Characterization, dialogue, Romance, Uncategorized

Dialogue: Show and Tell

The other day I was thinking about how different a scene can be depending on how the dialogue is written. Not just the lines themselves, but the tags, the action, the tone and gestures. So I asked my author- sister, Annette Larsen, to play with some scenes from her books to demonstrate. She’s taken a couple scenes from her books and changed them up to show the difference between neutral or nonexistent tags, telling, and showing. I think they are a fantastic demonstration of the huge difference some good showing can make.

Example 1: Raina and West (From Painting Rain)

1: Dialogue with neutral tags.

“Who do you cry for?” he asked.

“You know how selfish I am. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself,” I responded.

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should,” I said.

“Are you ever angry with him?” he asked.

“More often than I ought.”

“Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you,” he said.

“I carry plenty of the blame,” I replied.

“More than you should. Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?”

“Because—” I said.  “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?” he asked.

“It helps to know how I see myself.”

Notice how, emotionally, this scene went way too fast and felt pretty flat. It almost doesn’t make any sense, and as readers we might find ourselves confused, disinterested, or annoyed.
2: Dialogue with “telling” descriptions instead of showing.

He wiped my tears away. “Who do you cry for?”

“You know how selfish I am,” I said in a whisper. “So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself.”

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should,” I insisted, feeling guilty.

He studied my face. “Are you ever angry with him?”

I knew who he referred to and it caused more tears to come to my eyes. “More often than I ought.”

His jaw clenched in anger, then he nodded.  “Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you.”

“I carry plenty of the blame.”

“More than you should.”

I wanted to disagree, but his insistence made me emotional and I couldn’t talk.

“Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?” he inquired.

I shrugged. “Because—” Suddenly I knew the answer— “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?”

I looked at the canvas, the way I had painted myself to look desperate and alone. “It helps to know how I see myself.”

I have read far too many books that actually sound a lot like this. It barely scratches the surface of what’s going on emotionally. Maybe the writer knows what’s going on, but if they don’t show us, we can’t feel fully involved and invested.
3: Dialogue with “showing” description (in other words, done right.)

He reached up, brushing his thumb over the tear there. “Who do you cry for?”

“You know how selfish I am.” My voice came as a bare whisper. “So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I cry for myself.”

“I don’t believe that’s selfish.”

“You should.” I didn’t know why I said it. Perhaps I was hoping to scare him away and regain my solitude. Perhaps I hoped that he would condemn me in the same way I condemned myself.

His eyes dove into mine, searching for something. Finally he spoke, his question bold. “Are you ever angry with him?”

I didn’t have to ask to whom he referred. Several more tears streaked down my face. “More often than I ought.”

He clenched his jaw, but nodded his head. “Good. Because it makes me angry to see him still hurting you.”

“I carry plenty of the blame.”

“More than you should.”

I wanted to argue with him, but his insistence made a different sort of emotion well up to clog my throat.

“Why did you paint yourself facing the darkness?”

I shook my head, lifting my shoulders. “Because—” The answer hit me with sudden clarity— “I fear I’ll never be able to escape it fully.”

“Did it help to paint it?”

I stared past him, at the way my hand grasped for the light while a branch snagged my skirt, holding me back. “It helps to know how I see myself.”

This is the scene as it’s written in the book. The subtle additions make a huge difference: his thumb on her cheek, her voice a bare whisper, his clenched jaw, plus her reactions, internalization of emotions and thought process all lead us through the scene and help us experience it as readers.


Example 2: Lylin and Rhys (From Missing Lily)

1: Dialogue with neutral tags.

“You were dishonest,” he said.

“Yes, I was,” I replied. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before,” he said.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I stated.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

“I have not given you permission to use my name,” I said.

“But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I shouted.

“Yes, I do know,” he replied.

The dialogue in this one is strong enough that it doesn’t suffer quite as much as the first example did from the missing descriptions. But as it’s written, it’s just an argument, and the only emotion that really comes through is anger or annoyance.
2: Dialogue with “telling” descriptions instead of showing.

He looked at me with disapproval. “You were dishonest.”

“Yes, I was,” I said defiantly. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before,” he said meanly.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I whispered, hurt.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

His words surprised me. “I have not given you permission to use my name.”

He took an intimidating step forward. “But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I interrupted, embarrassed by the reminder.

He let out a defeated sigh. “Yes, I do know.”

I actually think this one is worse than the first one. The inane tags and descriptions actually detract from the scene rather than adding to it (I think she threw “meanly” in there for a laugh). It feels like someone very…young wrote this scene.
3: Dialogue and description done right.

The disapproving glint was back in his eye. “You were dishonest.”

“Yes, I was.” I threw my hands up. “I wanted to have an enjoyable afternoon, and he offered to teach me and seemed eager to do it, so, yes. I let him. What does it matter?”

