Dialogue, Part Two

Written by Ryan R. Campbell

Ryan R. Campbell is an International Book Awards finalist, the founder of the Writescast Network, and the co-founder of Kill Your Darlings Candle Company.

Posted on March 31, 2017

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

Building on last week’s part one, let’s keep moving forward with dialogue. This week, I’d like to focus on three more things to watch out for when crafting (or editing) dialogue.

Can you even? You can’t? Then don’t!

Ready to get interactive? You aren’t? Too bad. Stick with me here.

Out loud, right now, I want you to grunt the phrase: “I am actively grunting the words leaving my mouth.”

Okay, now I want you to sigh the phrase: “I am actively sighing the words leaving my mouth.”

Let’s try again with cough: “I am actively coughing the words leaving my mouth.”

How did that exercise go for you? Were you able to actually grunt, sigh, and cough those words, or was it more of a grunt/sigh/cough followed by those words with maybe some grunts/sighs/coughs in between them?

Probably the latter. That’s because from a physical standpoint, no one is out there actually verbing these words that way. Unless you’ve got a distinct anatomy for your characters, they shouldn’t be able to do this either.

If dialogue is littered with characters whooping their words, I will huff and then have some choice words for you, but I definitely will not huff those words themselves.

So what should you do then, especially if you still want your characters grunting and wheezing?

“Just use said,” I said!

In last week’s post, I talked about how “screamed” was a bit of a tell when used in a dialogue tag. Though it is physically possible to scream or cry or shout or holler or whisper words, I still encourage people to use “said” as much as possible. This is not only because those other verbs are tells (and ideally you’ll have set the scene and presented your characters well enough that they won’t need the support of such verbs), but because most readers don’t actually read dialogue tags anyway. That’s right, your readers’ eyes won’t actually hit every word in your book individually. That’s just now how eyes work.

Test this yourself the next time you’re reading (and please try to be objective). Are you really looking at every word individually? How often are you paying attention to dialogue tags? Probably more than you usually would be because you’re actively hunting for them, but I bet it still won’t be all that often.

Your characters can (and should!) still scream and shout and whisper at each other, but tucking that information into dialogue tags won’t be as effective as finding other ways to shape your readers’ interpretations of the scene. Instead, other physical cues from their surroundings or their own actions can convey how they’re speaking to one another, and your readers will (hopefully) actually read those words!

Oh, and to make sure your characters still grunt or wheeze or what-have-you? Check out these examples.

  • Marvin grunted. “Like I’ve got the time to worry about that.”
  • Britta wheezed, each word heavier than the last. “It gets harder every day. I fear the end is near.”
  • “Make sure they know there’s no backing out of this.” Linda put back a hard swig, the liquor harsh on her throat. She coughed. “They’re in this ’til the end now.” She went on coughing, her eyes watering, her fist covering her mouth.

Call me maybe (Once. Just once.)

Hey, I just met you–and this crazy–but I want my readers to really know who’s talking to whom and so I am going to constantly have my characters call one another by name.

Yeah, that is crazy–because no one does that in real life.

I can’t tell you how peeved I get any time I see dialogue like this.

“Hey, Isabel?”

“Yes, Esteban?”

“Could you come here a minute?”

“Does something seem to be the matter, Esteban?”

“No, Isabel. Everything is fine. I have a question is all.”

Aside from the fact that there are an annoying number of questions in this conversation, each character calls the other by name twice despite the fact that there are only five lines of dialogue in the scene.

Another interactive exercise: go about your day and pay attention to how often people address one another by name. In many cases, people will call to one another by name if they’re not in each other’s line of sight (or if there are a number of other possible conversation candidates around), but once a conversation is started, they don’t continue to do it.

Pet names are another matter, though. If you’ve got characters trying to be cute with one another, they might throw around a “babe” or a “hon” or even a “mi amor” once in a while, but remember that if you overplay that as a device, you’re choosing to present your characters in a very particular way. That can be fine if that’s what you intend, but know that if played up too much, those characters will start to sound like lovesick fools.


To recap:

  • If you can’t even, don’t.
  • Say it with your saids.
  • Call me maybe, and maybe only once at most.
Now hop back into that manuscript and make sure your characters aren’t grunting one another by name over and over again.
Want to dive into dialogue even more? You’re in luck! You can get in touch with me on Twitter or by email here. Or, you can wait until next week Friday’s post, which will again be on dialogue. There’s just so much to say about it. Get it? Say? Yeah… we’ll leave it there for now.


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