Posted On March 4, 2011 by Print This Post

How’s Your Dialogue Working for You? by Tracy March

Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing day. I’m really pleased to introduce our readers to suspense author Tracy March! Tracy’s going to give us the skinny on dialogue and how writers can use it to make your stories pop. Please help me give Tracy a warm welcome.

Hello, Tracy!

Dialogue…love writing it or hate it, dialogue is one of the first thing editors look for when reading a submission.

Great.  More pressure to have the right words come out of our characters’ mouths—to make our heroes’ and heroines’ personalities come alive. Or not.

Writing dialogue is hard work. So hard that we sometimes use the avoidance tactic of substituting big blocks of more easily written narrative, telling what was said instead of having characters speak. More often, we resort to dreaded mechanical tricks to ease the pain of writing dialogue that effectively conveys character and emotion.

Warning: AVOID THOSE TRICKS. That was my outdoor voice!

We want our dialogue to sound professional, to sing to that editor like Susan Boyle dreaming her dream on Britain’s Got Talent. So we have to identify the faulty mechanics that may seem to make dialogue strong, but only make it weaker. Editors know these tricks. They have e-mail outboxes full of rejections to prove it.

What tricks, what tricks?

Explaining Dialogue to Readers

“I can’t believe it,” she said in astonishment.

Telling the reader how our heroine feels does them a favor, right? Saves them the energy of having to figure it out for themselves. But our readers want to engage, they want to figure it out. If our dialogue is well-written, there’s no need to patronize readers by explaining the obvious. “I can’t believe it” conveys astonishment without explanation.

Pushing an Emotion on Readers

“It’s dark in there,” she said, frightened.

So our heroine is frightened. It says so. But we want the reader to feel the emotion, to be as frightened as she is. But “It’s dark in there” doesn’t convey fright.  If the dialogue doesn’t show the emotion, there is tension between the dialogue and the explanation. Readers may not notice this, but editors sure will. And readers will have a niggling idea that something is wrong.

Using Adverbs to Explain Dialogue

“Come here,” she said lovingly.

We’re smuggling emotions into our dialogue here. Our best bet is to keep the –ly adverbs to a minimum—seriously!

But wait, if giving up the –lys sounds worse than giving up a daily 2pm Diet Coke fix, there are exceptions! If your adverbs modify the verb said, you can keep them. Think “she said softly.” Softly is how she said the words—a dialogue cue. Lovingly, above, is how she felt when she said, “Come here.” We need to show her lovingness through word choice, body language and context, not with an –ly adverb.

Slipping Explanations into Speaker Attributions

The only reason we need speaker attributions is so our readers know who is talking. One dreaded trick is using speaker attributions to slip in explanations of dialogue. “She purred.”  “He growled.” While animal sounds have their place (usually at a zoo), using verbs like these for attributions task our characters with an action that is physically impossible. Have you ever purred or growled a sentence? Go ahead, make that purring sound with your tongue and try to speak!

Avoiding ‘Said’

As afraid as we may be to see too many saids threading through our pages, for speaker attributions, said is almost always the right verb. We love variety—demanded, inquired, replied. But the reason those verbs don’t work is that they draw attention away from the dialogue, jumping out at readers and distracting them with writing mechanics.

Well-renowned editors Renni Browne and Dave King make the best argument in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. “Said isn’t even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device—more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It’s absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant. Which, actually, is another reason to avoid explanations and adverbs. Even when you use them with said (we said sternly), they tend to entangle your readers in your technique rather than leaving them free to concentrate on your dialogue.”

Behold our new favorite attribution: SAID. I wish I knew how to type a halo over top of it! I’m depending on your imagination to help me out here.

So there you have it. The so-called rules. Yet we all have seen these rules blatantly broken in published works by best-selling authors. So why not by us? Are you a rule-breaker? If so, which ones and why? I’m a said girl and I crack up every time I read an animal-sound speaker attribution—but that’s just me. Maybe your story is set in a zoo, and that’s okay too!

* * *

Thanks, Tracy!!

RU CREW, what do you do to keep your dialogue fresh? Do you have any dialogue quirks?

Please join us again on Monday for C.J. Redwine’s latest query letter critique.

