Be a Straight Shooter – Use Straightforward Dialogue Tags

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(Credit: Morguefile photo by lightfoot)

“You’re in big trouble, Dastardly Dan. You stole my prize bull,” Cowboy Carl blurted.

“I did not,” Dastardly Dan babbled.

“You did, too,” Cowboy Carl objected.

“Prove it!” Dastardly Dan bellowed.

“He’s standing right behind you,” Cowboy Carl barked.

“Save me!” Dastardly Dan squealed.

The prize bull stomped his front hooves in the dirt and snorted. Then, he lowered his horns, snorted again, and charged. Carl and Dan grabbed hold of their ten gallon hats and ran. They both wanted to get as far away as they could from the prize bull and these terrible dialogue tags.

***

There’s a chart going around the internet that pops up from time-to-time on Pinterest, Twitter (and other writerly hangouts) called, 100 Colorful Words to Use in Place of Said. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 2.40.25 PMThe poster was apparently created for the classroom by WeAreTeachers.com to help young writers use words other than “said” when writing dialogue tags. As you can see from the poorly written dialogue above, young writers might benefit more from using straightforward dialogue tags and saving the colorful language for the rest of their prose.

Teaching student writers about synonyms and how to look for the most powerful word is useful. But when it comes to dialogue tags, I think it’s best to stick with “said” when someone is speaking and “asked” if someone is asking a question.

If we use a lot of colorful words for dialogue tags, the reader’s brain has to stop and translate each tag. It’s better to find a way to write dialogue that is “snappy, stormy, nagging, sputtering, gushing, etc.” than to add a tag to let us know the way the dialogue should sound.

The next time you read a colorful dialogue tag, try saying the dialogue as the tag indicates. I can almost guarantee you that the tag will affect the way the words come out of your mouth. Then, get rid of the tag, write it the way you “said” it and use “said” for the tag. It will come across as much more truthful and the reader won’t have to stop and think about how someone might “snort” or “sneeze” your dialogue.

Another way to be a straight shooter with your dialogue is to put the dialogue tag within quoted material when you can and use an action to show us what state of mind the speaker is in.

Here’s an example from the Pulitzer prize-winning Western writer, Larry McMurtry. In Lonesome Dove (“the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America”) Augustus finds some of his pigs eating a rattlesnake on his front porch. He kicks a young pig, known as a shoat. He doesn’t begrudge the pigs the snake, he says that having pigs on the porch “just makes things hotter and things were already hot enough.”

Here’s the dialogue with the pigs:

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.”

Notice how the dialogue tag is in the middle of the line and McMurtry adds some action for the character to do. Augustus kicks the little pig, then gives the pigs an order. I can’t imagine Augustus scolding, shrieking or protesting while he says those words. But I can tell just who Augustus is by the way the line reads and what Augustus has to say and what he does. As a reader I just want to hear him saying it, not think about how he might have said it. That part I can make up by myself using the information the writer has given me.

Next time you’re writing dialogue, stick to your guns and just use “said” and “asked”as a dialogue tag. If you need to break things up a bit, try putting the dialogue tag in the middle of some dialogue or, if you’ve already established who is speaking, leave off the dialogue tags completely. I think you’ll find that your writing is stronger and more truthful this way.

***

When they lost sight of the prize bull, Dastardly Dan stopped to catch his breath. “Hold up, Carl,” Dan said, clutching his sides. “I cain’t run no more.”

Carl stopped and turned toward Dan, keeping his hands over his six-guns.

“Dan, did you steal my prize bull?” Carl asked.

“I didn’t,” Dan said, shaking his head. “I only borrowed him to impress my girlfriend, Miss Daisy.”

“Dan, thanks for being such a straight shooter with your honesty and your dialogue tags,” Carl said, pulling out his six-guns and pointing them directly at Dastardly Dan’s chest. “Now I’m going have to take you to jail. Git your hands up.”

