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The Writing Show Newsletter - July 2008
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The Writing Show Newsletter Information and Inspiration for Writers
July 2008 Volume 3, Number 4

Hi, Paula,

Now That's Writing


Television criticism might be an unusual type of writing to spotlight in a column called "Now That's Writing," but the reviews and analysis you get in The New Yorker are so exceptional that I couldn't resist. Check out this quote from Nancy Franklin's article, "That Seventies Show: CBS's 'Swingtown,'" in the June 9th and 16th, 2008 issue of the magazine:


The characters in "Swingtown" may be going through big personal changes and having, along with their free sex, some rough times, but I envy them: they have to live through the seventies only once."



How's that for a single sentence that says it all? Here's what she's doing in those few words:


  • Acknowledging that the characters have arcs and that there's plenty of tension in their inner and outer relationships.


  • Infusing herself into the review by stating that she envies the characters. She's acknowledging that the characters have touched her and that their story is relevant to her daily life.


  • Giving the reader an idea what the show is about and when it's set.


  • Summing up her assessment of the show.


  • Ending with a zinger! When I read the words after the colon, I thought, "Wow! How did she come up with such a clever line?" She:


    • Cracks a joke. The idea of having to relive the seventies (a horrible decade) is funny.


    • Brings fictional characters to life. By comparing their TV-land suffering to her own, she gives them authority in the real world.


    • Skewers the writers and producers of the show. These misguided creators torment their characters thinking we'll be amused. What they don't realize is that we're probably wishing we'd accepted that delightful dinner invitation from Torquemada instead of watching the show.


Now that's writing!

--Paula B.

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in this issue

Writing Dialogue, Part 5: Tags


One of the most misunderstood elements of dialogue is tags, the "he said," "she said" afterthoughts that identify a speaker. Common questions include:

  • When to use tags
  • Whether to use alternatives to "said"
  • Where to position tags.

In this column, I present some answers from Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue blended with some of my own insights.

Here's the skinny.


  1. Use tags only when it's necessary to identify the speaker. If the action or description interwoven with the dialogue indicates who the speaker is, or if it's obvious, you don't need to use a tag. If it's easy to forget or confuse who's speaking, use a tag.


    Here's an example from Imperial Earth, copyright 1975, by the great Arthur C. Clarke:

    Duncan obeyed, though without much enthusiasm
    or success. And then he had a brilliant idea.
            Karl was interested, and accepted the
    challenge at once. He took the set of
    pentominoes, and that was the last Duncan
    heard of him for several hours.
            Then he called back, looking a little flustered.
            "Are you sure it can be done?" he demanded.
            "Absolutely. In fact, there are two
    solutions. Haven't you found even one? I
    thought you were good at mathematics."
            "So I am. That's why I know how tough the
    job is. There are over a million billion
    possible arrangements to be checked."
            "How do you work that out?" asked Duncan,
    delighted to discover something that had
    baffled his friend.
            Karl looked at a piece of paper, covered
    with sketches and numbers.
            "Well, excluding forbidden positions, and
    allowing for symmetry and rotation, it comes
    to factorial twelve times two to the
    twenty-first— you wouldn't understand
    why! That's quite a number; here it is."
            He held up a sheet on which he had written,
    in large figures, the imposing array of


    Note how few tags Clarke uses; in five lines of dialogue, only "he demanded" and "asked Duncan." The rest of the time, we can easily follow the conversation because of the narration and the paragraphing.


  2. Prefer "said" and "asked" to more exotic verbs. Keep it simple! Use alternatives like "muttered" sparingly; the dialogue itself should imply the way it's said and what the character is feeling. If it's imperative to show some action, throw in a little narrative. (See the March issue of this newsletter for more on mixing narrative and dialogue.)


    Having said that, I must admit that the Arthur Clarke example above rather flouts this advice. Wondering whether the age of the book affected the style, I made a quick survey of some more recent books and discovered that many well-known contemporary writers do use occasional alternatives to "said" and "ask." My advice, then, is to use your judgment, remembering that that the more colorful and uncommon the verb, the more it calls attention to itself and breaks the flow of your dialogue.


