Monthly Archives: February 2014

Be A Novelist

Beware of Heavy-Handed Attributions – Create Realistic Dialogue

Be A NovelistProblems With Attributions

For nearly a decade I served as an instructor for an international writing correspondence school. This course was designed for those who wanted to write for children and teens – which of course was my niche.

The student load that I carried was big, which meant I was reading multiple manuscripts every day. What an awesome learning experience for me. Like on-the-job-training.

When it came to writing dialogue, one problematic area that plagued nearly every beginning author was the attributions.  The “he saids” and “she saids” that show who is saying what. Otherwise known as “taglines.” Heavy-handed attributions – what I call clunky taglines– are one of the surest hallmarks of a beginning writer.

What do I mean by clunky? Check out these few examples:

  • “Is she going to be all right?” I slowly asked.
  • “One to two years of hard work and for what?” I surprisingly said to him.
  • “I only meant it as a joke,” Mr. Jordan laughingly said.
  • “I’ll give you all the money you paid me this year and I’ll keep working for you,” I questioningly said.
  • “I hope she doesn’t bring her dog along,” Moped Jeff from the doorway.

An Easy Trap

Whoa!  I’ll stop there. I could add several more but I trust you’re getting the point. I used to collect these – not because I wanted to poke fun at anyone, but to clearly demonstrate what a sticky wicket this area of fiction writing can be. (Keep in mind, no one can make these kinds of errors in writing unless they are trying. The one who never makes errors is the one who never tries!)

Creating clunky taglines is an easy trap to slip into. It boils down to trying too hard. The author wants so much to convince the reader as to how the character is speaking, so the fall-back remedy is to pad the tagline.       

Editing Test

A good editing test is to go through your entire manuscript searching out taglines and note how they are written. Now you know whether Be A Novelistor not this is a problem area in your writing.

For the most part simply using said works because it becomes almost invisible to the reader.  But even said can be overdone.

Best Technique

The best technique – which takes time to learn – is to weave in bits of business. Let the character’s actions work to pump drama into dialogue.

  • Craig yanked out a chair and sat down bumping the table, making the water glasses quiver. His folder slid across the table. He grabbed for it and bumped the table again. “Let this dad-blamed meeting begin!”
  • Her hands quivered as she shredded a tissue. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
  • His ham-sized fist hit the wall. Their framed wedding picture slammed to the floor. “Get out of here now.”

As you can see, no need for attributions here; the action lets you know the tone and inflection. Once you move into this pattern of writing dialogue, the importance of attributions just seems to fade away. The entire focus changes.

Be A NovelistStudy Your Favorite Author

Now read one of your favorite novels and study passages of dialogue and see how the author handled the dialogue exchanges.

  • How many taglines?
  • How many saids?
  • How many bits of business?

The main job of the author is to become invisible. Heavy attributions (clunky taglines) cry out that someone behind the scenes is writing this stuff.

The more skilled you become at writing dialogue, the more invisible you become. The attention of your readers will seldom, if ever, be drawn to your taglines!

Be A Novelist Photo Credit: ©

Be A Novelist


Second Title in the Norma Jean Lutz Classic Collection

Tiger Beetle at Kendallwood

Available on Amazon Kindle

Be a Novelist

Be A Novelist

Using the Surgeon’s Scalpel (i.e., the Editor’s Scalpel)

Be A NovelistCut-And-Paste For those too young to remember this, the term “cut-and-paste” at one time meant just that. The writer typed out pages of copy and then working with the stack of page used scissors and a glue pot (perhaps later on it might have been Scotch tape), and the work of editing was underway.

While I would never want to go back to that editing technique, there’s something to be said for the physical look of rearranging pages and paragraphs.

A Twenty-Foot Table

It was Annie Dillard who in her book, “The Writing Life,” referred to the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. She went on to say:

You lay out your pages along the table’s edge and pace out your work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig outBe A Novelist bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener.

I apologize for mixing metaphors, going from a surgeon to a gardener, but the similarities cannot be ignored.

When the Story Isn’t Working

Here’s the point of this post – there comes a moment for every novelist when a storyline simply isn’t working. It could be with a novel, or it could even be with a short story. A simple remedy that has worked for many authors through the years, is to cut the story apart into segments. Be sure every page is numbered so when you begin rearranging, you’ll remember the original position. Now with the story segments spread out before you, begin to ask hard questions:

  • Check number of story scenes – too few? Too many?
  • Now examine each scene – does it accomplish something in the story? Could it be combined with another scene? Or perhaps deleted?
  • Do you sense gaps in the storyline? What’s missing and how can it be fixed?
  • What about the flashbacks? Are they in the right places?
  • Be daring enough to actually rearrange sequence of events to see if the story line works better.  (Could the last scene become the opening scene – then have the story build around it?)

Bold Adventure

Believe me, I know this can be a bold adventure.  For many authors – especially those who are more visual – this can be a game-changer.  The sense of objectivity that is gained is immense.  If you have never worked as an editor, this exercise will create the sense and feeling of being an editor. One novice novelist tried this exercise and was surprised to see that one chapter contained twelve different scenes. Stepping back, and with a fresh editorial eye, she could now see that it made the chapter seem fragmented and disjointed.

“I was surprised,” she admitted, “at how much more objective I could be with the sections spread out before me. Before, it all seemed etched in concrete. After this exercise I was freer in my ability to cut out dead parts.”

Ah the editor’s scalpel at work. “Writing IS rewriting,” as the old saying goes. Not sure who said that, but in one way or another all accomplished authors have agreed:

“There is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.”  Harry ShawBe A Novelist

The next time you are “story-stuck” try the cut-and-paste method (or at least the physical-rearrange method) and see what happens. The more disciplined you become in the rewriting stages, the more of a polished novelist you will become. Take out your editor’s scalpel — then try it and see!     

Be A Novelist

Be A NovelistBe A Novelist

Second Title in the Norma Jean Lutz Classic Collection

Tiger Beetle at Kendallwood

Available on Amazon Kindle

Be a Novelist

Be A Novelist