Tag Archives: Dialogue

Creative Juice #291

Creative Juice #291

Especially heavy on writing articles this week.

D is for Dialogue


A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. Dialogue is a crucial element of writing, in that it serves many functions:

  • It helps the story progress, or changes its direction.
  • It offers backstory.
  • It reveals character.
  • It can add humor, or pathos.

It can also be very tricky to write. When I show my children a story I’ve written, their most common comment is “Why do all your characters sound like you?”

Ideally, your characters should sound distinct from one another.

In an attempt to make my characters’ voices unique, I’ve given one a lisp. I’ve given another a catch phrase, what the heck.

I definitely do not have this whole dialogue thing down yet.

Luckily for you, you don’t have to rely on my lack of expertise, because the internet has a wealth of resources about writing dialogue. Here are some of the best articles I’ve found:

Now it’s your turn. What’s the best advice you know for writing great dialogue? Who’s an author whose dialogue you particularly admire? Please share in the comments below.



Many thanks to Ryan Lanz of A Writer’s Path for this article on good writing.


Writers use dialogue tags constantly. In fact, we use them so often that readers all but gloss over them. They should be invisible. However, there are ways to misuse them and make them stand out.

In an effort to avoid that, let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags. Toward the end of “Tag travesties” is something I sorely wish someone had told me before I started writing.

Why do we use dialogue tags?
The simple answer is that we use them to indicate who’s speaking. In visual media, such as movies or television, the viewer can easily tell who’s talking by lip movement and camera angles. When reading a book, obviously that’s not an option.

Tag travesties
There are certainly ways to misuse dialogue tags. When I was a new writer, I felt compelled to overwrite. I ‘m sure every new writer goes through a version of this. I observed how successful writers used simple tags like “said/asked” and thought to myself, that’s boring. I’m going to be an awesome writer by making them more interesting. You don’t have to admit it aloud, writers, but we all know that most of us have. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • “We can’t cross this river,” Alanna exclaimed repugnantly.
  • John crossed the room and shouted disgustedly, “I’ll never take you with me.”
  • “This has been the worst day ever,” Susie cried angrily.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, let’s up the dosage with a paragraph:

Hank crossed the room and sat down. “We should have never waited this long for a table,” he seethed, leaning over to glare at her. 
“If you wanted a better spot, you should have called ahead for a reservation,” Trudy returned pointedly.
“Well, perhaps if you didn’t take so long to get ready, I could have,” he countered dryly.

Can you imagine reading an entire book like that? *shiver*

So why do new writers feel the urge to be that . . . creative with their dialogue tags? Back in the beginning, I thought the typical tags of “said/asked” were too boring and dull. It didn’t take me long to realize that dull (in this context) is the point.

Imagine your words as a window pane of glass, and the story is behind it. Your words are merely the lens that your story is seen through. The thicker the words, the cloudier the glass gets. If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story. The goal is to draw as little attention to your actual words as possible; therefore, you keep the glass as clear as possible, so that the reader focuses on the story. Using tags like “said/asked” are so clear, they’re virtually invisible.

Now, does that mean that you can’t use anything else? Of course not. Let’s look further.

Alternate dialogue tags
Some authors say to never use anything other than “said/asked,” while others say to heck with the rules and use whatever you want. Some genres (such as romance) are more forgiving about using alternate dialogue tags. I take a more pragmatic approach to it. I sometimes use lines like:

“I’m glad we got out of there,” she breathed.

The very important question is how often. I compare adverbs and alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice. Some is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. Imagine a cake mix with a liter of vanilla flavoring, rather than the normal tablespoon. The more often you use anything other than “said/asked,” the stronger the flavor. If it’s too powerful, it’ll tug the reader away from the story and spotlights those words. In a full length book of around 85,000 words, I personally use alternate dialogue tags only around a few dozen times total.

By saving them, the pleasant side effect is that when I do use them, they pack more of an emotional punch.

To continue reading this article, click here.