  3. Consider using description instead of a tag if it sheds light on character or moves the story forward. Here's an example from Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars:


    Her voice was turning brittle again. "We
    can't read the Martian, Hanny."


    Niven doesn't say, "'We can't read the Martian, Hanny,' she said brittley." He indicates the nature of his character's voice using description: "Her voice was turning brittle again."

    Here's another example of description substituting for a tag, this one from Dean Koontz's Forever Odd:


    He let out a low sound of abject misery.
    "You're gonna think I'm such a loser."


    Rather than saying, "'You're gonna think I'm such a loser,' he said miserably," Koontz eliminates the tag and gives us a bit of narration to describe the speaker's mood: "He let out a low sound of abject misery."


  4. Most tags should be placed at the end of a sentence. You can also insert them in the middle, but use this construction with restraint or it will call attention to itself. The weakest place for a tag is at the beginning. Do not put a solitary tag at the end of several sentences of dialogue.


    Here's the most commonly accepted format as exemplified by this sentence from Elizabeth George's Well-Schooled in Murder:


    "Mr. Byrne recommended it," Patsy said.



    Consider how well this elegant example of a mid-sentence tag from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations works:


    "Lucky for you then, Handel," said
    Herbert," that you are picked out for her and
    allotted to her."


    See how rhythmic that is? Had Dickens placed the tag at the beginning, as in the following, his sentence would have sounded abrupt and off-rhythm:

    Herbert said, "Lucky for you then, Handel,
    that you are picked out for her and allotted
    to her."


    Here's an example of a tagless multi-sentence bit of dialogue from Elizabeth George's Well-Schooled in Murder:

    "Perhaps. However, he was wearing his school
    uniform when he left. That certainly
    indicates he wasn't frightened that he might
    be recognized and returned to the school."


    Note that George doesn't append "he said" at the end of the last sentence. (In fact, she uses almost no tags at all throughout the book!) Had she wanted to use a tag here, the place for it would have been after "Perhaps," as in "'Perhaps,' he said." Why not at the end? That's too late to identify the speaker. By the time the reader finds out who he is, he's already lost the thread.


The best way to assess whether you're using tags effectively is to sample a variety of well-written books and see how the best authors do it. You'll find that some of the greats don't adhere to these guidelines strictly, but you will get a sense of what works.



Call for Submissions: Our 2008 Holiday Short Story Celebration: $75 per Story Accepted


The Writing Show is looking for two holiday-themed short stories to feature as podcasts in December. The stories will be read by the authors or readers of the authors' choosing. Here are the submission criteria:


  • The December holidays must play a significant role in the story. The story doesn't have to be about the holidays per se, but there must be some connection with them. Having one character say "Jeeminy Christmas" somewhere in the story is not a significant connection, but featuring a department store Santa Claus as a major character is. You can write about Christmas (and Christmas Eve), Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, New Year's Eve, or Boxing Day.


  • The story must be no longer than 4000 words. You'll be reading it aloud, so it shouldn't be too long.


  • The story must be in English.


  • Any genre is okay.


  • Your ability to tell a compelling story is the most important criterion. Be sure to hook the reader!


  • Please make sure your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are clean. The fewer errors in your manuscript, the better your chances of being selected.


  • You must hold the audio rights to your story. If the story has never been published and you haven't signed a contract to publish it, you own all the rights. If the story has been published but you haven't given away the audio rights, you own them. If you've given away all rights, you shouldn't have, but if you did, we can't consider the story.


  • You must submit your story no later than October 15th. Send it as an email attachment to Please use a standard format like .doc, .rtf, or .pdf. Please do not send stories written in Final Draft format or as text in the body of your email.


  • Please include your name, snail mail address, email address, phone number, word count, story title, and log line (one-line teaser) in your email. Do not put identifying information on your story itself! We use these contact details only for correspondence about the stories. We do not send you unsolicited mail, call you, or share your contact information with anyone.


If you don't want to read your own story on the show, you can select someone else, or you can let me select a reader for you. If I pick your story and you want to do your own mp3 recording, that's fine. Otherwise, we'll do the recording the way I do interviews: over the phone or Skype. Don't worry if you're outside North America. I can reach anywhere in the world.

