Tag Archives: dialogue tags


7 Mar

Amy stroking a Navajo rug at the SW Indian Art Fair

February brought dear visitors who also brought writing questions.  Mariana who’s writing a middle-grade novel, arrived first, and we spent a couple of days dreaming up new jewelry projects at the Tucson Gem Show.  A week later, my daughter Amy came to preach a sermon at the UU church in Sierra Vista.  Of course, she needed to write her sermon, something she’s better at than I am, but on Saturday, we made time for the SW Indian Art Fair on the U of A campus, admiring the rugs, the silver-and-turquoise jewelry, the baskets, and, of course, the frybread.  While enjoying all that Tucson has to offer, Mariana, Amy, and I talked about little things and big — beads, knitting, life and death, plans for the future.  And writing.

Mariana, after reading my last blog post, had reworked her chapter to include more dialogue tags — ones that characterized AND furthered the plot.  Because of her additions, not only could we could see the setting, a most interesting one, but we could also feel the growing tension in her characters.  Adding tags improved the chapter.  But I’m never satisfied and kept wanting more tags, more details of scene, weather, and emotion.  I pointed to line after line.  “What about here?” I asked.  “And here?”

“How do you find a place to insert another tag?”  she asked.  “Are you doing it by ear?”

Partly by ear.  But there’s something easier.  I use the THREE-BEAT RULE.

A few years ago, Cynthia Whitcomb wrote about the “Three-Beat Rule” in her monthly column in “The Willamette Writer Newsletter.”  Her words immensely improved my own dialogue writing.

When we’re talking in real life, we tend to ramble.  Sometimes, we even lapse into rants or lectures.  Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean we have to repeat these habits in our writing.  No reader wants to be lectured or bored by a character — even if that character is innately boring.  (We can use summarized speech to show boring characters.  He talked on and on about the fiscal cliff is a good example of summarized dialogue.  We know he’s boring; we don’t need to make the reader plod through every sentence.)

What is the three-beat rule?

Give your character three beats of dialogue.  Then, figure out how to interrupt the flow of words.

A beat is a sentence or a phrase.  Consider this passage:  Mother’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in here.  I’ve called you too many times.  You never listen to me.  I’m not telling you again.  I come out here one more time, you’re grounded the rest of the week.”

The real mom probably was frustrated enough to rant like this.  But for better writing, let’s prune these five beats to three.  Remove two of the five sentences — any two.  Something wonderful happens:  What is left packs more wallop, and the mother’s frustration is still clear.

The other thing we can do is interrupt the speech with a tag.  In the above passage, Mom’s repeating herself.  But what if every sentence she says is important.  Count to three and insert a tag.  Count another three beats and insert another tag.  Let’s try it:

Mom’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in the house.  You got homework.  You got chores.”  Under the dim light they saw her lean hard against the porch railing.  Her voice came softer now.    “I can’t do it all.”

Notice how the final sentence takes on importance.  It’s standing alone.  It’s spoken in a different tone of voice and with different body language.  It makes us sympathize with this shrill mother.

Mariana took a look at the novel she was reading.  “This author is doing it,” she said.  “The three beats.”  She hadn’t noticed this technique before and that’s good.  The three-beat rule does great writing work, but it isn’t obvious.  That’s good writing craft — something that does the job and doesn’t call attention to itself.

To do at home:  Take a look at the dialogue in your own story.  Apply the three-beat rule. Prune away the unnecessary words.   Add interruptions in the form of another person speaking, or as a tag.  (Go ahead and add an explosion if it fits!)  Whatever you add should be important to the story, just as the mother showing her fatigue is important.  Remember that any old detail won’t work; make your details significant, concrete, sensory,  — important.

On the health front, chemo sessions continue as the cancer marker goes down.  Jerry and I are planning a trip to Grand Canyon in early April, where I intend to gape at the views from the South Rim.  He, being himself, intends to go down to the canyon floor and back up in one day.

Yes, he can!  He’s been climbing to Romero Pools almost every day since we got to Arizona.  Fit, he is.


