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Writing Dialogue Tags: Less is More

WriterDialogue tags are the things writers add to conversations to denote who’s speaking. This can be a puzzle for writers, who often fall into the trap of replacing the word said with exotic substitutes. Their characters bellow, snicker, chortle, demand, query, bark, chirp, and gasp—all while speaking. My early writing included horrible dialogue tags, but I soon learned that clumsy substitutes for said interrupt the flow of prose, distract readers, and become offensive.

Here’s what a reviewer of my book Dialogue for Writers had to say about one well known author: “I am a Stephanie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have snickered and chuckled so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting.”

Here’s an example of dialogue burdened by excess tags:

“Please help me,”Sandy pleaded.

“What’s wrong with you now, woman?”Jack growled menacingly.

“I’m about to drop these groceries. Can’t you take one of the bags?” she begged.

“You lift weights at the gym three times a week and still can’t manage a few groceries?”Jack snarled. “Maybe I should cancel our membership,” he barked.

These dialogue tags are a distraction and actually weaken the characters’ words. And, the tags become a subtle insult to readers. The excess tags imply that readers are not smart enough to interpret conversation and need remedial help with words like pleaded, menacingly, begged, and barked. I feel offended when I read this kind of dialogue.

Another example of bloated dialogue

Another example of bloated dialogue

I challenge you to look through your writing and try eliminating dialogue tags. You may be surprised by how many of these little distractions you can delete. Deleting tags works especially well during short, crisp exchanges between two characters. You know your writing is strong when readers can follow the dialogue without any speaker tags. Here’s a brisk telephone conversation from Stephen White’s novel The Program:

He was dismissive.“You have an idea where we could go?”

“Sure, there’re some places we could go from my house. Do you know where I live?”

“I’m guessing Boulder.”

“County, not the city.It’s actually a little east, near the scenic overlook on 36.”

“Morbul Bismarck neighborhood. I’ll throw my bike in the back of the truck. Give me directions.”

Alan did.

Ron said,“I can be there by nine.”

“Then I guess I’ll see you then.”

less is moreDon’t you like this scene without dialogue tags? The important thing is to vary your writing so that no scene contains dialogue tags after every speech, and the tags you choose to insert are unobtrusive.For example,you can place the tag in the middle of a line (“What’s happening?”Ron asked.“Did I miss something?”). Use this technique when there’s a natural pause in a character’s speech.

The best advice I can give you about dialogue tags is this: Try to strike a happy balance between using said after every speech and not using a tag at all. Forget the other stuff, and remember–simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.  If  you’d like to read more about how to write dialogue, grab a copy of my new book on the topic:


A great investment for writers

A great investment for writers


Sammie Justesen is a publisher and the author of Dialogue for Writers, released in May, 2014.

She is also an artist and president of the Lawrence County Art Association.

A new review of Dialogue for Writers

This book delivers. If you are a writer, you’ll find a wealth of information and insight that will allow you to assess your style and discover practical ways to make good writing better.
Even popular published authors can benefit from this book. For instance, I am a Stephenie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have”snickered” and “chuckled” so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting. Sammie Justesen’s book offers great advice from a number of perspectives including the all-important publisher’s perspective. I have no hesitation in rating it a five-star book.

Find the book on

Dialogue for Writers UNLEASHED

I’m excited to announce the debut of my new book Dialogue for Writers : Create Powerful Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction. FRONT cover final

This book explores all the necessary elements of dialogue and is packed with ideas and examples to help writers improve their technique.  To make this book more comprehensive than others on the market, I added information about  writing dialogue for a variety of genres, including screenplays, graphic novels, and children’s books.  Then I looked at more unusual places for dialogue:

  • Family history
  • Journals
  • Memoirs
  • Journalism
  • Poetry
  • Self-help articles and books

Almost any nonfiction book is more attractive to readers if you add dialogue, quotes, or interviews.  The spoken word in compelling; extra white space looks good on the pages; and dialogue enhances your credibility.  You can’t go wrong by adding the human voice to your writing.