We will pay $75 for each of the two stories accepted! We will make payment as soon as the stories have been recorded.


British vs. American Punctuation: Inside or Outside the Quotation Marks?


The difference between British English and American English isn't confined merely to vocabulary. We also punctuate differently when quotation marks are involved. I knew this from observation, but I've just come across an official explanation in The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition.

The British style of positioning periods and commas in relation to the closing quotation mark is the same as the American way of placing question marks and exclamation points: if they belong to the quoted material, put them within the closing quotation mark; if they belong to the including sentence as a whole, they are placed after the quotation mark.

I thought all punctuation was equal where quotation marks are involved; that in the U.S., punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks if the quote ends the sentence. I was wrong!

These ideas are confusing in the abstract, so here are some examples:


  • American and British correct form: Who was it who said, "Beaulah, peel me a grape"? (The question mark goes after the quotation mark because the quote isn't a question-the part that precedes the quote is. I didn't realize this. I thought the question mark was supposed to go before the closing quotation mark.)


  • American and British correct form: I'm reminded of that song where they ask, "Who'll stop the rain?" (The question mark goes before the quotation mark because the quoted material is a question.)


  • American correct form: One of my favorite short stories of his is "The Red-Headed League." (The period goes before the quotation mark regardless of whether the quoted material has its own period.)


  • British correct form: One of my favorite short stories of his is "The Red-Headed League". (The period goes after the quotation mark because it isn't part of the quoted material.)


  • American and British correct form: Get back to your posts, and stop singing "99 Bottles of Beer"! (Exclamation point goes outside the quotes because it isn't part of the quoted material.)


  • American and British correct form: I heard her yell, "Yikes!" (Exclamation point goes inside the quotes because it's part of the quoted material.)


You learn something new every day. Aren't books wonderful?

These rules come from The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition.


Bloodshed at Connecticut Book Party


On June 10, 2008, Publishers Weekly reported on a strange case of life imitating art.

It seems that the authors of Dinner Party Disasters: True Stories of Culinary Catastrophe, Annaliese Soros (first wife of financier George Soros) and her contributor, Abigail Stokes, witnessed a fist fight at a recent dinner party held in their honor. As the guests were finishing their entrées, a McCain supporter and an Obama supporter flew at each other.

Eventually the kitchen staff broke up the fight, after which the guests returned to the table and ate dessert.

"It's funny now, but it wasn't so funny then," said coauthor Stokes. "The irony was that as the evening began we all kidded around about how someone should stage a disaster at one of these book parties-and lo and behold, it happened."


Writing Show News


Upcoming shows:

July 13, 2008. "Writing Show Makeover #1," with editor Ann Paden and writer Jim Nevling.

July 20, 2008. "Writing Plays," with Alretha Thomas.

July 27, 2008. "A Successul Freelance Writer Who Turned Himself into an Ad Agency," with Ken Honeywell.

August 3, 2008. "Short Story Beginnings," with Melissa Palladino and Randall Brown.

Have a question or topic you'd like covered on the show or in the newsletter? Want to write for us or be a guest host? See mistakes in my writing? Let me know.

--Paula B.


Trivia Question: Sherlock Holmes (last issue); billions and billions of copies (this issue)

In our last issue we asked:

Which Sherlock Holmes character is named after a mountain in the English Lake District?

The answer is Langdale Pike in "The Three Gables."

This month's trivia question: What book besides the Bible has sold at least one billion copies?

Answer next issue.

Got a trivia question for the newsletter? If you think you can fool our readers, please send it to me at There's $5.00 in it if I use it.


Horror writer David Schembri created our new logo!
New Writing Show logo

Remember: you don't have to have an iPod to listen to podcasts!

Find out how to listen
Dip into our archives:

Writing the True Crime Story, with Mark Horner

Writing the Character-based Novel, with Harriet Smart

A Contrarian View of Self-Publishing, with Jeff DeRego

The Writer's Voice, with Paula B.

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