Tracy’s Bio:

Tracy March writes about ethical dilemmas in unethical times. As a former pharmaceutical sales executive, Tracy draws inspiration from her experiences and encounters in the medical field and her love/hate relationship with politics.

Tracy is a member of International Thriller Writers, a contributing editor to The Big Thrill webzine, and a member of ITW Debut Authors Program Social Media Team. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America.

Tracy’s debut thriller, Girl Three, set in Washington, D.C., will be released in June 2011. Girl Three placed in several contests in 2010 including First Place in Chicago-North RWA Chapter’s Fire and Ice Contest, First Place in Valley Forge RWA Chapter’s Sheila Contest, and Second Place in Orange County RWA Chapter’s Orange Rose Contest.

Tracy lives in Yorktown, Virginia, with her superhero husband who works for NASA. They recently experienced two years living in Washington, D.C, where they discovered enough drama to inspire a lifetime of stories. Visit Tracy at


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45 Responses to “How’s Your Dialogue Working for You? by Tracy March”

  1. Hi Tracy,

    Welcome to RU! I really loved this post.

    I’ve been guilty of explaining dialogue and pushing a few emotions. I completely agree with you about using the attribute said–that many readers don’t notice it. I’ve picked up on a funny thing with audio books, though. If an author uses an attribute (or even a word) too much, it’s stands out on the audio book. My husband and I were both shaking our heads at the repetitive use of the “said” and “gravel and rock road” in one book. LOL

    There’s always something to worry about with writing!

    Thanks again!


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | March 4, 2011, 5:40 am
    • Hi Tracey,

      Great name, by the way! 😉

      Thanks for inviting me to share my opinions today at Romance University–one of my favorite writing web sites!

      Interesting comment about you and your once-in-a-lifetime’s experiences listening to audio books. Our ears do seem to pick up repetition that our eyes sometimes don’t. Guess that’s why the experts encourage us to read our work out loud as one step in the bazillion-step editing process! Yet that does lead to a challenge with said. “Let me think on that one,” Tracy said.

      Thanks again to you and the RU crew for having me today!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 8:25 am
  2. Hi Tracy
    Great tips.
    “From basic black to animal prints … love it!”, I roared. (hehhehe….sorry coudn’t resist!! I am a Leo after all.)

    I loved the fun way you brought things to light. I’ll be careful about smuggling emotions. (Cool phrase)

    Can’t wait to read GIRL THREE in June. That’ll be perfect timing for my beach weekend reading pile.

    Posted by Nancy Naigle | March 4, 2011, 7:09 am
  3. Hi Tracey! I’m a rule breaker. Not all of them (I’ve reigned in my beats-as-tags penchant, and adverbs are now a thing of the past, mostly). However, I break the “said” rule. I have *never* seen that word as transparent. I notice it. I’ve always noticed it and it drives me crazy. I absolutely refuse to use it if the speaker is asking a question. I know, I’m a rebel. I do try to use action to convey *how* the character is speaking, rather than say “replied” or “argued” or something of that nature, or just leave it out altogether and make sure the reader knows who’s speaking another way. And I have used “said,” but it’s not a favored word.

    Tracey, something else I’ve started doing is take names out of dialogue (see what I did there? hehe). When I’m speaking to someone, I do tend to use names but I think that’s just me, or the person I’m conversing with, since I feel the need to get their attention frequently. However, I also understand that most people don’t speak that way, so I’ve had to cull those from my “realistic” dialogue.

    This was a great post! My writer’s forum was just talking about dialogue, so I’ll be sure to link them back to this.


    Posted by Noelle Pierce | March 4, 2011, 7:15 am
    • Hi Noelle,

      That’s the beauty of writing. There are rules, yet when we read published works, we’re not sure we have to adhere to them! And isn’t it wonderful that we all have different passions about the way we want to write? Well, most of the time it’s wonderful!

      Regarding names in dialogue…that is another blog post (rant!) entirely. Overusing names in dialogue has to be in my top five writing pet peeves. But that’s just me, Noelle! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by. My best to you and your writing group–wishing all of you success!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 8:19 am
  4. Hi Tracy! Great post. I use said most of the time when I have to but really try to figure out how I can refrain from using it at all through the use of action. Used to use those ly adverb a lot when first writing–it’s a crutch that’s hard to break, but you’re right. The work is far better thrrough describing how the hero/ine displays emotion.

