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 November, 2001

Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome

by Sandy Tritt


"Just be like that," she pouted.

"Oh, come on," he groaned. "Not this again."

"You don't love me," she replied.

"Right," he snarled. "That's why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

"Here," she sobbed. "Just take it back. Take it."

Okay, what's wrong with our sample above (other than being melodramatic)? It's an ailment I like to call "Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome" -- the writer relies on creative tags (pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed) so the reader will know how to interpret their dialogue. What's wrong with this? Let me count the things:

  • The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
  • It is telling the reader how the words are said, instead of showing.
  • If the dialogue is well-written and the accompanying action is well-chosen, it is redundant.
  • It is annoying.

Consider, instead:

Shelly's lower lip quivered. "Just be like that."

Mike rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on," he said. "Not this again."

"You don't love me."

"Right," he said. "That's why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

"Here." She pulled off the ring and shoved it under his nose. "Just take it back," she said, her voice breaking. "Take it."

Okay, so nothing's going to help our melodrama too much, but let's still examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:

  • No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who's speaking, no law says we must use a tag.
  • Action. "Shelly's lower lip quivered" replaces "she pouted." It's more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it's showing, not telling.
  • The prosaic "said." Yes, "said" is boring. It's overused. In fact, it is so boring and overused that it's invisible. Just like "the" and "a" and "his" and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, "said" slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what's important: the action and the dialogue.
  • A combination of "said" and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the after example above.

While we are on the topic of dialogue tags, lets also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag is used (preferably "said," but an occasional "asked" or "repeated" is permitted), a comma separates the dialogue from the tag (see examples in sentences 2 and 4 of the above example). If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it is considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such. If it is necessary to interrupt a dialogue sentence, as in the last sentence in the above example, use the tag and action, thus allowing a comma instead of a period.

Note: "I love you," she smiled, is never correct. "Smiled" cannot be a tag; it is an action. Therefore, it can be written in one of two ways: "I love you," she said and smiled. - or - "I love you." She smiled.

If your dialogue contains a question, such as: "Who are you?" he asked, it is not necessary to punctuate with a question mark and use "asked" as a tag. This is personal choice and personally, I usually use the tag.

Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Using it effectively means tagging it effectively. Read the before and after examples given here aloud. Hear the difference. Hear the redundancy. Hear the invisibility of the hardworking "said."

It will be the best friend you ever had.

(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Sandy's website











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  • First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at 50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (November, 2001).
  • Critiques by Sandy Tritt
  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.
  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
  • Answer any questions you may have via email.
  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(See Sandy's article in the left column.)

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Publishing New Writers,

November, 2001 (no.211)

Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

If [you] can continue to send me more useful information of any sort pertaining to writing it would be greatly appreciated. Your March newsletter has already been of a good deal of help to me. 

Thank you

Dave Fox

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Finding Time to Write

by Jack R. Noel


          Surveys of published writers have revealed that most of those who reach success in publishing do so only after years of effort.  The years before success finally arrives are often spent trying to support ourselves and our families while working in non-writing jobs.  Generally, this means that we have to somehow fit reading and writing into our daily lives and that can be challenging.

            I believe there are methods one can use to ensure that we succeed in writing to whatever degree we want.  I will offer some of these here.  Please donít think my humorous approach means that Iím not serious about offering real help.  Iím deadly serious because Iíve had to face this struggle myself.  I just donít want  to whine about it.

            First is the Flaubert Method:  Have a disease which prevents your holding a job but does not  completely disable or kill you.  Spend the latter part of your life in a single room with sealed windows, a single door, and rarely admit visitors.  This creates a kind of sensory deprivation which will enable you to remember in excruciating detail every person and event that occurred before your confinement.

It also gives you time for reading the work of others.  Write all that down, adding enough imaginative plot to make it into novels.  It helps if you can write your first book and get it banned in your own and several other countries.  This is free advertising.

            This sounds funny but versions of it actually exist and it actually works.  I donít have a disabling disease, I have a sleep disorder: Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.  I cannot sleep before 2:30 AM and yet always awake at 9:30 AM.  This guarantees that I wonít be showing up at the workplace anywhere near 8:00 AM.  

For years, Iíve worked afternoon jobs.  This gives me the first four or five hours of the day to devote to my writing.  Writing as soon as I awake has released my full creative potential, which before had been effectively blocked by the rush to work and on the job pressures. 

            I can now write a 3,000 word short story in eight hours.  I have written a 90,000 word novel in thirty-two days.  Just try telling me Iím crazy.

            Second is the Stephen King Method: Go for the jobs which are unpleasant and which offer no prestige and inadequate income.  Mr. King reports in his recent memoir that his early jobs after college were (A) working in an industrial laundry where he loaded sheets and table cloths ďseething with maggotsĒ into giant washing machines, (B) working as a back country English teacher while living and writing in a doublewide mobile home. 

            Weíre talking really miserable and even desperate jobs, the kind that'll make writing in closets while youíre dopey with fatigue seem like a dream job.  This will also humble you by giving you a firsthand taste of the economic class system in the United States.  It will enable you to write stories about those who are poor and different from the mainstream population. You will write about people like the girl you knew in high school who wore the same clothes throughout the school year.  Your desperation will  inspire you to recreate that girl with powers that she will use to wreak fiery vengeance upon those classmates who tormented her.  You will send out your manuscript and not hear anything for several months. Then your publisher will call and inform you that  you are so rich that your knees buckle and youíll sink to the cracked and peeling linoleum.

            The H.P. Lovecraft Method:  This is a variation on Flaubertís method.  H. P. Lovecraft was not  a robust and outgoing type.  He is best known for his florid-lurid tales of ultra-dimensional gods like Cthulu who menaced mankind  from the other side of Space.   He published a couple dozen of these books, but that wasnít his primary output as a writer.   His  social life was conducted via letter writing.  He constantly wrote letters to friends and acquaintances.   He died young, but in his brief lifespan he managed to write something like 120,000  personal letters. 

            Actually, I have little idea of how Howard found the time for all that writing, plus adequate reading. The point here is that he did find it and, with it, he found not only success as a writer but lasting fame and notoriety. 

            The Genius Method:  This may be the easiest path of all.  Simply be born with a humongous intellect.   You will inevitably be channeled through a first-rate education and go on to be something like a college professor  or lawyer.  You will be able to read at double the rate of ordinary mortals.   And your urge to write will impel you to write book after book, and many will have popular appeal.

            Examples of this include men like the late Isaac Asimov, who wrote over five hundred books and science fiction novels.  His IQ was 200+.   Asimov began as a Biology professor.   But lawyer John Grisham certainly qualifies too.  Anyone who can get through law school and achieve success in Law is no dummy.  Together, Grisham and Asimov illustrate another prime directive to writers: Write what you know and what you love.

            Put simply, the answer to the question of how to fit writing into your busy life is this:  You will find the time.  Everyone whoís ever felt the constant nagging, hopeful impulse to write has found the time to do it.  Everyone who's found relief, hope or insight from reading has found the time to read. The truth is, weíre addicted.  We canít stay away from the pen and paper or keyboard and word processor for any length of time.   Stephen King wrote, ďArt is the servant of life...Ē   I add that we are the servants to our Art.  Forever and ever, amen.



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