Look ahead to workshops in character, dialogue, plot and first pages taught by Linda Elin Hamner and me in mid-June.  Linda and I have been gleefully planning these since last summer.  Please circle June 15 and 22 on your calendars.  At Imagine Cafe in Corvallis.  More details will come.


Amazing Dialogue Tags and Life

24 Jan
cactus antlers

cactus antlers

Written Jan. 17, one week ago:  Our freezing snap is over at last.  Temps have risen back to where we like them.  My daughter Rebecca snapped this goofy pic of us on one of the Catalina trails.  (She’s the one with the hair.)

Three weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I worked on an essay about foods that have lived in my mind over all these years: dog biscuits, fancy Jello salads, the first cherry pie I made, the Christmas chili con carne, one particular green pepper.

The parts I added to the essay that sleepless night were about my cancer.  My Tucson writer’s group liked the new section, suggested I put a bit of it at the beginning and make the rest the new ending.  My Corvallis group also liked the new writing and suggested I reduce the middle by a thousand words.  (A good idea, darn it.)

How could I write an essay about what I put into my body over 70 years and leave out carboplatin and taxol?

Tomorrow (January 18) I go again to the U of A Cancer Center, a building surrounded by gardens planted with prickly pears, barrel cactus, cholla, and palo verde trees, plus benches where you sit in the sun and build up courage to go inside.

After meeting with my gynecological oncologist, I’ll proceed to the infusion center upstairs, get settled in a comfy recliner and get hooked up for saline, more steroids, anti-nausea drugs, an hour or so of carbo, and then antihistamines followed a few hours of taxol.  As you can see, half the infusions are to protect me from the toxic chemo.  Jerry and I will talk and play cribbage.  I’ll knit, read, sleep, think.  We’ll talk with people who have much worse cancers than I.  They help us keep things in perspective.

Important note from today.  On the 18th, we discovered that the chemo is really working for me.  My numbers once again decreased by more than half.  Good news.

I’d rather be chatting here about writing, so let’s get to it.

The Power of Dialogue

In memoir or fiction, once you get your people talking, your story will come to life.  When readers sit in on actual discussions, arguments, or repartee, they are transported out of their own worlds into the world you have created.

Writing good dialogue is not easy.  (Is ANY part of good writing easy?)

In my workshops, we cover three areas:

1) The technical rules of how to place quotation marks, periods and commas.

2) How to sculpt the spoken words – making them sound natural, making them “say” more than is on the surface.   Elmore Leonard is my guru for this.

3) The craft of writing dialogue tags – those words that tell us who is doing the talking.

Let’s save everything else for another day.  For now, let’s look only at tags.

What’s The Point of Tags? 

They identify who is speaking.  Well yes, we already knew that.  But there’s more.
They characterize the speaker through gestures, posture, actions, tone of voice, and thoughts.
They add tension.  Mood.
They move the plot forward.
They give information.

When Must We Use a Tag?

Whenever the reader might get confused about who is speaking.  In a story for adults, we can write many dialogue exchanges without using tags.  In a story for children who read more slowly and with more effort, we need to give more cues.  Simple tags let us know when Cassandra is speaking, and when it is her twin sister Cleo.

Does it Always Have to be “He Said”?

“Said” gets the job done.  Believe me, the reader will hardly notice it.  On the other hand, if we get inventive and use synonyms for “said” such as “exhorted,” “exclaimed,” “enunciated,” “articulated,” “cajoled,” the reader immediately starts noticing the fancy synonyms more than WHAT is being said.  Stick to simple tags of “said,” “replied,” “answered,” “asked,” or an occasional “whispered” or “called.”  They work just fine.

It’s a temptation to write lines of dialogue with few tags.  But if we do, we often end up with the “white room” syndrome of voices nattering on in a place that has no weather, no sense of what year it is, no furniture or props, and worst of all, the characters wear NO CLOTHES!

Get Creative; Have Fun! Use Descriptive Tags

Descriptive tags identify the speaker,  and add a gesture or action.


“You have crossed the line,” Jack said, leaping off his horse and drawing  his antique sword.  [If we’d stopped after the word “said” we wouldn’t know about the horse or the sword.]

“Let’s play,” Noah said as he tugged on my sleeve, pulling me toward the broken train set. [Same for the train – a broken one, poor kid.]