    Posted by Bobbye Terry | March 4, 2011, 8:10 am
    • Hi Bobbye!

      Nice to see you here. Great point about keeping attributions to a minimum, including said. It’s best to convey who the speaker is through action (beats), and structure our writing so the reader simply knows who is speaking.

      I would have loved to go on and on and included some beat advice in my post, but the RU Crew (wisely!) suggested that I keep the post to about 750 words!

      You are right about adverbs. I think we all use them more in the beginning. Then, we learn, and we’re on to the next lesson, looking sharply at every -ly word we type!

      Thanks for your comment, Bobbye.

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 8:37 am
  5. Hi Tracey,

    I like writing dialogue. I read it aloud to get the feel of it. I’ve never purred, but I’ve whispered and yelled.

    Mary Jo Burke

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | March 4, 2011, 8:10 am
  6. Morning Tracy!

    When I was four and knocked over the gallon of white paint onto my mom’s new carpet, I’ll say my dad roared and growled both! lol….but I understand what you mean.

    I’ll ask about purr though. Technically you can’t purr and talk, but when I read about a sexy heroine and it reads, “Come here, big boy,” she purred. I always picture Mae West talking. Not an actual purr, but sultry. Is there another way to describe that to give the reader an instant flash of what the voice sounds like?



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | March 4, 2011, 8:11 am
    • Hi Carrie!

      When I was little, I think my dad growled and roared a few times, too…but he was really a gentle lion!

      Love your question about purr. Whatever mechanics we decide to include in our work are subjective, and how the reader perceives them is subjective as well. When a writer writes ‘she purred,’ my subjective self is snapped out of the story and I imagine my mom’s big furry cat. Others may get the Mae West voice that you, the writer, had in mind when writing. That’s the risk we take with our individual writing style.

      What will work for one reader, may not work for the next. Hmmm. Entered a contest lately? There’s no better place to see this dynamic at work. One judge awards a perfect score, another could barely get through the entry.

      As for another way to describe the Mae West tone of voice—try a dialogue cue. You’ve identified what the voice sounds like and what you would like it to convey to the reader. How about, “Come here, big boy.” Carrie’s tone was sultry, with an unmistakable Mae West twang. I’ll take that over a purr any day. But if my mom’s cat starts sounding like Mae West, then I’ll freak out!

      Thanks to you and the RU crew for having me here today. I’m having so much fun!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 8:54 am
  7. Hi Tracy,

    I echo Carrie’s comments re purr, growl and roar. As a reader, I’ve never pictured actual purring, rather the sultriness of the dialogue. Nonetheless, I’ve noted lots of advice about not using tags like these and look forward to your answer to her question.

    I use beats and would love your comments on the pros and cons of their use.

    Thanks for sharing.


    Posted by Cia | March 4, 2011, 9:12 am
  8. Tracy,

    Our posts crossed in cyberspace. I’ll look out for advise on beats.

    Posted by Cia | March 4, 2011, 9:15 am
    • Hi Cia!

      Thanks for your comments. I hope I addressed your remarks about purr when I replied to Carrie. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

      As for beats (for those who may not know what a beat is, beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, usually involving physical gestures), their use can be very effective as a tool to vary the pace of your dialogue and give some insight into your characters through their physical gestures or internal monologue.

      When using beats, however, we have to be careful not to interrupt our dialogue so often that we compromise our pacing or bring it to a screeching halt. Our goal should be to provide the reader with a smooth read and interrupt our dialogue as little as possible.

      I hope this answers your question, Cia. There’s lot’s more to say about beats, but this is a short version. As in my post, I recommend Browne and King’s SELF-EDITNG FOR FICTION WRITERS, that has an entire chapter dedicated to beats!

      Have a great weekend!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 9:40 am
      • Tracy,

        Thanks. I ordered Self-Editing … a couple days ago, so I’ll pay particular attention to that chapter since I like to use beats to reduce dialogue tags.

        Have a good weekend.



        Posted by Cia | March 4, 2011, 3:04 pm
  9. Hi Tracy! I like to use said (especially now that I find it’s graceful and elegant). I find as I get tired and try to cram more words on the paper (words that usually get deleted in my next session) more -ly words come out! Thanks for the tips!