One of my favorite chapters in Dialogue for Writers is “Jump Start Your Story with Dialogue.”  In this chapter I show by example how to break through writer’s block by using dialogue to open a story, a new chapter, an article, a journal entry, or even a poem.  If you get your characters talking right away, you’ll find it much easier to fill in the rest of the story with action and details.  Try these three steps:

  1. Write a single line of dialogue—something you’ve overhead, words that pop into your mind, or a catchy statement you read on Twitter.  Anything will do!
  2. List several situations your dialogue might fit.
  3. Choose the most intriguing situation and write an answer to that first line of dialogue.

Now you’re writing! You’ll find the next seven steps on page 86 of Dialogue for Writers.

If you’d like to learn more about this new book for writers, visit the Amazon page at:

But why not get the book free?  For a limited time I will send free copies of Dialogue for Writers to people who’d like to write a review.  You may contact me at  FREE







Here’s what best-selling science fiction author Hugh Howey has to say about my book (I was one of Hugh’s first editors):  “Dialogue provides a window into our character’s souls, and Sammie Justesen’s Dialogue for Writers throws open the curtains. A wonderful resource on how to get our characters talking to one another in a believable manner, and how to make our stories better in the process.”  — Hugh Howey, author of The Silo Saga and SAND

Author, poet, and photographer Gin Getz says:  Dialogue for Writers is more than another how-to text on writing.  After reading this book, my brain is swimming with ideas Sammie Justesen shares from her years of experience in the publishing industry. Sammie shows (not tells) us all about dialogue and much more, writing with style, humor, and an easy, comfortable voice and using examples to bring her points to life. Sammie practices what she preaches in this handy compilation based on experience and insight.”   –Gin Getz, author of The Color of the Wild: An Intimate Look at Life in an Untamed Land



Dialogue for Writers — Coming Soon!

FRONT cover final I’m excited! My new book Dialogue for Writers: Create Powerful Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction will be published by NorLightsPress on April 15.  This is be my first published work in several years, because I’ve been using my creative talent (such as it is) to work on other people’s books.  But a few months ago, my husband Dee goaded me into action. Thank you, Dee!  And now the book is ready.   It’s available for pre-order on at this address:

Why did I choose to focus on dialogue?  Because dialogue seems easy to write, but isn’t.  Yet, it can make or break a book, article, or screenplay.  Dialogue is the ultimate power trip: We put words into the mouths of other people.  We decide what they say and how they say it. The writer is totally in charge—except when our characters come to life and take over, which is even MORE fun.

Many writers haven’t tapped into the power of dialogue for genres such as journalism, family history, journals, poetry, and memoir. Dialogue for Writers will be the only book on the market that explores dialogue for all these genres, plus children’s books, graphic novels, screenplays, and general fiction.

A few tips and tricks from Dialogue for Writers:

Tension, Conflict, and Suspense

If you don’t build at least one of these elements into each scene, you have no story.

  1.  Goals and motivation create tension.  Every character in every scene should have a goal and motivation.  Don’t let them speak without it.
  2. If two characters’ goals and motivation clash—all the better.  Now you have conflict, plus added tension.
  3. What happens next?  Make the readers curious: Then you have suspense.

Show, Don’t Tell       

Don’t use dialogue tags to tell how people speak.  Show it with action.

Telling:  “Come here!” Tom ordered.

Showing: “Come here!” Tom waved me closer.

Telling: “I’m so sorry,” she apologized.

Showing: “I’m sorry, Tom.” She threw back her head and stared at the ceiling.

I’ll be posting more tips and techniques from the book in the coming days.  I hope it will benefit writers in every genre!   If you’d like to review Dialogue for Writers on your blog, on Amazon, or anywhere else, please let me know and I’ll send you a book.  

attitude-affects-work  As always, I enjoy reading your comments!


Grand Openings for Novels


In this age when readers download the first pages of a book, nothing is more important for authors than a strong opening.

