Put Dialogue to Work

Dialogue pulls readers in and keeps them reading. Make it obvious who said what without a bunch of he saids and she saids.

A much more interesting way to tell readers who is speaking is to have your characters do something before they speak.

Tag, you’re it
Try replacing dialogue tags (attribution) with action that puts your character on stage. These are called action tags or beats. Example:

  1. Dialogue tag: “Papa, can you hear me?” Charlie said. “Is it Christmas in heaven, too?”
  2. Action tag: Charlie looked into the early morning sky. “Papa, can you hear me? Is it Christmas in heaven, too?” He blinked back tears. “I miss you.”

The second example more completely captures the reader. The actions show rather than tell, and they keep the story moving.

The name game
Some writers clutter dialogue by repeating characters’ names too frequently. When only two people populate a scene, this is unnecessary.

  1. “Charlie, is that you?” Mama said as she stood in the doorway in a frayed bathrobe.

    “Yes, Mama, it’s me,” Charlie said.

    “Charlie, I know you’re sad. I am too.” She opened her arms. “It’s our first Christmas without your father.”

    “I really miss him,” Charlie said. “Mama,” he added, as he ran to his mother, “Christmas isn’t the same without Papa.”

  2. “Charlie, is that you?” Mama said, standing in the doorway in a frayed bathrobe.

    “Yes, it’s me.” He blinked back tears.

    “I’m sad, too.” She opened her arms. “It’s our first Christmas without your father.”

    Charlie ran to her. “I really miss him. Christmas isn’t the same without him.”

Try these options to quickly improve your dialogue.

Karen O’Connor is an award-winning author of 60 books and hundreds of magazine articles for children and adults, a retreat and conference speaker, and a writing instructor with 25 years of experience. Her most recent books are It’s Taken Years to Get This Old and 365 Reasons Why Gettin’ Old Ain’t So Bad (Harvest House 2010). Visit her online.

Dialogue image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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