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

A big thank you to Writers in the Storm for permission to reprint this fabulous article by the incomparable Margie LawsonMargie’s Rule #16 originally appeared here.

People talking StockSnap_DJWZ40JPWN

When people talk, subtext happens.

Every time.

You can’t say one word without sharing subtext.

Subtext for dialogue: The psychological message behind the words.

When the words and the subtext are incongruent, the truth is in the subtext.

In the real world, we factor in subtext all the time.

On the page, we need subtext to make scenes rich and credible.

If you’re writing a scene with strong emotional content, you need to include plenty of subtext.

This blog focuses on subtext for dialogue. Not the we’ve-read-it-too-often ways to describe how the character said the words. Those overused descriptors are predictable. Skimmable.

I’m referring to what I call dialogue cues.

Dialogue Cues – My term. Here’s how dialogue cues fit in ways to tag dialogue.

Margie’s Five Categories for Tagging Dialogue:

  1. Basic Attributions:  Said and asked
  2. Action Tags:  Tags dialogue with action. Doesn’t share anything about the voice
  3. Body Language Tags:  Tags dialogue with facial expressions or body language
  4. Dialogue Tags:  Shares something about the voice, but these are often overused, like murmured, boomed, resonated, said harshly, said with a razor-sharp edge.
  5. Dialogue Cues: Describe how the words are delivered. They inform the reader how to interpret the message behind the words, the psychological nuances.

Digging deeper into dialogue cues.

They’re fresh. They carry interest.

They often deepen characterization. They may add a hit of humor.

Let’s dive in and analyze some dialogue cues.

Note:  Power Words – Words that carry psychological power.

Kennedy Ryan, Loving You Always, Immersion-grad

Loving You Always1. “Walsh!” Meredith’s voice snapped a warning, like twigs underfoot.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: snapped, warning
  • Simile
  • Compelling Cadence

2. His voice was a dull-edged knife slicing clumsily through her heart, fiber by bloody fiber. Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out. She would have preferred a quick cut, but he just kept talking.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: knife, slicing, heart bloody, dull, slow, imprecise, drawn out, quick cut
  • Amplification
  • Fresh Writing
  • Sentence Frag: Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Deepens relationship
  • Rhetorical Device: polysyndeton — Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Compelling Cadence

Kimberly Belle, The Ones We Trust, 4-time Immersion-grad

The Ones We TrustHe’s taking care to keep his tone flippant, but I can hear something darker pushing up from under the words, something much more honest and true, as if maybe he’s testing the waters, checking how I will respond.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: care, flippant, darker, pushing, honest, true, testing, checking
  • Fresh Writing
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Amplified Five Times
  1. something darker
  2. pushing up from under the words
  3. something much more honest and true
  4. as if maybe he’s testing the waters
  5. checking how I will respond

The Marriage Lie, by 4-time Immersion-Grad Kimberly Belle

The Marriage LieThe Marriage Lie will be released in December.

1. “Don’t you want to get that?” Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: girlish, slices, silence, knife
  • Backloaded with Power Word: knife
  • Fresh Writing
  • Compelling Cadence – Read the dialogue cue sentence OUT LOUD:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Now read it OUT LOUD without the word serrated:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a knife.

Hear the missing beats before knife?

The sentence with serrated has a much stronger cadence.

2. I scream back, the words fueled by fury and frustration.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: scream, fueled, fury, frustration
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Compelling cadence
  • Backloaded with Power Word — frustration

3. “True, but my guilty conscience and I wanted you to hear it here first. To make sure you understood the implications.”

“I try to take his emotional pulse, but his eyes are hidden behind dark wraparound sunglasses, his tone and expression guarded. ”

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: emotional, pulse, hidden, guarded Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Backloaded with Power Word: guarded

4. Her speech is slow and syrupy, and I’m pretty sure she’s stoned.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Word: Stoned
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration – speech, slow, syrupy, sure, she’s, stoned
  • Backloaded with Power Word: Stoned.
  • Compelling Cadence

5. “Iris, if you need any help, I’m happy to–”

“I’m fine.” I grimace and pump an I-got-this confidence into my tone. “Thanks, Evan, but don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Dialogue Cue for POV character describing how she’ll imbue fake confidence in her next sentence.
  • Hyphenated-Run-On: I-got-this
  • Power Words: grimace, pump, confidence, worry

6. “Look, I don’t know where the money is. I didn’t even know about it until a few days ago.”

