Speech Tags, Quotation Marks, and the Meaning of Life

One of the downsides of being an editor is the inability to ignore other writers’ errors. I can be reading a thrilling erotic tale or a gripping mystery, only to be suddenly kicked out of the fictional world by a spelling, grammar or punctuation error.

(If only my own mistakes stood out so clearly!)

Anyway, in my recent reading I’ve encountered a number of authors who seem somewhat confused about how to capitalize and punctuate dialogue. While this isn’t as important as getting the grammar right (in my opinion), this sort of error can be distracting. So I thought I’d do a quick post reviewing the rules.

Speech Tags

In order to correctly punctuate dialogue, you need to understand speech tags. A speech tag is a phrase that includes a subject plus a verb related to speaking: “said”, “asked”, “exclaimed”, “commented”, and so on. The object of a sentence with a speech tag is the dialogue content itself. In many cases, the subject and speech verb can be in either order, and it’s possible, though less common, for the tag to come before the dialogue content.

“You’re the hottest little tramp who’s walked into my store in a week,” said Herve, rubbing his hands together.

“Where were you on the night of the thirty first?” Sergeant Morgan asked.

Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream.”

In dialogue, speech tags serve two distinct functions. Most importantly, they identify which participant in a conversation is associated with a particular utterance. Without speech tags, dialogue can become confusing, especially if there are more than two people talking.

As a secondary function, speech tags can also convey information about the manner of speaking:

“You’re nothing but a slut,” Martin shouted.

“Please, Master – let me come,” she whimpered.

There are many speech verbs that can be used this way: “whispered”, “whined”, “blurted”, and so on. They do double duty by identifying the speaker while also giving the reader some clues about his or her emotions or state of mind.

Be careful, though. Some verbs that might seem similar to my examples are not in fact speech verbs, but writers sometimes punctuate them as if there were. For instance, “laughed”, “whistled”, “smirked”, etc. do not specify speech acts.

Also, it’s often desirable to opt for simpler, less conspicuous speech verbs (like “said”) and use actual action verbs to convey manner.

“You’re nothing but a slut.” Martin slammed his palm down on the table.

But that’s another post…

Quotation Marks

When you want to record what a character said, in his or her exact words, you must surround those words with opening and closing quotes. If you’re writing in U.S. or Canadian English, you use double quotes; British English uses single quotes.

“I’m forever true to the Red, White and Blue,” Jenna swore.

‘Give me a pint of your best bitter, Jake,’ ordered Detective Smythe.

If you need to put a quote inside another quote, you use the opposite type of punctuation.

“Who was it that said ‘even bad sex is good sex’?” asked Jeremy.

Putting the Two Together

If you don’t use speech tags, life is simple. You put your characters’ words inside the appropriate style of quotation marks, using the same punctuation you’d use for a normal sentence: full stop for a statement, question mark for a question, exclamation mark for an exclamation, and so on.

“I’d sure like to see what you have on under that dress.”

“Can you give me a hint?”

“Hot damn! You’re one hell of a looker!”

Things start to get messy (and writers start to make mistakes) when speech tags come into play, either before or after the direct quote. I see cases like this:

*** WRONG ***

Maribelle whispered “Meet me at the gazebo in twenty minutes.”

*** WRONG ***

“Meet me at the gazebo in twenty minutes.” Whispered Maribelle.

*** WRONG ***

“I’d sure like to see what you have on under that dress.” said Howie with a leer.

The rules are actually simple.

1. If the speech tag comes before the quotation, put a comma after the speech verb, then include the quotation, punctuated as you’d expect if it were standing alone.

2. If the speech tag comes after the quotation:

  1. If the quotation is a question or exclamation, punctuate the quotation as if it were standing alone. Do not capitalize the next word after the quotation marks (unless it’s a proper noun).
  2. If the quotation is a statement, end with a comma rather than a full stop as you would if it were standing alone. Do not capitalize the next word after the quotation marks (unless it’s a proper noun).

Examples of Each Rule

Rule 1:

Her Master declared, “You’re mine, pet.”

The vampire whispered, “Wouldn’t you like to live forever?”

Rule 2a:

“Wouldn’t you like to live forever?” whispered the vampire.

“Get your hands off her!” the guard shouted.

