Archive for the 'Dialogue' Category

May 16 2012

Please Avoid Having Characters Repeat Each Other

Published by under Dialogue,Scene-Building

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Character 1: “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

Character 2: “Vancouver?”


Character 2 comes across as sort of mentally slow, right? Unless you’re trying to make characters sound slow (or totally disoriented), I would recommend against having them just repeat each other.


Whenever a character says something, it should develop a character and/or advance the plot (e.g. conflicts, goals/motivations, major decisions, etc).  For example, you can use questions to bring in new details rather than just repeating something that has already been introduced.


Here are some more interesting responses to “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

  • “Where’d you get the money for that?”
  • “What about your job?”
  • “But there are Canadians there. You don’t even own a gun!” (This character isn’t much smarter than in the original, but is definitely more memorable).
  • “Isn’t Bob convinced the airlines are trying to kill him? How are you getting there?”
  • “Did that Canadian put you up to this?”



21 responses so far

Mar 22 2012

A Dialogue Comparison of Twilight and Harry Potter

When people speak they have their own biased version of facts. This is based on their intelligence, experience, and beliefs. Dialog should not only tell readers the actions your characters take, but why they are making them.


Let’s see how effective, or ineffective dialog can be. I’m going to look at excerpts of dialog from Eclipse (pages 101-103) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (pages 213-215).


Continue Reading »

16 responses so far

Jun 17 2011

Dialogue Checklist

1. Do the characters have distinct voices? Voice can be influenced by diction and syntax, the sorts of details they’d notice and/or mention, personality, how educated they sound, accents, etc. If the characters sound distinct, readers should usually be able to tell who is saying what even if you cut out most of the dialogue tags (like “John yelled” and “Mary said”).


2.  Are characters talking naturally, rather than just narrating for the benefit of readers? One red flag here is that the characters are recapping what they already know (“As you know, Bob…”).  If characters talk about things they already know, you can use the conversation to develop some new angle, like what they’re doing moving forward.  Make sure that your characters have a reason of their own to talk–if they’re talking about something because you want them to, it will probably feel stilted.


3.  Please don’t have characters incessantly address each other by name. That’s annoying, Greg.  People don’t talk like that, Greg.  If the characters are well-voiced and/or have distinct goals, it should usually be obvious who’s delivering each line without such addresses. If not, adding a dialogue tag like “Mary said” is usually less annoying than adding an address. (I wouldn’t recommend using one every line, though).


4.  Does all of the dialogue develop a character and/or advance the plot? Please stay away from chatting, idle chatter that doesn’t go anywhere.  Chatting tends to waste space and stall the plot.  For example, it’d probably be boring for characters to talk about the weather unless you’re, say, trying to foreshadow an impending hurricane.


4.1.  Are the characters trying to accomplish anything? If the characters are just idly talking without any particular goal, I think that’s a red flag that the characters are chatting.  Give the characters objectives that really matter to them.  For example, if a detective is trying to figure out whether Jim is the murderer and Jim is trying to allay the detective’s concerns, it’d be really surprising if the conversation weren’t interesting.


5.  Have you handled your dialogue tags well? Here are some common problems that can arise with dialogue tags.

  • Don’t use unnecessary tags.  For example, “I’ll never leave you,” he promised uses an unnecessary “he promised.”  Readers can easily tell this is a promise, so you don’t need to beat them over the head with it.
  • Please don’t load up on exotic substitutes for “said” that don’t add anything.  I wouldn’t recommend using an exotic substitute for “John said” unless the substitute word provides some information to readers that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For more details on how to use substitutes for “said” effectively, please see this article.

13 responses so far

Apr 25 2011

How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively

Published by under Dialogue

Dialogue tags are phrases like “he said” or “she joked” that let readers know which speaker is delivering a line.

1.  If the dialogue tag isn’t necessary, remove it. Does the dialogue tag provide enough information to readers to justify spending 2+ words?  I’ve read manuscripts with hundreds of unnecessary dialogue tags.  Cutting back can free up pages for actual content.

  • WASTE OF SPACE: “I’ll never leave you,” he promised. “I’ll never leave you” is obviously a promise, so “he promised” is unnecessary.
  • HELPFUL:  “You study three hours a day,” she accused.  Without “she accused,” readers might misinterpret this as a compliment.

2.  Make sure your tags fit the context of the sentence.

  • WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he stated.   “Stated” is far too formal to fit here.  (It also connotes deliberation and authority/confidence, like someone delivering an official finding or report).
  • RIGHT: “This man was murdered,” the coroner stated.
  • SO VERY WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he ejaculated.

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Sep 09 2010

Please Don’t Use “Is That a Threat?”

Published by under Dialogue,Fixing Cliches

I roll my eyes whenever a character asks another “Is that a threat?“*  The question is almost always a setup for a third-rate one-liner. Here are some responses that are usually poor.