    Posted by Theresa Grant | March 4, 2011, 9:57 am
    • Hi Theresa!

      Isn’t it a wonderful day when we find out we are doing something graceful and elegant? Makes me want to make some flavored tea and sip it from an antique china teacup!

      I can relate to your plight of cramming more (not necessarily ‘keep-able’) words on a page and sometimes reverting to old habits when we’re tired. Thank goodness for editing, and the trusty delete key!

      Thanks for your comment. Have a fun weekend!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 10:06 am
  10. Dialogue has been a learning process for me. I have a sort of rule of thumb now – every three or four lines of dialogue, I use some sort of attribution or action so that readers don’t have to stop and figure out who’s speaking now. I use ‘said’ and occasionally throw in a ‘he responded’ or ‘he answered’ to shake it up. Mostly, I try to avoid attributions by using actions in conjunction with the dialogue – for, as I said, every three or four lines of dialogue.

    Thanks, Tracy, for calling out how to handle dialogue and giving us some stuff to think about. Much better to do it the best way on purpose, than to fall into it by accident (which is often the case with me!).


    Posted by Grace Greene | March 4, 2011, 10:01 am
    • Hi Grace!

      Nice to see you here! Thanks for sharing your writing process. It is so interesting to hear how differently everyone approaches the craft. We each can learn something from the others.

      I loved your comment, “Much better to do it the best way on purpose, than to fall into it by accident (which is often the case with me!).” You are not alone! I think that’s the case with most of us, regardless of our level of experience or accomplishment. There’s always another writing craft ‘accident’ to stumble into that will keep us learning!

      Looking forward to reading your debut, BEACH RENTAL, this summer! So many beach books. I’d better break out the sunscreen!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 11:28 am
  11. Great blog, Tracy! I’m with you 98% – I know people don’t actually “growl” or “purr,” but when I see those used in dialogue tags I can instantly envision the attitude or tone that fits those descriptions.

    When I read “he growled” or “she purred,” I get a quick snapshot of the character without a long description. I understand your dislike of those terms, but they do the trick for me. Of course, I like paranormals where the characters really do shift into creatures that purr and growl, so that may explain my attitude!

    I agree with you on “said,” as long as it’s not used in EVERY dialogue tag.

    It took me awhile to understand the problems with your first three rules, but I totally get that now. And I’m watching the use of “ly.” I just bookmarked your blog so I can check back and make sure I don’t backslide!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | March 4, 2011, 10:21 am
    • Hi Becke!

      Thanks for your comments. I’ll take your 98%! As I mentioned to Carrie, the use of attributions like purred and growled can work for some writers and readers. That’s what’s so cool about writing..we aren’t limited in our creativity. Whatever works for us and our readers, well, works!

      Your comment about the genres you like really resonated with me in regard to the ‘purred and growled’ issue. I think those attributions are more expected in genres such as romance and paranormal. I read a lot of suspense/thrillers and literary fiction (and write suspense/thrillers with romantic elements). I see less of the purrs and growls in those genres.

      And I agree with you on not using ‘said’ in every dialogue tag. One of the few cliches I appreciate: Everything in moderation.

      But, the weekend is approaching, so I may have to rethink that! Have a good one, Becke!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 11:39 am
  12. Thanks for the advice. I found myself recalling my dialogue and worrying–did I do that?

    I can purr, but seldom when talking. A piece of chocolate melting on my tongue can make me purr. 😉

    Can’t wait for GIRL THREE!

    Posted by Jerry | March 4, 2011, 10:22 am
    • Hi Jerry,

      Nice to see several TMP authors here.

      A blue ribbon to you for being the first commenter to mention chocolate! I will break all kinds of rules for dark chocolate.

      *Tracy purrs while chocolate melts in her mouth. Tracy growls when chocolate is gone.*

      See, that’s all it took to break me!

      I’m looking forward to reading your novel, THE SHOPPE OF SPELLS. I want to shop there! (Are there voodoo dolls in stock?!) 😉

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 11:47 am
  13. Hi Tracy!
    Great post! I LOVE good dialogue. I tend to skim over long passages of narrative when I’m reading. (Bad me!)
    Like you, I’ve read articles where the ‘experts’ say ‘said’ is used so often people don’t notice it, that it’s necessary to keep the reader in the story by letting them know who’s speaking. They’ve gone on to say people don’t bark or growl words.

