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Exercise Eleven

Here is a powerful exercise. Remove all or most of your dialogue tags. I know what you are thinking; Karen has lost her mind. I can feel your panic and doubt rising but hear me out. When you use dialogue tags, you are telling the reader what to think and feel instead of showing the reader what is going on and letting them experience the dialogue for themselves. Which would you rather read?


     “Stay back,” Bob threatened.           Or             “Stay back.” Bob stepped backwards toward the edge of the wall.


Some words, like “laugh” and “sighed,” can’t really be shown. In those cases, simply leave the dialogue tag off. 


     “It’s no use,” she sighed.                 Or             “It’s no use.”


Do you need the author to tell you she sighed, or can you automatically envision what the character was doing?  If you must use a tag, try just using said or asked. But even those should be used sparingly. You heard right. Avoid using said and asked. Use action whenever possible. Look at this example.


     Jim broke the lamp. 
     Martha ran into the room. “Who broke the lamp?” 
     “I didn’t do it,” he lied. 

You can either leave off he lied, use he said, or use some type of action or emotion to show he is lying. Look at the revised scene.

     Jim broke the lamp. 
     Martha ran into the room. “Who broke the lamp?”
     “I didn’t do it.”           Or             “I didn’t do it,” he said.            Or             Jim shrugged. “I didn’t do it.”


See, you don’t need to tell the readers he is lying. They can figure it out themselves.


Your Assignment

First, using your first chapter, look at all your dialogue tags and choose one of the following remedies: remove the tag, change the tag to “said” or “asked,” or change the tag to an action or emotion. You will be amazed how many are unnecessary. Have fun!


You may have noticed in a couple of my posts that the comma or period has been placed outside the quotes of a single word. Today, I placed them inside. This was done on purpose in order to illustrate another editing dilemma. It is beneficial to think of your main audience when editing. In the United States, commas and periods go inside quotation marks all the time, no matter what. In England, commas and periods go inside if it is part of the quote, but outside if it is not. Example:


     Change the tag to “said.”  United States 
     Change the tag to “said”.  England 


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