idea, let’s sing them a Christmas carol when they open the door!” Jeff said.

    “Um, no. I’m in no mood to sing, sorry,” I said.

    “Come on! It’ll be fun. Don’t make me do this alone.”

    Yeah, right. His sudden upswing in spirit was annoying me. We knocked, Jeff sang, and I fumed.

    “We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry
    Christmas…Jennifer, sing with me!…We wish you a Merry Christmas, and
    a Happy New Year!”

    “Good tidings we bring…” I finally joined in halfheartedly on the
    bridge when I could see he wasn’t going to stop. And for some reason,
    the people inside the house were giddy about the whole thing, matching
    Jeff’s strange enthusiasm.

    “Our first Christmas carolers! Oh, this is so exciting,” said the woman
    at the door. “Hold on right here for just a moment. We always give a
    special gift to our first carolers of the year. I’ll be right back,”
    she said as she walked into the kitchen behind her. What was she going
    to do, give us a bag of oranges?

    She came back carrying a dozen long-stemmed red roses, and handed them
    to me. I was dumbfounded, letting out nothing but an unusual squeal of
    astonishment.

    “Wow, that’s so amazing! Thank you so much!” Jeff said
    enthusiastically, feigning surprise. “Isn’t that such a huge surprise,
    Honey?”

    “Um, yes… I mean, they’re so beautiful! Thank you!” I said,
    finally catching on that this whole night had been a set-up, and that it
    was time for me to vanquish my sour temper.

    “You should go sing to our next-door neighbors, too,” the rose-giver said. “They love Christmas carols!”

    We knocked again. This time I sang softly along with him, as I tried to find focus through my daze.

    “Oh, Christmas carolers! We love Christmas carolers. Hold on, I think I
    might have something for you.” This neighbor, returned with another
    dozen picturesque roses, and laid them in my arms. “You should sing to
    our other neighbors, too,” she said, pointing to the next house farther
    down. “They love carolers.”

    Oh man, I didn’t think I could handle any more roses; I was overwhelmed enough already.

    “Isn’t this fun?!” Jeff giggled as we strode through the cold night air
    to the third and final house. I really didn’t know what to say, but
    smiled and squeezed his hand.

    At the last house, we sang only eight bars of our song to the woman at
    the door before we were interrupted with children rushing to the
    entryway, and Jeff starting to hug everyone. Something was obviously
    more familiar to Jeff about this household than the previous two.
    Something seemed family-like about these embraces. The woman of the
    house invited us to come in for a quick rest on the couch while she went
    to get us a special gift.

    We sat together, he put his arm around me. I was in shock. We faced
    their Christmas tree–which I later found out had a hidden video camera
    running from within its branches–and my tearful reaction to her
    presenting Jeff with a tiny ring box was all caught on tape.

    “Do you mind watching Jennifer’s roses for a few minutes while I take
    her on a short drive?” he asked the woman…his second cousin.

    “Not at all,” she replied with a huge smile. “And then when you come back, you can join us for dinner if you’d like.”

    Jeff drove me a short distance to the Bountiful Temple, the place we had chosen for our wedding ceremony.

    He turned to me, the closed ring box in his hand, and said in his most
    loving voice, “I really want to be your husband. Do you want me as your
    husband?”

    “Yes,” I said.

    “Will you marry me?”

    “Yes!”

    “Do you want me to get down on one knee?”

    “Yes.” I smiled, relieved that he didn’t really skip that part like I thought he was about to.

    He got down on one knee, began to open the ring box and asked again, “Will you marry me?”

    “Yes!”

    “Maybe you want to see the ring first?”

    “No! The answer is YES!”

    I kissed him, and he showed me the ring. It was exactly what I wanted.

    And so was he.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      What a neat scene! How precious. Somebody else here in the comments suggested reading dialogue aloud and seeing how it sounds. Give it a try. Yours is good but there are points where it could be stronger. 🙂

    • jennastamps

      Thanks so much for reading! Sorry it was so long. Could you give me just one example of a weaker part that could be strengthened?

    • Katie Axelson

      This was the line that caught my attention as not sounding real: “If you really want me to, I will try to prepare early so I can go.”

    • jennastamps

      Thanks, Katie!

  15. Rebecca

    Dear Madeline,

    Sometimes I wonder what my life would be if I didn’t take antidepressants. These drugs seemed to have killed my sex drive, my desire to be with other men… Danny told me the other day, that he loved me, he admitted this to me. Him and I have been friends with each other for a very long time – we talk to each other very frequently, we whine and bitch about things but we live in other worlds – him in the corporate world, me in the idealistic music world. We have differing world views… like the other day when I spoke to him, he told me what his views were on Mother’s Day. The dialogue sounded like:

    “Do you celebrate mother’s day?”

