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Last Week’s WW: 10 Things to Know About Writing Scenes

“Hello,” he called.
“Oh, hi Jim,” she replied.
“How are you doing today?” He questioned.
“Just fine. And yourself?” She returned.
“Fine as well,” he provided.
“Glad to hear it. What brings you by?” She asked.
“I needed to get more information about that body you found,” he pressed.

There’s a few things wrong with that conversation.

For one thing, it’s boring. Until the end. But people talk that way, don’t they? Sure they do. However, writing realistically doesn’t mean that you have to show, word for word, every exchange between two people. You could save a lot of time and interest by saying:

Jim walked in. The two exchanged pleasantries before seriousness washed over his face.
“I need more information about the body you found

I think that sounds a lot better. Make sure when writing, even if it’s dialogue, to try to only include the things that make the story interesting and are important to the story.

The other thing wrong with the dialogue was the use of tags. For one thing, there are too many of them. In a two person conversation, you probably won’t get lost on who is saying what too easily. But the bigger error is the tag itself:

called, replied, questioned, returned, provided, pressed

It took me some time to accept the rule that you should almost always use either “said” or “asked”.

The words I used as tags are best put to use in a summary of conversation. For example:
Jim entered and called to her.

Using tags other than said or asked can interrupt the flow of the narrative. It takes people out of the moment and reminds them that they are not in some other place, but are, in fact, sitting wherever and reading a story. It might even make them go back and need to re-read whatever was said because the author relied on the tag rather then establishing the mood or way it would be said before saying it.

It’s also the accepted style if you’re looking to be traditionally published. I’ve seen many editors say that if they read a manuscript that has unnecessary tags, they will put it in the discard pile right away.

I hate reusing words. So, this rule has been tough for me. I didn’t fully understand the why of it for a long time. But while it feels like we’re enriching out work by using emphasis in our choice of tag words, we’re not. If anything, we’re taking away from it. Tags are to keep a conversation straight. They shouldn’t be distracting.

Hopefully I have explained these things well, or helped you see them in a new light. If you have anything you’ve written with questionable dialogue, try these tips. See if it makes them flow better. And remember: Keep it tight!