“I will never forget your kindness,” Celia said as she tucked the tattered lace handkerchief into her cleavage.

“Thanks for nothing,” Dana said, brandishing a bunch of celery and forcing  her cart in front of mine in the Trader Joe’s checkout line.

We need to avoid stupid action that doesn’t characterize.  (I do this all the time and have to fix it later.)  My character nods, smiles, stands, sits (gestures any hack writer could come up with).  My stories start out with a cast of bobble heads!  Later, I turn those nods into something more interesting.  Nodding, smiling, etc. do little work for us.  They are a waste of paper.  Besides that, they indicate agreement — always boring.

From my examples, we see props and gestures and clothing show something about the character.  Take a look at the descriptive tags and see what you can deduce about age, agility, poverty, attitude, culture, and setting.  All this is a good start, but as we continue to layer, we’ll also try to incorporate clues about mood, tension, and plot direction.

Each tag should be worth the space it’s taking on the page.

Go Further!

Gestural tags are complete sentences — descriptive tags without the “said.”  You will recognize them whenever you see a complete sentence – one that identifies the speaker just as all good tags should do.  These give the reader a break from those descriptive tags that tend to have the same rhythm of using the word “said” and the comma.

Examples of gestural tags:

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s trembling hands thrust out the dirty bowl.

“Believe me, Madam, I will never forget your kindness.”  She wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief that had seen better days.

“You dumb jerk.  You crossed the line.”  Nathan brandished his antique sword and leaned close.

Placement of Tags

Clever things you can do with tags go on and on.  Choose the kind of tag you want to use (simple, descriptive, gestural) and then play around with where in the speech to place it.

Really?  Really!  This makes a huge difference!

Let’s play with the gestural tags above, bearing in mind that you can do this placement thing with all three kinds of tags.

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl. [Tag placed last]

The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.   “My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed first.  Does one sound better than the other? Maybe.]

“My baby’s starving.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.  “Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed in the middle.  Did something happen to the emphasis of his speech?  Definitely, better.]

Try this again, placing the tag after “Help me”  and before “For God’s sake.”

Is this trial and error worth doing?  Yes, it is.  Separating speech by tags tends to add strength or emphasis to certain lines especially to the one at the end.  Take a look at your own writing.  Circle each tag.  Can you make the tags more interesting, more “telling, ” can you  make them do more work?  Can you change their placement to add emphasis to certain words?

Writing Exercises For You

TO DO:  In your writing, find simple tags and rewrite them into descriptive tags or gestural tags.  Try giving your characters a task to perform as they speak.

TO DO:  Break up speeches that seem too long by placing significant gestures and actions – ones that do work – into the middle of them.

TO DO:  Comb through your writing to find “nodding and smiling” actions that are lazy.  Replace them with powerful tags.

TO DO:  Add layers of significant, specific details in your tags.  They help you show the reader, by allowing him or her to participate in your story.  The more your reader can fill in the significance of the grimy lace handkerchief, the broken-down toy train, the hostile shopper, the more alive your writing has become

Writing Prompt

Loosely taken from Bernays & Painter’s “What If?”

Write a scene of two people having a tense discussion – one worth eavesdropping on — one with five or six exchanges.  Perhaps one person is disclosing a secret, betraying a confidence, trying to smooth something over, or lying.  Important:  Give at least one of the speakers a task, chopping onions, cutting the other person’s hair, trying on swim suits, or whatever you think of.

Use all three kinds of tags if you can or use no tag at all, wherever it’s best.

Maybe Mark’s fingers can tighten around that knife; maybe the chopping will grow in intensity as the conversation escalates; maybe tears will fall that have nothing to do with the onions.

Let us see Maria’s scissors clip the air near her daughter’s ear as she makes a point.  Let us see her stop to kiss the blonde ringlet she’s just removed.

Let us see Irene tug at the bottom of the swim suit or fling one that’s too small over the dressing room door.  Who’s she talking with?  Are they friends, or enemies?  The undercurrents of their dialogue will make this clear.

If your exercise is no more than 300 words, I’d like to see it.  Want to send something to me?