Laughing Our Words & Other Dialogue Don’ts (The Self-Editing Guide Part 8)

Dialogue is an important thing in story-telling. How your character interacts with their friends, family, and even complete strangers tells a lot about his or her personality and conveys information that might not be revealed otherwise. How you describe that dialogue has a huge impact on your audience’s experience while reading your novel. So should you replace your dialogue tags with descriptive words and throw in a few adverbs? Not exactly. If you want to truly immerse your readers in your story, you’re better off doing the exact opposite.

Laughing Our Words & Other Dialogue Don'ts

I like to write in deep point-of-view, which means my goal is to make the words fall away. I don’t just want the readers to see the story unfold before their eyes, I want them to become part of the story. I want them to be in the middle of the action, not just watching from the sidelines. I want them to become the main character—to fight the battle and feel the pain as the sword goes in. So when I’m writing dialogue, any reminders that my audience is reading a story has to go.

Dialogue tags might be one of the most redundant aspects of writing. You add quotations around the spoken passage, and then you end it with he said or something similar to state who is speaking. But there are better ways to clarify this. Here are a couple examples of using a dialogue tag and how to get away with removing it.

“How are you feeling today?” Sarah asked. 

How are you feeling today?” Sarah stepped closer and pressed her hand to my forehead. 

The first one is a classic example of a dialogue tag. The second one removes the uneccessary phrase, clarifies who is speaking by the action that takes place, and shows the characters interacting in other ways as well. The second part of sentence two eliminates the need for tagging and that’s a good thing. Since it is a classic example, anything remotely close to she said or he asked tends to get skimmed over by readers. They’ve seen it more than enough in other novels. In this way, you’re still offering valuable content to your audience while keeping them from being confused on who is speaking.

Some people like to include both in their writing:

“How are you feeling today?” Sarah asked, stepping closer and pressing her hand to my forehead.

But this is even more redundant, since it can be reworded like the second example where the action alone states who is speaking. And, as we covered in the last article, -ING verbs slow down the narrative. If this is supposed to be a fast-paced scene, you’re going to want to drop those -ING verbs and keep the sentences direct and to the point.

So, again, it’s best to just use an action tag to clarify who is speaking. However, if the characters are speaking for a long period of time, you won’t be able to come up with an action for every line—and you shouldn’t try. You need to let the characters’ words take the spotlight in this scenario. That means most times the dialogue needs to stand alone. If there are only two people speaking, then character one will speak first, then character two, and then it starts over. In this case, you can go a few lines without reiterating who is speaking. The reader will have no problem keeping up, as long as it isn’t too drastic of a gap. A brief action tag after a few exchanges can keep the reader on track and immersed in your story. However, if they have to go back to the beginning of the conversation and start over just to figure out who is speaking toward the end, you’ve lost the intended effect. So don’t go overboard. As I often say, a healthy balance is key.

Another issue I see often is when writers choose to use dialogue tags and they use them incorrectly.

“That was funny,” Sarah laughed.

This is actually an action tag formatted wrong. NOT a dialogue tag. However, it is set up as if laugh is replacing said. That means Sarah is laughing out the phrase, “That was funny.” This happens often with various words such as laughed, sighed, yawned, coughed, cried, etc. This is the correct way to write it:

“That was funny.” Sarah laughed. 

In this example, Sarah speaks, and then she laughs. Makes sense, right? Often times it’s written in an even less plausible way:

“That was funny,” Sarah rolled her eyes. 

There is no doubt about it—this is an action tag. NOT a dialogue tag. You can’t roll your eyes into a series of words—that I’m aware of—so this sentence needs to be reworded as this:

“That was funny.” Sarah rolled her eyes. 

The difference is in whether you separate the text with a comma or a period. Keep this in mind when reading over your work and train yourself to take notice how you write your dialogue. The change in meaning can be tremendous, and it’s best to know exactly what effect your writing has on readers when you’re trying to write convincing dialogue. Incorporate these tips into your story and you will have a better chance at immersing your readers and creating realistic character interactions.


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strongwilled—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

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You’re Stupid and Your Writing Sucks (Guest Article by David Noe)

Ha-ha! What a funny title! Of course, this can’t possibly be a blog telling someone they’re stupid and that their writing sucks. That’s insensitive, and possibly wrong, right? Yeah, no. This is really an essay on making yourself better. Stated plainly, you can’t get better if you don’t know you need help. Sure, plenty of writers have a hard time, thinking their writing is below average, but there’s a very good reason for that. It’s called math, and writers aren’t generally very good at math. By definition, half of everything ever written is below average. That’s what makes it the average!

Okay, so how do you get on the right side of the coin? You can take all kinds of courses and classes and read all the books that claim they will make you great and you could still be lousy. Feeling better yet? You want to know how to get better? This isn’t the essay for that. You might as well stop reading. The truth is, I don’t care if you’re a good writer or not. I don’t care, and most other writers don’t care, and your neighbor doesn’t care, and neither does their cat. Some self-help books are written for a very specific reason . . . to sell self-help books. If you become a great writer, you may not buy any more of their self-help books. Where would they be then?

I’ll tell you what I want when I read a book. I want to enjoy the book. I don’t give a hang about where the author lives or what the author eats or who the author votes for. I just want a good story. You write a good story and you’ll be a good writer. Too simple? It comes so easy for some people. Yep. That’s the way life is. So, is this one of those tough love type columns? No. I really don’t care about you.

Here, then, is the value of this essay. Only you can prevent forest fires. There is so much value put in buying your way into being a good writer. There is so much coddling of sub-par writers. Nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings. Hey, I get it. Who wants to be barraged with a thousand hate-filled posts about what a butt you are for saying something mean (not that I would know)? You’ve got to do you. When I was learning to write comic book scripts, I was fortunate enough to have a professional school me on just how rough my drafts were. I must have rewritten that stupid script a dozen times. Each time, he would absolutely tear it into little bitty pieces. I had read the books. I had even had stories accepted, and I thought I knew what I was doing. It was very ‘Dunning-Kruger’ of me. I was stupid and my writing sucked, and I was extremely fortunate to have somebody tell me that (over and over).

Be smart enough to find somebody better than you (at least half the population) who you feel you can trust. Let yourself be torn apart, BUT only about your writing. Prepare yourself, expect bad news, accept bad news. Write and rewrite and write again. Listen to how stories and conversations actually work. Pay attention to life to develop an ear. If you really want to be better, know that you are one of the ones who has to put the work in. Other people are born with it, not you. You must work at it because you are stupid and your writing sucks and nobody cares . . . until you do. Be a better writer because you want to actually write better, not because you want accolades. Be smarter about your talent because you are paying attention, not because you want people to be in awe of you.

Okay, the secret of this essay is that most of the time, it’s narrated by you. One of the truths is that we can always better ourselves, but there will always be critics. Another truth is that nobody will care about your stories or your abilities unless you do. If you think you are a bad writer, you will be. If you think you are a great writer, you’re probably wrong. Never think you’re a great writer. That’s one sure way to not be a great writer. Always tell the best story you can. Care about your work. Then, the next time you tell a story, tell a better one.


David Noe has several books published by Amazing Things Press (novels, short story and novella collections, poetry, even some humorous, etcetera). He is co-founder and editor at InDELLible Comics. yadayadayadabuymybooksonamazon

His author page on facebook is https://www.facebook.com/tradeofthetricks/