Dan raised his hands high. Carl walked him all the way back into town and locked him up in the county hoosegow. Later that night, the prize bull returned. Rumor has it that not long after, Cowboy Carl and Miss Daisy were at the saloon drinking root beer and talking quietly together. I guess that prize bull impressed Miss Daisy after all.

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Writing Prompt 10: Dystopian Mall

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(Credit: ©Seph Lawless)

I’m working from the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, NY today. I’m sitting outside Dick’s Sporting Goods (free WiFi!) in one of those massaging chairs that make you look ridiculous when you’re sitting in them because they vibrate you from head to toe. There’s also a disconcerting seat probe that pokes you in the nether regions during the massage. I’ve already paid my dollars to get shaken and poked, but I wanted to do a writing prompt before I continue into the depths of the mall.

Malls are dying. Radio Shack is in Chapter 11. There were a few flashlights and a lot of empty shelves at the one here. Several restaurants are boarded up. A clothing store has big yellow signs that read, “Everything must GO!” There are some lonely looking baby t-s hanging limply from some hangers. When I stumbled across this article on Huffington Post, Abandoned Mall Filled With Snow is an Ice Age Dystopia, I thought, “What a great writing prompt!”

I’m a fan of dystopian fiction. One of my favorites that I read last year was The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker. It’s a story about a group of misfits including Edgar Hill, an overweight slob of a father and under-performing husband who has to race against time and overcome his own short-comings, not to mention 100 mile canyons and a very strange council estate, to find the people he loves before he loses them forever. It’s a great read and the characters and situations keep you interested right up to the end (of the world). I really enjoyed it and hope you will check it out.

For the writing prompt, there are a few questions we can ask:

How did the mall become abandoned in the first place? Zombie hoards? Aliens? End of the world meteor?

Who lives in the mall now?

Why are our story characters there? Do they need to find the recipe to Auntie Anne’s pretzels? (Why are those pretzels so damn good?)

The photographer, Seph Lawless, is also a great jumping off point and a good model for a lead character. He’s a photographer and political activist who uses a pseudonym because he fights against “injustice and oppression by any medium necessary…a pen, a lens, a brush, a voice …even your body.”

He’s also a published author. His book, Autopsy of America, was written in 2013. According to his website, “The book captures the plight of Americans and the devastating effects that globalization has had on American cities. The book chronicles his journey across the United States with an emphasis on the most abandoned and economic deprived areas of America.” I couldn’t find a link to the book, but I will post it if I find it.

Please send me any links to any stories you create based on this prompt, I’d love to read them!

Have a great writing day. I’m going to go look for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel before they go bankrupt and the zombie hoards take over.

Lu Ji – Writing Quote Wednesday

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(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny with Flickr photo by Trey Ratcliff)

This poem comes from Lu Ji’s famous work, The Art of Writing (Wen Fu, 文賦). According to Wikipedia, it has been called a “hymn of praise for the craft and art of writing and a specific, prescriptive handbook for the writer.” The essay reveals, as the Fu form is set up to do, the kinds of inner processes all writers have to go through to prepare for the creative act of writing.

This philosophical work consists of 21 verses of “rhyme-prose” poems that describe a writer’s mind as wandering through a kind of mini-universe within our own bodies in search of the elements which form the origins of our literary work.

I picked up The Art of Writing, Teachings of the Chinese Masters at a used bookstore in town, but you can get your copy on Amazon.com. This slim, 94 page volume of essays is worth adding to your library of writing books, especially if you are interested in the “whimsy, spontaneity and contradiction” of Taoism and the Taoist writers.

Colporteur – Wildest Word of the Day

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(Credit: Flickr photo by Dominique Chappard)

I stumbled across this wild word today on a random search down an internet rabbit hole.

A colporteur is someone who goes from place to place peddling printed material like books, brochures and newspapers. It was mainly used for people who distributed religious tracts and bibles. The act of doing this is known as colportage.