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | March 4, 2011, 10:27 am
    • Hi Wendy!

      I enjoyreading dialogue, too. Somehow, a story seems to snap along when there is a healthy portion of great dialogue in it.

      I have developed a tendency to skim large blocks of narrative, too. I didn’t used to, but the older I get, the more I realize how little time I have to do all the things I want. Reading huge blocks of narrative is not high on my bucket list.

      Glad you’ve heard some of the same advice I gave from the ‘experts.’ I’m sure not an expert, but I enjoyed sharing my perspective. Thanks for stopping by!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 11:52 am
  14. Hi Tracy! Love, love, love this post. I’m a dialogue freak so anything on that subject sucks me right in. If I could write a whole book with just dialogue I’d be happy.

    I’m a rule breaker sometimes. I usually think long and hard about it before I do it. If I think it works to break a rule in a certain place I will do it, but I like to think I do that sparingly. I actually just used “growled” while doing my final revisions last week, but I didn’t use it as a tag. I’m not a huge fan of using verbs for attributions and try to avoid it at all costs! In this particular scene, my heroine was having an argument with her brother and rather than respond to her, he growled and walked off. My editor let it slide. 🙂

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | March 4, 2011, 10:42 am
    • Hi Adrienne!

      Breaking the rules can be a lot of fun. Perhaps I’m revealing more of myself than I should when I admit that sometimes it’s fun to break the rules just to see if I can get away with it!

      The take-away here is that there are some guidelines that are good to keep in mind, but we shouldn’t let the so-called rules drown our creativity. There are readers for all kinds of writing. And aren’t we thankful for that?!

      I’m looking forward to reading your novel, MAN LAW. Another beach read to download to my nook, which I have used at the beach with no glare problems. Have a fun weekend, Adrienne!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 11:59 am
  15. Tracy –

    This post was like candy to my brain on a lovely Friday here in Southern California!

    Adrienne and I have love of dialogue in common, and I have often written an entire scene in nothing but dialogue (yes, I do go back and spruce it up later :)). One thing I struggle with is how often I need to incorporate those action beats. I want to make sure my reader can “see” the scene without beating him/her over the head with every little move my character makes.

    I use much fewer -ly words these days, but I try not to stress over it if they’re in my draft. They serve more as a place-holder so I know what emotion I want to convey with the character’s action during revision.

    Thanks so much for being with RU today!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | March 4, 2011, 10:57 am
    • Hi Kelsey!

      Thanks for having me here at RU. I’m having a lot of fun!

      I love the idea of writing draft scenes with just dialogue. I would imagine that would make me less tempted to interrupt it with too many attributions and beats. I’ll have to give that a try!

      In the comments today, we’ve had chocolate and brain candy! Two of the major food groups!

      Have a nice weekend in sunny CA!

      Tracy 🙂

      Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 2:44 pm
  16. Hi Tracy!

    I love writing dialogue and rarely use dialogue tags. I prefer action tags. If there’s more than two characters with speaking roles in a scene, I’ll insert a “said” here and there so the reader knows who’s talking.

    Because I seldom use “said” I usually forget to change the period to a comma before the last set of quotation marks.

    Congrats on your debut and thanks so much for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 4, 2011, 12:30 pm
  17. Hi, Jennifer!

    Thanks for having me!

    I tend to prefer action tags or dialogue cues to the ‘said’ attribution, too. Thank goodness we have a variety of ways to deliver dialogue to our readers,

    I appreciate your congratulations. Being a debut author, like so many of the commenters today, is very exciting. Thanks for sharing that with me!

    Tracy 🙂

    Posted by Tracy March | March 4, 2011, 2:48 pm
  18. What a fun day! It’s like sitting at the cool lunch table. [group hug]

    Posted by Nancy Naigle | March 4, 2011, 2:59 pm
  19. Tracy (and all)–

    Thanks for a fabulous chat about dialogue attributions! I’ve learned so much and made several notes on things I need to check in my manuscript.

    The Other Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 5, 2011, 7:55 am


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