  • “No. It’s a promise!” This is ludicrously cliche. If you’re hooked on that line, I’d recommend coming up with a different contrast. Maybe “It’s an opportunity” or “It’s a lesson” or whatever fits the situation.
  • “Yes,” “Absolutely” or any other generic yes answer. Generally, when a character has made a threat, the threat is so patently obvious that the question is completely unnecessary.  Unless the threat is unclear, “Is that a threat?”/”Yes” will only waste two sentences and make the first character come off as mentally slow.
  • “Take it any way you like.” This is pretty bland and cliche. I think this is usually a missed opportunity to come up with a dodge more uniquely tailored to the character and circumstances.  For example, if a distant father implies that his son will get cut off from the trust fund unless his grades improve, the father might respond to “Is that a threat?” with an action or line that suggests how unconcerned he is about what his son thinks.  Maybe he lights up a cigarette or dismissively changes the subject with something like “Chardonnay?”
  • No, it’s a fact.” Also cliche.

*”Is that blackmail?” raises similar problems.

Writing exercise: Write a scene that effectively uses “Is that a threat?”

73 responses so far

Oct 28 2008

Don’t Overuse Exotic Substitutes for “Said”

Beginning authors tend to overuse “said bookisms,” which are words used to replace the word “said.”  For example, in the sentence “I’m ready!” he declared, declared is a said-bookism.


Using more than a few said-bookisms per page will probably make the dialogue feel melodramatic and stilted (“I’m hungry,” he uttered). Some common said-bookisms are potentially distracting because they aren’t actually a way to speak.  For example, “I knew you’d come back,” she smiled lazily conflates two actions: the speaking and the smiling.   No, she didn’t smile those words.  It would be clearer and probably more publisher-friendly to change the phrase to “she said with a smile” or give the two actions their own sentences.


Additionally, animal-sounds are unusually annoying.  It doesn’t take much of him clucking and her purring to sound absolutely ridiculous.

Continue Reading »

29 responses so far

Oct 27 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Make Your Characters Uncomfortable

If your characters are comfortable, chances are that the story isn’t doing anything interesting. “Could you pass me a crumpet, dearie?” Far too many manuscripts get bogged down in characters chatting. Scenes that focus on chatting are typically boring and pointless. Fortunately, you can easily fix these scenes by adding discomfort and conflict. What if the two conversants hated each other but couldn’t avoid talking? What if John and Margaret had utterly failed on a joint project at work and they could only keep their job by moving past what had gone wrong? Or what if John were obnoxiously, madly in love with Margaret? Suddenly the scene has potential. Dramatic possibilities abound.

Here’s a webcomic to help remind you to keep things uncomfortable.

One response so far

Aug 02 2008

Gender-Based Differences in Speech

I found these two articles on writing male speech and female speech quite useful.

3 responses so far

Jul 29 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Superfluous Lines of Dialogue

This article will help you write tight and effective dialogue, courtesy of Shut Up, He Explained.

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One response so far

Feb 24 2008

Index: Writing Guides

How to Improve Your Characters

  1. How to Introduce Major Characters
  2. How to Name Characters (Superheroes and Otherwise)
  3. How to Save Mary Sues (Insufficiently-Challenged Characters)
  4. How to Develop Interesting Characters
  5. 15 Interesting Motivations for Villains and Heroes
  6. A List of Character Attributes
  7. Writing Male Characters
  8. Please Don’t Model Your Characters on Your Friends
  9. Don’t Make Your Villains Unnecessarily Evil
  10. Why Secret Origins Usually Fail (“Leia’s my sister!?!”)
  11. How to Make Your Character’s Job Interesting
  12. How to Use Characters with Mental Disorders
  13. Don’t Let Minor Characters Steal the Show
  14. How to Make a Character Likable
  15. Please Don’t Use Generically Nice Characters
  16. Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes
  17. How to Make Your Love Interest a Real Character (Banana Slug)
  18. Be Careful With Crying Characters (Marissa)
  19. Female Characters: Awful Vs. Awesome


How to Improve Your Titles

  1. Is Your Title Stylish Enough?
  2. 10 Common Mistakes of Novel Titles
  3. Even More Ways to Blow a Title
  4. How to Write Titles That Sell (Novels and Chapters)
  5. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 1)
  6. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 2)
  7. Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 3)
  8. Your Title is Bad… (Part 4)
  9. Your Title is Bad… (Part 5)
  10. Your Title is Bad… (Part 6)
  11. Your Title is Bad… (Part 7)
  12. Your Title is Bad… (Part 8 )
  13. Your Title is Bad… (Part 9)
  14. Your Title is Bad… (Part 10)


Introductions and Prologues
  1. Prologue Tips
  2. How to Write Excellent First Lines
  3. How to Survive to Page 2
  4. The Five Worst Novel Introductions
  5. How to Write Strong Introductions (Novels)
  6. Don’t Wait to Introduce Your Main Character