    “Yeah – why?”

    “Seems to be a popular holiday… I don’t celebrate it personally, actually to be honest, I don’t like holidays – Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day… I know I sound cynical, but all it really is is a marketer’s wet dream… and people seem to agree with this, at least for Valentines day, but mother’s day seems to be sacred to everybody.”

    “Yeah, I know, I mean, I think we all agree with it, but the reason why we celebrate these holidays is because everybody else does…”

    It has been a long while since I have found magic in commercial holidays… Blame it on the drugs, on the fact that they have fixed me to the extent that I’m functioning, but killing my excitement and want to with with other guys, to love, to be infatuated…

    I’m sorry if I sound cynical – do you celebrate mother’s day?

    DL

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Interesting choice to include dialogue in a letter like this. That’s not something I expected. Well done.

  16. Paul Owen

    They faced each other over coffee. Dessert was on the way.

    “So, what are you going to do this Sunday?”, Pim said.

    Erin said, “Don’t know. I haven’t seen Mom for years, and I don’t know if she wants to see me, either.”

    “Well, since we’re close by, do you want to stop in, just for a minute?”

    “Maybe, but it’s hard to think about, you know?”

    “Yeah, it’s not like you have to decide anything tonight”, Pim said.

    “So, how much do you think about your mother, around Mother’s Day?”, Erin said

    “A little, but mainly because I can’t get away from it, with all the adds for flowers and stuff.”

    The waiter walked up with Erin’s sorbet and Pim’s cheesecake, plus more coffee

    As he moved to the next table Pim said, “Mom and I barely had a relationship. There’s not that much for me to miss. When Mother’s Day comes around I feel a little sad for what might have been, but I can’t change it. So I don’t dwell on it that much.”

    “Yeah, I get that. It’s like that for me, too, maybe a little”, Erin said. “I used to be close to Mom, though, so it’s different. I know what I’m missing, and can’t do anything about it.”

    “That’s got to be tough sometimes. But if you want to make a quick stop Sunday, just to make contact, we can do it.”

    Erin said, “Okay, thanks. I can’t make up my mind now, but I’ll think about it.”

    They drifted off in their own thoughts, silverware and porcelain making the only sounds at the table.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      This dialogue definitely feels real. Well done.

    • Paul Owen

      Thanks, Katie!

  17. AlexBrantham

    For anyone struggling with dialogue, I really recommend “Self-Editing for Fiction Authors” by Renni Browne and Dave King. It has some great chapters on how to make dialogue fly.

    Just one small point of disagreement on the “said” front: I think if you use “said” after what is obviously a question, it looks really clunky. Permit yourself “asked” in these circumstances!

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      You’re right, “asked” is ok if it’s a question. Whenever possible but still clear, I skip the taglines on the questions.

  18. Scott Merk

    So many times we forget that when writing, certain errors can be constructive as long as they are intentional. “Said” is a great example. Most of the time we need the reader to focus on the dialogue.
    But there are times when we need to drop a hint or add some tidbit of information to the dialogue that would be confusing or awkward if done another way.
    The sign of a true wordsmith is knowing that rules can be broken when and if they are done with purpose and for effect.
    I could cite a number of examples but from reading the posts written here, the audience is talented enough to understand a generalization.
    Picture this, as your dialogue progresses you decide to add a series of non-verbal cues for the reader. You can choose to begin writing out a number of…”as he raised an eyebrow”, “she shifted from side to side as though she had a small rock in her shoe”, or maybe something like…”Stan backed away slightly increasing the distance between the suspect and his weapon” etc.
    But adding non-verbal information like this will certainly change the pace of your dialogue, and in some cases, could dramatically change the tension or mood you have worked so hard to create.
    “I guess what I’m trying to add is,” he said taking much too long to say it, “don’t be afraid to break ANY rule! Just make sure you have a reason or purpose for doing so,” he concluded.

    Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      Yup, I decided to focus on dialogue rather than non-verbal cues. Sometimes non-verbal cues help and sometimes they’re superfluous. My rule of thumb (and something we’ve talked about at The Write Practice before) is that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

  19. Lore

    Excellent tips. I needed the refresher on “Said”

    Reply
  20. Stephanie Noel

    If the character doesn’t help the story move forward, then it should go. No one wants to read characters talk about mundane things, unless it’s relevant to the story.

    Reply
  21. Lucy Raja

    Mother’s day is an opportunity for me to exhibit my feelings to the important person who gave me life said the carpenter to his neighbor. However, the neighbor felt that everyday is mother’s day and one should often express his/her feelings to their mom on a regular basis.

    Reply

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