Tag Lines – look who’s talking

Effective dialogue gives the illusion of real speech. Dialogue is edited speech, organized and directed, while retaining the style of real-life speech.  It should be lean and brief.

When writing dialogue, it is important to be clear about who is talking, so we use tag lines such as the she said/he said device to distinguish between speakers.  It’s best to keep it simple – avoid overuse of ‘said’ substitutes (such as: whispered, screamed, cried, sang) as these tag lines, though sometimes appropriate, if used too often can be distracting. Avoid the use of adverbs, ‘ly’ words, following ‘said’ in tag lines – such as: she said brazenly. Instead of telling us, show us in her actions or the content of her speech, that she is being brazen.

There are effective ways of writing dialogue that incorporate narrative – communicating what your characters are doing while they talk – I call this choreography – and also communicating important information about your story – exposition. You can use choreography and exposition by alternating between lines of dialogue and narrative, but keep the narrative brief, don’t let it interfere with the flow of the dialogue, or slow the pace of the scene.

When incorporating exposition don’t give your reader any more information than necessary.  Often, saving up exposition and using it in crucial moments will make it more exciting, and even transform it into a turning point. Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can.

In order for a scene to work, there must be tension. Dialogue works best when demonstrating the friction between two points of view, or when demonstrating a failure to communicate – the speaker is not being articulate or forthcoming, the listener isn’t listening, or the characters are so focused on their own agenda that they actually seem to be having two separate conversations.

© Georgios Alexandris | Dreamstime.com

It helps to know where your characters are – perhaps a diner or a laundromat – and to have them involved in doing something while they are carrying on a conversation – this helps to animate them, and to make a scene feel real and tangible.

© Mccool | Dreamstime.com

Here are Joseph and Ted in a diner:

“It’s a good thing you jog everyday or you’d be dead.” Ted said as the waitress set a plate of bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast and butter in front of Joseph. Joseph, his hair still damp from a shower after a hard run, sat across from Ted in a booth at the Big City Diner.

“You sure you won’t have anything?” The waitress looked at Ted.

“Just coffee.” Ted held his mug up for a refill.

“Order something.” Joseph said.

“No. I gotta’ start running.” Ted watched Joseph take a bite of eggs. “What time d’you get up?”


“No.  Too early.” Ted swiped a piece of toast from Joseph’s plate.

Joseph gave Ted a dark look.

“So, now Nina’s after the house and my business.” Ted said. “She won’t be satisfied till I’m dead and she can pick my carcass.”

“It couldn’t have been easy living with you. She earned whatever she’s asking for.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side.” Ted chewed and swallowed, pointing the remainder of his toast at Joseph. “So, talk to her at the reunion.  She’ll be there – she can’t resist anything that involves money and power.  But watch out – she’s aggressive after three drinks.”

“I’m not going.” Joseph aimed his fork at Ted’s hand before he could touch the bacon.

“Don’t tell her that thing about compensation, that’s a can of worms.” Ted popped the last bite of toast into his mouth.  “Just tell her to be reasonable – she doesn’t have to destroy me.”

“I’m not getting involved in your divorce.”  Joseph said.

“What do you mean you’re not going to the reunion?”

“So don’t ask me again.”

“You need to get out more.”

“I’m not taking sides.”

“That’s exactly why she’ll listen to you.”

“Leave her alone.” Joseph shook his head. “You owe her that – you’re the one who cheated on her.”

The waitress put the check in the middle of the table and Ted pushed it toward Joseph.

“There’ll be plenty of women at the reunion.” Ted sat back. “Though if you ask me, educated women are over-rated – too high maintenance.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I think I’ll start going to church.”

“You’re despicable.”

“At least I’m putting myself out there.”

“Gotta go or I’ll be late for work.” Joseph pushed his plate toward Ted and got up. “Next time get your own.”

“I’m through trying to set you up with women.” Ted called to Joseph’s back, “Your standards are too high.”


Now it’s your turn. Create a scene in a diner or a laundromat, between two people who are failing to communicate, and are unconsciously demonstrating through their actions who they are.

When you are finished, if you like you can post it here.

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