“It was a side of you I hadn’t seen before.” He spoke quietly, his words slicing into me.

“You don’t know everything about me,” I stated in a vicious whisper.

“Believe me, Lylin. That I know.”

My eyebrows shot up. “I have not given you permission to use my name.”

He moved almost imperceptibly closer. “But I could call you Lily? And carry you to your room? And tend to your injured forehead? And lie down to gaze at the stars together? And—”

“You know that was different!” I shouted to make him stop, stumbling back a step.

He sighed, the fight gone out of him. “Yes, I do know.” He took a step back.

Notice in this one that she has used almost no adjectives or adverbs to describe the characters or their lines, but we feel a whole lot more emotion than we did in the first two. Now, I’m not one of those people who say you should never use adverbs, but if you can imagine those minute, often subtle details and then show it using specific descriptors–as she has here, with characters throwing their hands up, speaking quietly, whispering viciously, and stumbling back a step, it will feel so much more genuine and emotive.

Annette K. Larsen has been writing clean romance for over ten years and is the author of the Books of Dalthia series, all of which can be found on Amazon. 

Characterization, dialogue, Narrative Voice, Romance, Uncategorized

Romance 101

What makes a good romance? Why do some romances seem so cheesy while others pull you in and give you butterflies and goose bumps and ALL the feels? How do you find that balance between realistic and deliciously perfect? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve edited and read for fun and done some writing of my own, so I thought I’d share some thoughts (and hope they come out making sense).

First of all: In romance, possibly more than in any other genre, the mantra “show, don’t tell” is crucial. Romance is all about feelings, and feelings only feel genuine if we are allowed to absorb them and experience them. Telling me someone is sad is not nearly as effective as showing me someone curled up in their bed sobbing, her chest aching and throat exhausted from crying as her mind replays memories of the time she had with him. So in all of the following suggestions, you’ll see the common thread of showing instead of telling.

Obstacles = Tension

What is the obstacle keeping your characters from being able to fall in love or be together? This, in my opinion, is the most important element of a romance. It can be external–outside forces keeping them from being together–or internal–causing turmoil about whether they should let themselves fall in love. And there can be more than one obstacle.

If your book is primarily a romance—if that’s the most important part of the book—then it should take the ENTIRE book for your couple to overcome all of their obstacles. If they’re happily together by the middle of the book, the romance element is over. It’s not super fun to read about two people who are wildly in love. It’s fantastic to read about them falling in love and experiencing the tension that comes with the obstacle, but once they’ve come to an agreement—either declared their love, had their first kiss, or gotten married, depending on the type of romance you’re writing—then romance readers are satisfied and won’t be driven to keep reading. If there are no more obstacles to their romance, you’re no longer writing a romance, so it better actually be a book about good versus evil or magic or a kidnapping or spies or terminal illness or major family secrets or something.

So what might these obstacles be? There are so many options, and you can make just about anything work with the right balance and character development. Some examples:

External Obstacles

  • Family rivalry (à la Romeo and Juliet)
  • Social status/inequality or other inherent differences (rich and poor; race difference; religion difference)
  • Situational taboo (war enemies; competing businesses or teams; prior or current relationships)
  • Age issues (too young or too far apart)
  • Illness
  • Fantasy world obstacles (different species; a curse; a prophecy)
  • Distance
  • Bad guys
  • Zombies, armageddon…

Internal Obstacles

  • Bad first impression: think Pride and Prejudice. Make sure not to make it unforgivable.
  • Competing personalities
  • Insecurities: use EXTREME caution. Nobody wants to read pages of “poor me” or “I’m not good enough for him/her.”
  • Misunderstandings: again, use caution. Don’t make your readers want to hurl the book at a wall because the characters won’t just spit it out or have a conversation. And don’t use the old “Oh, I was about to tell you five times but got interrupted every time” tactic.
  • Past trauma: How do emotional scars inhibit a character’s willingness or ability to be vulnerable or let love in?
  • Broken trust or suspicions
  • Secrets and lies: another one to use with care. Don’t make readers hate your love interests. They’d better have a darn good reason for keeping secrets or telling lies. And they’d better pay the price for it.
  • Fears: of marriage; of commitment; of the kind of bad relationship their parents had. This could tie in with past trauma.
  • Loyalty: she’s in love with her sister’s intended or he’s falling for the girl who ruined his best friend’s life. This would be more like an intersection of internal external conflict.
  • Love triangle: it gets a bad rap, so make sure it’s believable and serves a purpose.

The point of any of these obstacles is to create romantic tension. The internal struggle; the forbidden fruit; the impossible decisions; the seemingly insurmountable odds. By the time we reach the climax, the reader should be invested—stressed out, curious, nervous, wondering how these characters can possible overcome this impossible situation. Will they make a sacrifice? Will they defy society? Will they convince everyone to let them be together? Will they run off? Will they finally forgive each other?

