Easy Dialogue Ain’t Easy, Part 2: Revision, Step One, “Hey! Look at me!”

While you revise that boring dialogue you wrote last week, I’ll go hunting for mice. It better be more interesting this time. Now, where did that mouse go?

After such poorly written dialogue in the previous post, let’s revise it step by step. Today, we’ll look at taglines, those little words that identify the speaker.

Bad Example

“Where are you going?” Bill inquired.

            “To the grocery store,” Alice answered.

            “Why are you going again?’ Bill remarked.

            “I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

            “Yes,” Alice said with conviction in her voice.

            “Well, goodbye then.”

            Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

Observations on Bad Example

When I read such dialogue, as shown above, the first mistakes I see are its taglines. Although we read them in books and even in bestsellers, these taglines are wrong. Why? They aren’t simple one-syllable taglines, and because of this, they draw attention to themselves. They cause readers to pause by saying, “Hey, look at me.” They jerk readers out of our story world.

A tagline serves one purpose: identify the speaker. Fancy, multisyllable taglines aren’t needed. We can even make taglines “disappear.”

How? By using simple ones. The best taglines are he said/she said, or in the case of a question he asked/she asked. When someone reads a story, they almost disappear because readers tend to gloss over them, and this is what we want.

Can you find another mistake in the example? Look at the third to last sentence: with conviction. Never use emotional with phrases or -ly adverbs to tell readers what a character feels. Instead, show the character’s emotion through what the character says.

The one exception to what I’ve said above concerns a character’s volume of speech. Since it’s impossible to show how loud a character speaks through dialogue, we have to tell it. We can use an exclamation point, of course, but it’s best if we don’t use this punctuation mark often. Instead, use simple taglines such as yell, whisper, said softly, etc.

Once we establish who’s saying what, don’t keep using taglines unless, of course, we have more than two characters in a scene. I’ll discuss this later.

Mouse got away from me. So go ahead. I’m listening. Your revision better be good.

Revision of Taglines

“Where are you going?” Bill asked.

            “To the grocery store,” Alice said.

            “Why are you going again?’

            “I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

            “Yes.” Alice grabbed her purse.

            “Well, goodbye then.”

            Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

That sounded a little better. I think it still needs lots of work, though. Hey, did a mouse just run under your chair?

My feline friend is right. More work remains, so we’ll continue our revision tomorrow.





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