Rule 2b:

“You’re mine, pet,” her Master declared.

“I got your letter,” said Joyce.

That’s it. Easy!

I hope this is helpful. If not, you might want to check out this link.


However, they have a lot more rules than I do!

And feel free to ask questions in the comments.

The Writer’s Toolbox: Dialogue

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

I’ve written about dialogue before on this blog, but it seems an important enough topic that I wanted to give it another go.

The Functions of Dialogue

An author has many techniques and tools available to help her tell her story. One of the most useful is dialogue. Dialogue is the literal speech of characters, often in conversation with one another.

Example A

Louisa asked me what I planned to do today. I replied with something non-committal.

Example B

What about today?” Louisa asked. “What are your plans?”

I’m really not sure. Depends on what I find when I check my email.”

Example A above is not dialogue. Even though it refers to characters’ speech, it does not include the actual words spoken, as provided by Example B.

Dialogue supports story telling in a variety of important ways. First of all, dialogue reveals the nature of characters. The words that the characters choose can convey information about the characters’ emotional state, educational level, ethnicity, and style of interaction. Also, dialogue can clarify the relationships between characters. Are they intimates or casual acquaintances? Is there a power differential, e.g. between an employer and an employee, or a royal and his servant? Consider the following variants on Example B.

Example C

What about today?” Louisa asked. “What are your plans?”

Dunno. Depends.”

Example D

What are your plans for today, sir? Will you be needing me?”

I’m not sure, Louisa. Perhaps. I’ll ring if I require your assistance.”

In Example C, we can surmise that the second speaker is close to Louisa, given his informal grammar. He might also be a surly teenager! Example D makes it obvious that the second speaker is in some sense the master, and the first is his subordinate.

Dialogue can also be used to advance the action in your story. Well-crafted dialogue can substitute for describing what the characters are doing.

Example E

Quick! The ceiling’s on fire! It could collapse at any moment!”

If I can just get this damn window open – argh, it’s stuck – wait, it’s moving – there! Come on, I’ll give you a boost!”

Example E (hopefully) makes the characters actions clear while also revealing something about their emotional state.

Finally, dialogue can inform your reader about backstory or reveal information that is essential for the plot.

Example F

We found an empty gasoline can in the back yard, and half a dozen burnt kitchen matches. Must have been arson.”

I’ll bet that it was Henry Jones. He’s had it in for me ever since Joyce chose to marry me instead of him.”

As the author, I could have described the first speaker’s actions in finding the evidence. Perhaps I could have introduced the envious Henry earlier and explained his history. However, using dialogue I can convey this information while also giving the reader some sense of the characters’ personalities and styles.

In all the examples above, I have presented only the characters’ words, along with the occasional speech tag (see below). It is quite common, though, to intersperse speech with descriptions of actions or emotions:

Example G

Charanjit came to the door as Benton sat eating the last of his sweet rice, sometime around noon. “We are ready to roll, my friend.” His clothes were soaked from head to toe and his puttees were spattered with mud, but his smile was cheerful. “The radiator is fixed.”

Good.” Benson smiled back. “I owe you for last night.”

Charanjit cocked his head. “It is nothing. Only a trip to Darwha – you have already paid for the radiator.”

Benton chuckled. “No, not that. I was talking about the woman. You’ll have to tell me what I owe you—whatever you paid, it was not enough. She was very fine.”

Charanjit frowned. “What woman, Joseph? I did not pay for a woman.”

(from “Monsoon”, by Arinn Dembo, Best Fantastic Erotica, Circlet Press 2007)

Example G uses dialogue to convey plot information and character relationships, but relies on physical description (smiled, cocked his head, frowned, etc.) to explicate the characters’ emotions.

It is perfectly possible to write a story without any dialogue at all. At the same time, I have read stories which were dialogue only. The entire background, plot and character development were all communicated by what the characters were saying. As an author, you need to decide how to best use dialogue in your writing. However, there are several pitfalls in using dialogue of which you should be aware.

Common Problems with Dialogue

Punctuating Dialogue

Dialogue should always appear inside quotation marks. In American English, the text of the character’s speech should be enclosed in double quotes “like this”. Some publishers who use British English specify that speech should be enclosed in single quotes instead, ‘like this’. In either case, a reference to someone else’s speech inside a quotation should use the opposite style of quotation mark. For example:

Example H

“It wasn’t John F. Kennedy who said ‘I have a dream’. It was Martin Luther King,” Robert insisted.

