Question 21: Narrating dialogue

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thismomentisyours asks: Can you write about narrating dialogue? Things like, "he said" or "she nodded" or just describing actions.

Narrating dialogue can be tricky because it's easy to become repetitive or annoying. There's nothing wrong with "he said" and "she said", but when that's all there is, the repetition stands out. And not in a good way.

When narrating dialogue, your goal should be to make it feel like natural, uninterrupted flow. Anything that confuses, annoys, or slows down a reader should be minimized if possible. Like these:

1. Big words - Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of complex vocabulary, and I love learning new words. But the word needs to fit the occasion. If you're going to talk about "pulchritudinous splendor", make sure the character using this phrase would actually say such a thing when describing something.

2. Excessive dialogue tags - "He asked" is a dialogue tag. So is "she said", "Sally quipped", and "the man roared." Every line in the dialogue does not need to have one. Their purpose is to eliminate confusion. Use them anytime it's unclear who's speaking, but don't underestimate the intelligence of your reader. When only two people are talking, you can get away with no tags at all for expanses of dialogue. This makes for a snappier conversation. Just pop one in every now and then to remind the reader who's turn it is to speak. Like this:

"What do you mean I'm off the team?" Jane asked the captain.

"The team had a vote."

"About me?"


"What did I do?"

"It's more about what you didn't do."

Jane sighed. "And what did I not do?"

"Play like you're on a team."

3. Not enough actions - Many of the dialogue tags can be replaced with actions. This does double duty of preventing excessive tags, as well as giving the reader a better idea of what the scene looks like in their imaginations. Example:

Danny stomped ahead, steam practically puffing out of his hears as he dragged his little brother along by the hand.

Jane ran up to him. "Danny, wait! Don't be mad."

He whirled around. "Why shouldn't I be mad? You just insulted my brother."

"I didn't mean to."

"She didn't mean to," Elton echoed before sticking a thumb into his mouth.

Danny ignored him. "But you shouldn't have said those things."

"I know."

"Then why did you?"

Elton tugged on his brother's hand. "Hungry."

Jane looked at the little boy. "I'm sorry, Elton."

His little face lit up. "French fries?"


In this way, it feels like an actual scene rather than some heads talking.

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