Once they overcome their obstacle(s) and are free to be together and happy, you only need a scene or two after that to wrap everything up. After all that work, we want to see the couple happy and together and carefree. But we don’t need much of that. Once we’re satisfied and the questions are answered, we don’t have the driving curiosity to keep reading. So get them to that happy place and wrap it up.

Details and Description

Respect your readers. Give them the benefit of the doubt by not stating the obvious. Don’t skip over the new relationship and the tension-filled encounters by simply telling us that they happened; let readers experience the moments instead of summarizing them. I don’t want to read “They had a great time at dinner, full of conversation as well as comfortable silences. The chemistry was palpable.” I want to actually read and experience the chemistry, listen in on the conversations, hear their tone of voice, see their facial expressions, and take in the implied meanings.

So give readers those details. What is she doing with her hands? Does his voice lower or crack? Does she keep nervously tucking her hair behind her ear? Do their eyes meet, or is there avoidance happening? What kind of back-and-forth game do they play? Is one pursuing the other or is it mutual? Show us how they hold back as well as what they choose to share. Use your empathy, your observation skills, and your emotional memory to create a realistic moment that evokes emotion without shouting it from the rooftops.

Read more about this kind of detail in “Give Me a Beat” or “Humans First, Please.”

Complementary Characters

One of the jobs of any love interest is to provide what’s missing in a character’s life. They should complete one another with a balance of shared interests and opposing traits that together make them more whole.

An uptight gal could use a laid-back guy. A studious guy could use an adventurous girl. Someone who came from a broken family could benefit from a relationship with someone whose family is awesome. But you don’t need to point any of that out for us. Just make it happen.

So do your character studies. Write their backstories. Give them flaws and balance them with the right love interest. Let your couples learn from one another and rub off on each other. Show us (remember, don’t necessarily tell us) why they need each other. Charm us with their easy banter, but don’t tell us that they’re charming or that their banter is easy. Allow them to comfort and lift each other up in hard times, but don’t say “She loved how he could always comfort and lift her up in hard times.”

So much of this goes back to respecting your readers and allowing them to absorb, make inferences, and experience the story as closely to first-hand as possible. Remember that your readers are smart, and allow them to come along for the ride instead of telling them about it later.

{I find that I have far too much to say on this topic than most people want to read in one blog post, so I’ll end for now and leave you hungry for Romance 202. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other blog posts, such as “What’s My Motivation (for reading your book)?” or “Don’t MAKE Me Throw This Book Across the Room.”}

dialogue, Grammar, Self Edits, Uncategorized

You Can’t Shrug a Line

One of my favorite lines from Huckleberry Finn is “You can’t pray a lie.”

That doesn’t have much to do with my topic, though I’m sure I could make a good connection if I wanted to. I just like how it goes along with my title, “You can’t shrug a line.”

So. Dialogue tags. In my editing, I see a lot of this:

  • “I don’t know,” I shrugged.
  • “You bet,” he smiled.
  • “Well,” she leaned closer, “we can try.”
  • She giggled, “I’d love to!”

And I’m sorry to say, they’re all wrong. Yes, they seem to make sense when you read them, but none of the verbs used here—shrugged, smiled, or leaned—are ways you can deliver a line. You can’t shrug “I don’t know.” You can shrug before, after, or while you say it, but it’s not how you’re saying the line. Even laughing: though we sometimes laugh while we say something, we don’t actually laugh the words.

So here’s a little grammar tidbit and a trick. Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. That means they either have an object or they don’t. You hit a ball: hit is transitive, and the ball is the object. You scowl: scowl is intransitive, because you don’t scowl something. In dialogue, the spoken lines—the words in quotations—are the object of a transitive verb, such as say, reply, answer, ask, yell, scream, blurt, retort, bellow, whisper, sing, etc.

You can test whether your dialogue tag verb is transitive by asking “What  did they ___?” For example, if you want to use “scream,” What did he scream?  He screamed, “Get out of here!” That definitely works. On the other hand, What did she lean? Uh…no. What did she smile? Well, she probably smiled with her mouth, but she didn’t really smile anything. What did she laugh? I know this one is tempting, because laughing is a vocal thing. But it’s not actually how you say words. It doesn’t make sense to say “This is what she laughed.” Laughing can happen during speaking, but technically you don’t laugh words. (Though you may disagree and choose to use this one anyway.) How about What did he shrug? Well, he probably shrugged his shoulders. So while it is a transitive verb, the object isn’t the dialogue; it’s his shoulders, though that doesn’t have to be stated.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this problem. Several possible fixes, in fact.