(American English style)

Many authors are unsure of how to punctuate dialogue when it includes so-called speech tags such as I said or Robert insisted. The general rule is that the punctuation of the sentence being spoken goes inside the quotation marks. Futhermore, instead of using a period to punctuate a statement, one should use a comma (as shown in Example H). This is only true when the quoted speech is followed by a speech tag. Example J below shows the correct American English punctuation for statements, questions and exclamations, with and without speech tags.

Example J

“Dialogue is easy,” Mary said. “It’s creating a plot that is difficult.”

“How can I tell whether to use dialogue or not?” asked Jim. “Can you explain?”

“Easy!” exclaimed Mary. “Can you hear the characters talking in your head? If so, use dialogue!”


When a character has particular ethnic or social background, it’s tempting to try to indicate this in his dialogue by using non-standard or phonetic spellings.

Example K

“Youse guys are dead meat,” threatened Joe. “Yer not gettin’ away from me this time.”

“Y’all sher gave me a start. I hain’t seen anythin so black in a week a Sundays.”

“Sher, and she’s a wee bairn.”

Used judiciously, dialect, and especially regional vocabulary or idioms, can enhance your dialogue, making it more colorful and expressive. Most editors, however, frown on non-standard spellings like the ones employed in Example K. Instead of distorting the spelling of words, you can use typical cadence of speech from a particular ethnic group as well as distinctive expletives or expressions. Be careful, too, in using foreign terms or words that are likely to be unfamiliar to your readers (like “bairn”, above). This can be a particular problem with historical fiction. You need to consider whether the context will be sufficient to clarify the meaning. When in doubt, it is better to use common or standard words then to employ a special term that might confuse or confound your readers.

Conversational versus Formal Style

One of my personal problems when I began writing was that my dialogue was far too formal. My characters all spoke in full sentences and rarely if ever used contractions. In fact, except in special circumstances (such as public speeches), people tend to use much more informal language in speech than in writing. Sentence fragments are common, as is slang and contractions. Interjections (words like “Hey!”, “Huh?”, “Um…”) are interspersed with content and help to convey emotion. My early dialogue sounded stiff and unnatural, and all my characters talked as though they had PhDs.

A strategy for making dialogue more natural is to try reading it aloud. Do your characters sound realistic? Do they interrupt themselves? Do they express emotion as well as information?

Improving your dialogue

Learning to write realistic dialogue takes practice. Listening can help. Tune in and eavesdrop on the conversations you might overhear on the bus or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Then, when you sit down to write your own dialogue, try to listen to your characters. Imagine them speaking. Hear them in the your head.

Another great way to practice is to write all-dialogue Flashers. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a flasher is an entire story in only two hundred (or some people say, one hundred!) words. That’s tough to do – but it becomes even more of a challenge if you try to use only conversation to push the plot forward.

Sundays in the Storytime email list are dedicated to flashers (and poems). If you’d like to see how it’s done, or try your hand yourself, you can join the Storytime list here.

Meanwhile, I’ll end with an all dialogue flasher I wrote a few years ago. It’s particularly appropriate since I’m currently immersed in a steam punk erotica WIP!


By Lisabet Sarai

Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”


Say What?

This book had a great variety of terrific sex scenes, but the author cannot write dialogue to save her life. They all end up sounding like wooden Indians.” ~ J. Mullally

The quote above comes from an Amazon review of my second novel, Incognito, published in 2002. Needless to say, the comment made me cringe, but I have to admit that when I started publishing, dialogue was definitely a weak spot for me.

Before diving into fiction, I’d written a lot of technical material: research papers, product specifications, user manuals, and a five-hundred page dissertation. I knew how to convey ideas in an articulate and logical manner, but I really had very little experience capturing the nuances of human conversation. Read some of my early dialogue and you’ll see the effects of my formal background.

* * *

Miranda, I would like to present Mark Anderson, our new lecturer. Mark will be handling the Dickens course for the summer session.”

Mark, this is Miranda Cahill, my most promising graduate student.” Miranda blushed, and Dr. Scofield’s eyes twinkled. “Miranda has chosen a rather controversial topic for her thesis: a new interpretation of the corpus of Victorian erotica.”