“Of course, you have no idea.” His words agree, but not his tone. His tone says that I know where the money is, and he’ll make good on his threat if he has to.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Tells incongruence between words and tone
  • Tone is interpreted, amplified
  • Power Words: agree, money, make good, threat

6.  There’s pity in her voice now, and I can’t listen to it for another second.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words: pity, can’t listen
  • Shares how dialogue cue impacts POV character
  • Compelling Cadence.

Like Father Not Son, Kristin Meachem, 3-time Immersion-Grad

Like Father Not Son is not yet published, but I trust it will be.

1. “I didn’t see your mother at the church.” Jen’s words are sharp enough to cut and disembowel.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: sharp, cut, disembowel
  • Backloaded with Power Word: disembowel
  • Compelling Cadence

2.“What do we do now?” Tom’s voice teeters on the edge of tough and frail, unsure which way to fall.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: teeters, tough, frail, unsure, fall
  • Backloaded with Power Word: fall
  • Deepens characterization
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence

3. “Good to know. You’re fine.” There’s as much concern in my voice as a nurse finishing a twelve-hour shift.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: concern, twelve-hour shift
  • Shares sarcasm without using the word sarcasm or sarcastic.
  • Humor Hit

4. Liz’s voice is soothing, like a soul singer encouraging you to enjoy the rhythm and the ride.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: soothing, soul, rhythm, ride
  • Double Alliteration: soothing, soul singer; rhythm, ride
  • Compelling Cadence

5. “Good for you.” Her words give me a standing ovation, but her tone says I’m a full-sized prick.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: standing ovation, prick
  • Backloaded with Power Word: prick
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Deepens relationship
  • Humor Hit

6. “This isn’t about permission. This is about Tom’s happiness.” She coiled her tongue around the last ss’ and spit them out with the aggression of a cornered snake.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: coiled, spit, aggression, cornered, snake
  • Backloaded with Power Word: snake
  • Rhetorical Device: simile
  • Compelling Cadence

Carry Me Home, Dorothy Adamek, 4-time Immersion-Grad

Carry Me Home1.Clipped and cool, his words hardly matched his mission.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Rhetorical Device: Double Alliteration: clipped, cool; matched, mission
  • Shared incongruence between words and subtext
  • Compelling Cadence

2.  Her voice trembled and her words sounded less confident than she’d intended.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: trembled, less confident
  • Shares POV character’s emotional state

3. His voice remained low, but the look in his eyes curdled her blood faster than any scream.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: curdled, blood, scream
  • Backloaded with Power Word: scream
  • Compelling Cadence

4. This example is two paragraphs.

“Don’t be so sure of what you can’t see, Miss Mayfield. Some battles are fought against unseen tethers.” His voice remained low, but soft. Soft enough to creep through the shadows and deep into her.

He’d loosened the end of a coil she’d pressed to her ribs since the day they’d met. Not enough for the coil to unravel. But just enough to start the damage.

Deep Edit Analysis – for the two sentences that carry the dialogue cues.

  • Power Words: creep, shadows, deep into her
  • Amplification
  • Rhetorical Device: Anadiplosis …soft. Soft…

I included the second paragraph to show how Dorothy Adamek used a dialogue cue to show the relationship intensifying.

Blog Guests — Now you have some ideas about adding power with dialogue cues.

Kudos to mega-talented Immersion grads Kimberly Belle, Kennedy Ryan, Kristin Meachem, and Dorothy Adamek. Impressive writing.

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Margie Lawson Head shotMargie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over a hundred  full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Denver, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Canyon Lake, Dallas, San Jose, Albuquerque, Australia, and more), her full day Master Class presentations, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.margielawson.com.