The Writing Life: Who Said That?

Who Said That?

By, Michelle Janene

Dialogue is a vital tool in a writer’s toolbox. It can often make or break a story for a reader. Sadly, it is also frequently done incorrectly. Mastering dialogue will raise the clarity and enjoyability of any writing. In many cases, well-written dialogue also helps with any show versus tell struggles within the manuscript.


To begin, how to correctly setup dialog.

  • All punctuation goes inside the quotes. “Hi,” Mary said. “Stop that!” Mom said.

  • If ending a bit of dialogue with - someone said. – the sentence of dialogue ends with a comma not a period. “He talked to me for hours,” Lori said.

  • Every time someone new speaks, a new paragraph is needed. “Hi,” Mary said. “Hey, Mary. How have you been?” Jane said. “It’s been a tough week.” (It is not needed to put Mary said here. It is implied if there are only two people in the scene and because it was a direct answer to Jane’s question.)

  • Though not a hard and fast rule, most publications prefer smart (curved) quotes to straight ones. “smart / "straight. Whichever is chosen, be consistent throughout the document.


A tag is the bit outside the dialogue that tells us who spoke. There are two important things to remember about tags. 1. Use them sparingly. 2. It is almost always ‘said.’

New authors want to show their thesaurus skills by adding a huge array of tags. She: retorted, screamed, chortled, emphasized, growled, mocked, whined… The list is exhaustive and exhausting. All experts agree, however, that only ‘said’ should really be used. Most readers will glance over ‘said.’ The other options our school teachers made us practice draw attention to the word chosen and don’t keep the reader engaged in the story. We never want a single word to be the focus of our readers’ attention.

There are a few exceptions. One can whisper, or mumble. The rest of the action and an exclamation point should make it clear if someone is yelling, so it is not needed to writer, ‘he yelled.’ or ‘she screamed.’

Jerry B. Jenkins takes it even further and says the tag ‘asked’ is never need. If the dialogue ends in a question mark, clearly the character was asking something. He believes said should be used in those cases as well because ‘said’ is invisible to most readers.

Other advice says that the actions of the characters and the events of the scene will even eliminate the need for explanation points as punctuation in dialog.


For me, however, ‘said’ is never invisible. As a young schoolteacher, I spent too many years getting students to expand their vocabulary. Said sticks out to me like a bright poppy in a field of green grass. And when it is the only thing used over and over again, it really becomes noticeable. I tend to rely more on attributes when writing dialog.

An attribute is an action that accompanies dialogue to indicate who is talking. See the difference in the following example:

With tags:

“What are you doing?” Bob said.

“I’m moving the couch,” Fred said.


“I needed a change.”

With attributes:

Bob came around the corner and ran into the couch in the middle of the doorway. “What are you doing?”

Fred leaned against the arm of the unruly piece of furniture, resting for a moment. “I’m moving the couch.


“I needed a change.” Fred stood, arms crossed, and glared.

Attributes can be great for filling in emotion and actions of the characters so there isn’t the desire to write, ‘he growled angrily.’

Great authors will use both tags and attributes. Tags work well for moving the action along and not slowing down the reader. Attributes help set the scene and fill-in lots of emotion, motives, and body language. Authors should use every tool in their box to enrich their writing.


I hear my characters in my head, but getting it to read that way can be a struggle. Saying the character talks with a rich Scottish brogue is a small start. Creating syntax or changing the word order to make it sound less English can be helpful too.

Many young authors like to play with spellings. However, doing much more than taking the first or last letters off words make it not only hard to read but frustrating for the reader.

“How’s ya’ll doin’” works and is understandable but a bit cumbersome. It is vastly better than. “H’ wen ta da stow.” (He went to the store.)

My advice is to pick one to three things that will always be spelled uniquely for one character. Maybe the maid always calls her mistress m’lady while everyone else says the more formal my lady. Perhaps the priest uses thee and thou. Or Bubba will always be dropin’ his g’s. Don’t over do it, give the reader a tiny sprinkle of an accent or dialect and let them fill in the rest of the sound and feel of that character’s voice.


For writing stories that take place in a modern setting, take time to listen. A teenager will sound very different than an adult. Both youths and adults will talk differently in the 1920’s compared to the 1980’s. Go places where many are gathered and listen. Stream movies and hear the syntax, the phrasing, speech patterns, and lingo common to the desired time period. Interview children, grandchildren, or neighborhood kids and ask questions about what they would say in certain situations.

Dialogue is a crucial part of writing and mastering it will make the work shine.

For more on great dialogue read: How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell.

Meet the Author

Michelle Janene lives and works in Northern California. Most days she blissfully exists in the medieval creations of her mind. She is a devoted teacher, a dysfunctional housekeeper, and a dedicated writer. She released her first novella Mission: Mistaken Identity in 2015. God’s Rebel came out in 2016, followed by Rebel’s Son and Hidden Rebel in 2017. She has been published in “Guide Post Magazine” and several anthologies. She leads two critique groups and is the founder of Strong Tower Press—Indie solutions for indie authors.

You can find her at Strong Tower Press, Turret Writing, on Facebook, Twitter, and on Goodreads.

You can read Michelle's "The Writing Life" Column the 3rd Tuesday here at Pandora's Box Gazette. When writing, do you have issues with creating "dazzling" dialogue?

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