The newcomer’s polite smile expanded to a grin. “Really! That’s fascinating. Sounds far more—stimulating—than my dissertation on the metaphorical significance of orphans in Dickens and his contemporaries.”

Miranda’s blush deepened as she noted the double entendre. She met his teasing gaze, almost defiantly. “Yes, it is an intriguing topic, and I believe one of considerable literary and social significance, as well.” He had thick, dark hair, slightly tousled. His eyes behind the glasses were velvety brown with glints of gold. In his face, she saw intelligence, energy, and humor.

Miranda has championed an unusual theory: that the explosion of sexually-oriented writing during the latter half of the nineteenth century was a reflection of actual practices, rather than a reaction against repressive public morals.” Her advisor appeared to be enjoying the role of agent provocateur. “She believes that the detailed accounts of sexual adventure and aberration published during the era chronicled real experiences, not merely fantasies.”

Hmm.” Their bespectacled companion looked both amused and interested. “What evidence do you have to support this proposition?”

Well, to begin with,” said Miranda, automatically adopting an academic tone, “a significant fraction of these writings are first person accounts. And a surprising number are related from a woman’s perspective. If this were primarily a literature of fantasy and titillation, I would expect a male point-of-view to dominate, as it does in modern pornography.” Miranda was encouraged to see that her audience listened attentively and gave due consideration to her points.

Secondly, these tales are full of real-world details and commentary that would be superfluous and even distracting in fictional erotica. The protagonists discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse, oppression of the lower classes, things that can only detract from a work intended as escapist fantasy. Even a hack pornographer knows better than to mention the unpleasant or the mundane: illegitimate pregnancies, unpaid bills, rising damp. Yet references to such items are common in the corpus.”

Finally, I find in many of these writings a thoughtfulness that conflicts with the conventions of the pornographic genre. The narrators are engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities, which are described in vivid and provocative detail. At the same time, in many cases, they reflect on their own desires and behaviors, sometimes justifying themselves in the face of the official morality, sometimes castigating themselves for weakness and sinfulness. Either way, there is a psychological depth that would be redundant in fictional erotica.”

So, what you are saying,” interposed Mark with a grin, “is that a fictional character would simply go ahead and bugger his maid, whereas an individual writing a clandestine diary would spend some time and effort wondering why he wanted to bugger his maid, before he got around to actually doing it?”

No, no, that’s not it at all!” Miranda, embarrassed and flustered, wondered if the new instructor had been reading her manuscript over her shoulder. Her eyes flashed. “You’re not willing to take me seriously, any more than the submission review committee for the Association for Modern Literature!”

Now, Miranda,” soothed her advisor. “Mark was just teasing you.” Looking again at the attractive stranger, Miranda saw that Scofield was telling the truth.

Sorry, I really didn’t mean to offend you, Miranda.” Mark held out his hand like a peace offering. “I really am delighted to meet you. I think your theory is unconventional and provocative, but who knows, it might actually be true.”

* * *

As it happens, these characters are all academics (as I had been for such a long time), but still, their formality sounds artificial.

In my first books, people spoke in full sentences most of the time. They didn’t use contractions. They never interrupted one another. Furthermore, they used each other’s names so frequently that one might wonder whether they were trying to reinforce their faulty memories.

Fortunately I was more adept at writing sex scenes than dialogue, or I might never have found any readers!

The problem is that dialogue can play multiple, critical roles in a narrative. It reveals character— immediate emotions and concerns as well as more persistent aspects such as class and ethnicity. Dialogue also advances the action; indeed, speech is action, and an entire plot can turn on a conversation. Conversations can also inform the reader about history or backstory, in a more subtle and less disruptive manner than unadorned exposition. Thus, poor dialogue can be more than just an annoyance. It can ruin an entire book.

I joined ERWA in 2000, not long before I wrote this novel. Since then, I’ve participated in Storytime and Writers, written nearly a hundred stories and edited a number of anthologies. ERWA has exposed me to authors who are true doyens of dialogue, especially Bob Buckley, Daddy X, and more recently, Belinda LaPage.