I’m fascinated with the idea that there were (and still are?) colporteurs who go door-to-door selling bibles. Ever since I met Albert Maysles and watched his moving documentary, Salesman, I’ve wondered what their lives must’ve been like off-camera and if there are still some lonely souls out there trying to eke out a living doing this.

According to the website World Wide Words, the work of the colporteur could also be dangerous, especially if one was doing it in Wallachia. The site shows a decree from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia, in what is now Romania, which stated:

“We order you to tear those writings that are against our Holy Religion. Whoever will seize and deliver up the publishers of those writings, shall receive 300 crowns…The Colporteur, on the contrary, shall be impaled alive upon the very place where he was seized.”

Morning Post (London), 26 Apr. 1788.

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(Credit: Flickr photo from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Impaled, alive, on the very place he was seized. Ouch! I mean, the impaling thing makes sense, though. After all, the Prince of Wallachia was known as Vlad the Impaler, and was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The Christian Bible has sold over 6 billion copies (according to website Statistic Brain). That’s enough to make anyone’s Amazon.com sales figures look measly by comparison. The colporteurs of the past helped those numbers climb with their endless knocking on endless doors and selling millions of copies of the book in the process.

My questions of the day:

  • Did you know anyone who was a colporteur?
  • In our digital age, are there still colporteurs out there?

Besides the occasional Jehovah’s Witness who tries to drop off a copy of The Watchtower (the most widely circulated magazine in the world), I think the only colporteurs we might still have are those young men (and some women) who pretend to be of college age and knock on your door at the worst possible moments, trying to sell you shady subscriptions to magazines that you already don’t read. They usually carry a wrinkled up cardboard I.D. and give you a sad story about how they are trying to either pay for college or complete an assignment by selling more subscriptions than their classmates. According to Con$umerMan at NBCnews.com we should all “just say no” to these modern day colporteurs. 

If one of them does show up, perhaps you should show them the announcement from the Ottoman Governor of Wallachia.

The threat of impalement may keep those pesky colporteurs from ever coming back again!

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(Credit: Flickr photo from Bibliotheque des Champs Libres)

BONUS: A different kind of “colporteur” – the one who wrote all those great tunes from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s (and beyond). Enjoy the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter.

Harper Lee – Writing Quote Wednesday

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(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Flickr photo by crowbot)


The recent news that Harper Lee will be publishing a sequel to her 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel To Kill a Mockingbird has set the literary world a-twitter with gleeful anticipation and dire warnings. I’m fascinated that Lee waited 55 years to do this and is reported to be almost completely deaf and partially blind.
These circumstances leave us with many questions:

Why did she decide to publish Go Set a Watchman now?
What happened all those years ago that stopped her from writing anything else?

Was it perfectionism?
Fear of failure?
Procrastination?
Not enough to say?
Not following her own advice to have real courage to begin anyway and see something through no matter what?

Or is it some other deep, dark reason that she’ll take with her to the grave?
We may never know.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts description of how the book was created, when Harper Lee was writing To Kill a Mockingbird she became so frustrated at one point that she threw the manuscript through a window and into the snow. Apparently her agent made her retrieve it.

Who hasn’t felt like doing that at some point in their writing process? (Paul raises hand timidly, then goes out into the bitter cold in his writing slippers to fetch his current work in progress from the foot-and-a-half of snow outside his apartment balcony.)
To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print since it was published and has been placed on numerous “best of” literary lists. Perhaps Lee put everything she needed to say into that one book and then thought about it for 55 years and decided she had just a bit more to contribute. She also proves that you’re never too old for a comeback!

Here are some questions for the rest of us:

What do you do when you find yourself unable to finish a manuscript?
How many unfinished manuscripts do you have lying around and do you think you’ll ever get back to them?
What will it take to finish them?

These are all fascinating questions and I hope everyone reading this finds the answers they are looking for. I’d also absolutely love it if you shared some of those answers with us by leaving a comment in the comments section!

Stories are the Wildest Things – even 55 years later.