Structuring Your Story

  1. Writing a Novel’s Synopsis
  2. End Your Chapters With a Bang
  3. Chapter Checklist
  4. Organizing Your Story With Cause and Effect
  5. How to Handle Backstory
  6. How to Do Multiple Narrators and POVs With Style
  7. How to Convey Information the POV Doesn’t Have
  8. Be Careful with Sequels
  9. Common Problems with First-Person Narration
  10. Common Problems with Third-Person Narration
  11. Organizing Your Plot: Five Kinds of Central Plots
  12. Story Structure
  13. Cover Your Plot Holes– It Might Be Hilarious


Becoming a Professional Writer

  1. Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Inexperienced Novelists
  2. Another Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Inexperienced Novelists
  3. Why Is It So Important for Authors to Read Widely?
  4. Rules of Professional Behavior
  5. Mental Issues in the Workplace
  6. Think Like an Editor (Marissa)
  7. How to Communicate with Agents and Editors


Plotting and Pacing

  1. How to Build Coherent Transitions Between Scenes
  2. Start Your Story As Everything Goes Wrong
  3. When the Villain Beats the Heroes, Don’t Just Let Them Go
  4. Make Your Story Interesting with Urgent Goals
  5. Automatically Generate a (Goofy) Plot
  6. Your Introduction Should Not Read Like an Atlas
  7. Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Story
  8. How to Make Traveling Interesting
  9. How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers
  10. Plot Elements That Should Not Be Added Lightly
  11. How to Avoid Info-Dumping
  12. Training Scenes


How to Avoid Common Writing Mistakes

  1. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 1)
  2. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 2)
  3. 5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Authors (Part 3)
  4. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 4)
  5. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 5)
  6. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 6)
  7. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 7)
  8. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 8 )
  9. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 9)
  10. 5 Common Mistakes… (Part 10)
  11. If You’re A First-Time Author, Do Not Self-Publish!



  1. Dialogue Checklist
  2. How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively
  3. Common Dialogue Mistakes
  4. Keep Your Dialogue Tight
  5. How to Punctuate Dialogue
  6. Please Don’t Use Bad Accents


Other Writing Mechanics and Miscellaneous

  1. How to Write Memorably
  2. How to Beat Writer’s Block
  3. Don’t Quit Your Day Job!
  4. Show, Don’t Tell
  5. How to Write Gripping Scenes
  6. Write Concisely!
  7. Eliminate Gimmicks in Your Writing
  8. Don’t Abuse “There’s”
  9. 9 Words That Usually Shouldn’t Start a Sentence
  10. A Few Notes on Punctuation
  11. Make Your Story Intriguing, Not Cryptic
  12. How to Do Settings and Scenery Well
  13. Don’t Tell Readers What the Character Isn’t Doing


Learning Writing Skills from Published/Aired Works


Genre Writing and Resources

  1. ANYTHING SUPERHERO: How to Make Interesting Headquarters for Superheroes and Villains
  2. FANTASY OR SUPERHERO ACTION: How to Keep Your Superpowers and/or Magic Extraordinary
  3. ACTION: How to Pace an Action Scene
  4. ROMANCE: Common Pitfalls of Romance (ReTARDised Whovian)
  5. ROMANCE: How to Make Your Love Interest a Real Character (Banana Slug)
  6. COMEDY: How to Write Comedy
  7. COMEDY: How to Write Parodies (Tom)
  8. DETECTIVE/MYSTERY: Probing for Inconsistencies


Research and Resources
  1. A Writer’s Guide to Guns and Firearms
  2. 7 Things Guns Cannot Actually Do
  3. An Introduction to Bounty Hunting


Editing and Refining Your Work

  1. It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks
  2. How to Take Criticism Well
  3. Applying “Rules” of Writing to Your Work
  4. Twenty Questions to Ask Before Submitting Your Story
  5. 100 Questions to Test Your Story
  6. Style Checklist
  7. How to Make the Most of Beta Reviews


Getting Published and Self-Publishing

  1. Length Guidelines: How Long Should Your Novel Manuscript Be Before You Submit It?
  2. How to Format a Novel Manuscript
  3. How Novel Manuscripts are Evaluated
  4. Why Do Good Manuscripts Get Rejected?
  5. How Long Does It Take to Get a Novel Professionally Published?
  6. 10 Reasons Novel Manuscripts Get Rejected
  7. List of Instant Rejections
  8. Teresa Hayden’s List of Novel Rejections
  9. 16 Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected Before Page 1
  10. Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 2?
  11. Will Your Manuscript Survive to Page 20?
  12. What is a Query? How Do I Write One?
  13. Sharpen Your Story With a Two Sentence Synopsis
  14. More Two-Sentence Synopsis Tips
  15. Marcus Hart Explains: How to Self-Publish
  16. How Much Will It Cost You to Self-Publish?
  17. Why First-Time Authors Should Not Even Think About Self-Publishing
  18. Why Self-Publishing Might Work for You


Target Audience

  1. How to Write for Kids (Tom)
  2. How to Write for Kids (B. Mac)
  3. Your Readers Are Not the Same as You!
  4. Market Trends: Teen Literature is Selling Quite Well


Social Commentary in Fiction

  1. So You Want to be an Opinionated Author
  2. Writing About Racism

29 responses so far