The Journal: Questions 2: Dialogue Tags and Interruptions

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Another pretty good day
* Topic: Questions 2: Dialogue Tags and Interruptions
* Followup
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

I’ve talked here before about having a specific skill in mind when you sit down to write, for example pacing or dialogue or whatever. That’s how you practice and improve. Today’s topic will give you two more techniques to practice. HS

“Deliberate practice is what turns amateurs into professionals. … Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve.” Farnam Street

I had another pretty good day yesterday. The novel’s still running, still with no end in sight. Yay!

Topic: Questions 2: Dialogue Tags and Interruptions

If you missed yesterday’s Journal, you might want to go read it before you read today’s edition. You can find it here.

In the excerpt from Terra 2 that i posted yesterday (posted again below so you don’t have to switch back and forth), you can also pick up some tips on dialogue tags and interruptions.

Dialogue tags are important to let the reader know which character is speaking (duh).

Interruptions are important because question scenes are intense when they’re written well. It’s a rapid volleying, back and forth, and if they go very long it’s important to provide a place for the reader to rest.

In the excerpt, notice that when I use a true tag (a name or pronoun plus a verb that indicates a form of utterance), the verb is always the unintrusive “said.” That verb is all but invisible to the reader. Most often the reader flies through “said” and gets back to the dialogue.

And contrary to what some really horrible writing instructors will tell you, you don’t want dialogue tags to “stand out.” You want them to be unintrusive. You want the reader to get back to what was said.

The story is in the dialogue, not the tags. A dialogue tag that calls attention to itself will pull the reader out of the story.

Most of the time, I don’t use true dialogue tags. I prefer brief descriptive narratives. Those both describe a bit of the scene (usually a look on the character’s face or a sound the character makes that indicates mood) and let the reader know which character is speaking. I do this throughout my fiction.

As you read over the excerpt again, you can easily spot dialogue tags and brief descriptive narratives, and you’ll spot the difference immediately. You’ll also notice that most of the time dialogue tags and brief descriptive narratives appear before the actual dialogue. It’s important to let the reader know up front which character is speaking. This is especially important when there are more than two people in a scene.

If the reader reads, “‘No, let’s not do that,’ John said” and the reader thought the dialogue came from a character other than John, the reader will stop and re-read the line of dialogue with the proper voice in mind. And your number one job as a writer is to keep the reader reading forward, not going back to re-read something.

The interruption begins with the waitress suddenly appearing at their table and engaging in a brief converstation with Rebecca (and Rebecca’s actions with her napkin). That goes on for three very short paragraphs, then segues back into the question exchange as the waitress leaves and recedes back toward the bar.

Note in the second paragraph after that (“She looked up”) I force-fed the reader a little with “with an innocent look.” I usually don’t do that. Most often I would have written “She looked up, her eyes wide” and left it at that. But “with an innocent look” attached itself so I left it alone. In a future cycling pass that modifier might disappear.

I’m reminded of Hemingway’s admonition to “write the truest sentence you know.” This passage is filled with “true sentences.”

Here’s the excerpt again:

Rebecca looked at Rob and frowned. “What was that for?”


“That peck on the cheek?”

“Sorry. It’ll have to do for now.” He made a show of glancing around. “After all, we’re in public.”

She laughed. “That isn’t what I meant and you know it. What’s going on with you?”

Rob said, “So you changed tables?”

She jerked one thumb over her shoulder. “I was sitting with Mark and Amanda when you called. I figured you’d wandered off to play with your friends again.”

He grinned. “Nah, nothing like that.”

“Right. I can see that now because you’re here. So where were you?”

“The doc mentioned that you and I have some special circumstances. What circumstances?”

She arched her eyebrows. “The doc? You were at the infirmary?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“That is the subject. I asked you hours ago whether you were wounded. Were you wounded, Rob?”

He shrugged. “Just a little scratch. What special circumstances? I asked the doc, but he said I should ask you. Said it wasn’t his department, whatever that means.”


“Where what?”

“Where were you injured, you dweeb?”

“Oh. About five miles north of—”

“Damn it, Rob. Where on your body were you injured?”

“Oh. Just a little scratch on my left shoulder. So what are our special circumstances?”

As the waitress came up with their drinks and set them on the table, Rebecca plucked her folded napkin from the table, smiled up at the waitress, then fluffed the napkin and gentled it over her lap.

The waitress smiled. “Your supper will be right out.”

Rebecca said, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” The waitress turned away.

As the waitress receded back toward the bar, Rob said, “Rebecca.”

She looked up, her eyes wide with an innocent look. “What?”

“What are our special circumstances?”

“I’m not sure I want to tell you.”

He straightened in his chair. “What? Why?”

“I assume you’re probably not really interested. At this very moment, you’re probably dreaming of getting back to the ship and hunting bugs. Aren’t you?”

“What? No. I mean I have a job to do, yes, but I’m here right now and—”

“Are you certain you want to know?”

“What? Of course I’m certain I want to—”

A grin burst across her face.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “I Need a Scorecard” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1060 words

Writing of Terra 2 (novel)

Day 10… 3272 words. Total words to date…… 33824
Day 11… 3439 words. Total words to date…… 37263

Total fiction words for April……… 37263
Total fiction words for the year………… 324340
Total nonfiction words for April… 7580
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 74980
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 399320

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 6
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 60
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.


2 thoughts on “The Journal: Questions 2: Dialogue Tags and Interruptions”

  1. I really appreciate your short refresher topics in the Journal. Since I’m already a confirmed WITDer, I appreciate additional insights too.
    The deliberate practice link yesterday was a very good article, lots to put into practice there!

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