  1. You can simply split the sentence, adding the action before or after the dialogue with a period instead of a comma: “I don’t know.” I shrugged. Sometimes it works better to put the action first: I shrugged. “I don’t know.” In this example, you could also add a descriptive tag: I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I admitted. (What did I admit? “I don’t know.”)
  2. You can insert “said” with a comma and change the verb to the “-ing” form: “I don’t know,” I said, shrugging.
  3. You can add “with” and change the verb to a noun: “I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.
  4. For interrupted dialogue with action inserted in the middle of a sentence (such as the leaning example above), em dashes are often the best way to go: “Well—” she leaned closer “—we can try.” In this example, it shows that she pauses for a moment to lean forward. You could also use ellipses in place of the em dashes for a more trailing-off effect. If you don’t want the character to actually pause, but want to insert action, the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks: “I know that you’ve”—she blushed—“said things about me.”

While there are plenty of verbs that can be transitive or intransitive that might give you pause and might not have a hard and fast rule (huff, gasp, snarl, growl), hopefully just being able to stop and do this little test on them will help you decide whether or not it’s the way someone can deliver a line.  And luckily, if you’re intent on using them as dialogue tags anyway and call it a style choice, that’s up to you! (she said with a shrug).


Characterization, dialogue, Uncategorized

Give Me a Beat

In high school, I took a drama class in directing. It was really cool, and one of the main things I remember from it is marking up a script with stage directions and beats. A beat is a moment when something changes: the dynamic shifts; a character’s emotion amps up or down; a character realizes something or changes her mind. Any moment where the tone needed to change had to be marked so we could decide how the character would portray that change–with a pause, a look, or a gesture, for example.

Dialogue in novels definitely needs these beats as well. When I started informally editing for my sister, the only word I could think of to describe these pauses, changes, or actions was “beat,” as it’s used in scripts. Later I found out that this term is indeed used to describe it for prose as well. When I edit, I’ll comment something like “add a pause here,” “describe his tone,” “pause for gesture,” or simply, “beat.” These moments are essential because they guide readers through the dialogue and bring the characters and their emotions to life.

There are a few ways to add a beat when it’s needed. If this is hard for you as a writer, I’d suggest either acting it out (go ahead, make faces and whisper to yourself as you stare at your computer screen) or imagining what it would look like in a movie, down to the tiny details of facial expression and movement.

The Em Dash

Consider the difference between this line of dialogue:

“I know you don’t want to go. Wait a minute, do you want to go?”

And this one:

“I know you don’t want to—wait a minute, do you want to go?”

The em dash provides a definite stop, a clear moment when the character realizes something and the whole line of thinking takes a turn.

Em dashes are handy for characters interrupting themselves as in that example, and interrupting others, as in this one:

“You’ve never even said that you cared—”

“No, I’ve told you plenty of times. You just weren’t listening.”

Or for a change of tone or gesture to interrupt the dialogue:

“She told me that he left her”—Molly’s brow furrowed as she shook her head—“but I just can’t believe it.”

That example incorporates both of the next two beat possibilities: expressions and gestures.

Facial Expressions

His face was incredulous as he listened to my story. “That can’t be right,” he began.

“I know—it shouldn’t be,” I agreed, my eyes widening. “But that’s what happened, I swear.”


“Who are you taking to the dance?” I asked hopefully.

A slow grin spread over his face. “Oh,” he said, and the way he looked at me made me blush. “I have a pretty good idea…”

Gestures and movement

“When I got home, the house was—silent,” I said, swallowing. “Creepy silent.” His hand touched my arm to prompt me to continue. “So I started searching each room.” I felt my hands start to shake as I forced myself to relive those moments.


Narrating thoughts:

“Hey,” he insisted, and his expression made me wonder if he was going to try to touch me again. “It’s okay.”

Inserting thoughts into narration:

“Sure, you can come with us.” Did she know how snobby she sounded? “But you might not be able to keep up.”

Direct thoughts:

“We’ll just be a couple minutes.” Unless we find something really interesting. “You go ahead without us.”

Silence and Looks

Sometimes we just need a little break from a monologue, a second for the characters and the reader to absorb something before they’re ready to move on. In the following example, it’s broken up with a look and silence:

“I didn’t mean to flip the switch, but Ryan was so sure that it would make a difference. We honestly had no idea that it would cause such a huge reaction.” I glanced at Matt, but he didn’t say anything. “I don’t know, maybe we just shouldn’t have gone into the chamber in the first place.”  

Or you can do it with just silence:

“So that’s why I just can’t bring myself to go to the beach anymore.” I paused for a moment. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.”

Or just a look:

“Why don’t you ever answer my questions?” I demanded, but he just looked at me. “Fine!” I exploded. “Just forget it.

However you choose to do it, just remember that a huge chunk of communication is nonverbal. Use your beats well and dialogue will flow realistically and feel more human.