Last night, desperate for a good book to read, I browsed on Amazon for half an hour and downloaded five book samples to my iPad.  Three of these books were written by famous authors, and each had over 200 five-star reviews, which helped me decide what books to consider. I truly appreciate folks who read a book and then make time to tell others all about it. However, I seem to be more demanding than the average reviewer.  I’m careful about how I spend my precious reading time, but if an author can grab me with the first few pages I’ll buy the book and read to the end.

Of the five books I considered last night, only one made the cut. James Patterson is a perennial favorite, but he lost me with the opening of Private LA, published this month.  The book opens with four surfers on the beach, where nothing happens except a boring conversation and too much explaining by the author.  When does the actual story begin?  I have no idea, because I deleted the sample after reading three pages.

Then I tried a new book by JD Robb: Concealed in Death. This book opens with an incredibly boring explanation of why one character decided to purchase an old building.  I slogged through five pages before deleting this one.

What’s up with these famous, successful, and talented authors? They should know better.  Yet, their books always get rave reviews.

The fourth book I opened was a delightful surprise: Come Home by Lisa Scottoline, published in 2012.  This story opens with action, suspense, and quick dialogue.  The first few pages are filled with the short, choppy conversation of people in distress.  Scottoline lets dialogue carry the story while she seamlessly adds telling details. The actual murder mystery doesn’t surface until about page ten, but so what? I was already attached to Lisa’s characters.  She hooked me by page three, where I stopped reading long enough to purchase the book.  When I finish this one, I’ll download samples of her other books.

Here’s my theory on grand openings: I believe established authors can get away with weak openings, because they already have fans who will read anything they write. Those of us who aren’t famous need to follow the rules for strong opening scenes:

  1.  A compelling hook to grab attention.  Cut those long, boring passages that describe the scenery and what someone is doing.
  2. At least one character readers can relate to.
  3. Conflict, tension, and suspense. Please!
  4. A strong hint that things are going to get much worse before they get better.
  5. Something must be at stake.

05-ernest-hemingwayHere’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

“. . .All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.  So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

And here’s a toast to more grand openings for all of us!


The Joy of Graphic Novels

This week I learned you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy comic books. . . er, graphic novels.

I’m feverishly working on a complete make-over of my book on dialogue for writers. The new book, Dialogue Mastery for WritersCreating Powerful Dialogue in Fiction and Nonfiction is in the proofing stage, yet I keep adding new material.

This week I explored the world of comic books and graphic novels, and then wrote a chapter on creating dialogue for the action packed world of superheroes and super-villains. As a kid who grew up loving comic books, I have no gripes with this genre. Comics are definitely lightweight reading, but now, calling them graphic novels makes this genre seem downright artistic.

As author Daniel Raebum wrote: “I snicker at the neologism, first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a ‘graphic novel’ is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.”  (^ Raeburn, Daniel. Chris Ware(Monographics Series), Yale UniversityPress, 2004, p. 110. ISBN 978-0-300-10291-8.)

Writer Neil Gaiman, responding to a claim that he does not write comic books but graphic novels, said the commenter “meant it as a compliment, I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”  (Bender, Hy (1999). The Sandman CompanionVertigoISBN 978-1-56389-644-6)

In order to write this chapter, I learned to format scripts for graphic novels, which turns out to be great fun. I can’t think of a better way to learn the art of writing no-frills dialogue. Graphic novel characters don’t stand around dithering and discussing: They act.  And I love the idea of writing sounds that match the action, such as:  POW!   SQUISH   DRIP. . . BANG! and ZAP!

Unfortunately, my artist abilities don’t stretch far enough to draw a book unless all the characters are flowers, clouds, and trees. Perhaps a talking flower?  Drone clouds?  Ent-like trees?  Anything is possible in this genre.

My new favorite is the SAGA series by author Brian Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples. The artwork is magnificent, the characters well developed, and the central plot keeps you wantimg more.  And, of course, Vaughan’s dialogue rings true. He even tosses in humor from time to time.


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