My characters’ conversations still can’t begin to match some of what I read, but I know I’ve improved quite a bit. I now understand that in order to write dialogue successfully, you have to hear the characters in your head. How can you get to the point where your characters talk to you? By reading effective dialogue by other people, and by listening to people actually talking.

If you listen to real world conversations, you’ll recognize that they’re very “messy”. People rarely speak in full sentences. They sprinkle their dialogue with exclamations, “ums” and “ohs”, filling the space while they thing about what to say next. They start one utterance then interrupt themselves to express a totally different thought. They interrupt the other speakers too. Because the partners in a conversation have a shared context, one or two words can convey meaning without ambiguity. Of course, one partner can easily misunderstand this sort of abbreviated utterance, also.

People make grammar errors, too. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to let my characters do that! Between my education and my experience editing, I have finely tuned detectors for faux pas like dangling participles, tense errors, incorrect pronouns and word misuse. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what dialogue needs, to make a character seem real.

One useful exercise, I’ve found, is writing all-dialogue flashers. I learned how to do that from Daddy X, “the master of flash”. A flasher tells a complete story in 200 words or less. Trying to do this in dialogue is a fabulous challenge. You need to convey the characters, their relationships, and their actions, without any description at all (and ideally, without speak tags). I can’t begin to match Daddy’s expertise in the genre, but here’s an example that illustrates the technique:


By Lisabet Sarai

Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”

* * *

Then there’s the question of dialect, that is, using speech characteristics to convey nationality, race, social class and so on. Robert Buckley does this incredibly well. Whether his setting is Irish Boston or the Civil War South, his characters talk like natives.

I’ve mostly avoided dialect in my work. It’s really easy to overdo, and can make your dialogue difficult to read and understand. Recently, though, for my novella More Brides in Vegas, I had to create a character who spoke with a very strong dialect – for the sake of my plot and for comic effect. I sought out a lot of help from ERWA folk on this one, in particular from a member whose father came from Glasgow:

* * *

A gruff, male, almost unintelligible voice interrupted her.

I wannae see the hoatel manager. Where’s the fookin’ manager, you little eejit?”

A giant of a man with a barrel chest and legs like telephone poles strode into the courtyard from the direction of the hotel lobby, dragging a skinny college-age boy with him. The kid—Chantal remembered she’d seen him behind the hotel desk when she’d picked up her key—cringed and silently pointed in Nan’s direction.

Gawn! D’ye think ahm buttoned up the back? That nekkid dyke?”

Cool as anything, as self-assured as if she’d been wearing a designer suit instead of a strap-on, Nan rose to her feet and confronted the newcomer. Though she was at least a foot shorter, the obviously angry man paused when confronted by her natural authority

I’m Nan Anderson, general manager of the Holiday House,” she said. “I’ll thank you to let Michael go.”

He glared at her from under bushy ginger brows. Nan didn’t flinch in the slightest.

Now, please. He’s just a part-time clerk. Whatever your difficulty, I’ll take care of it.”

He opened his ham-sized hand. Poor Michael almost crumpled to the floor.

Get back to the desk, Mike. I’ll handle this.”

The young man scuttled away.

Now, sir,” she continued, her voice cool and professional despite her nudity. “What’s the problem?”

Thae gormless tool said yer fool for the weeken’.” The foreigner scowled and waved a sheet of paper in her face. “Me an’ me mates booked an’ paid. Ye dinnae think we’re gonnae come all thae way to America fer a ternamen’ but nae reserve our rooms, did ye?”

Can I see that, please?” Nan scrutinized what was obviously a printout from some website. “I have to admit the dates match. But we’re closed for a private event this weekend. We blocked out the rooms more than three months ago. I don’t know why the booking site—”

Ah dinnae ken an’ ah dinnae cerr. Me an’ me chaps need beds. Been on a fookin’ plane for ferteen hours.”

Um—how many are in your group?”

The angry customer shook his head. “Aye, but yer stoopit, lass. Who doesnae know thae a rugby team’s fifteen men?”

Rugby?” Nan looked him up and down, as if that explained his stature. “Oh!”

The guy broke into a grin. “Glassgow Gladiators. City champs.”

And you are?”

He gave a little bow. “Ian Stuart, team captain. At yer service.”

* * *

I will admit, I’m quite proud of this bit. It’s encouraging to see I’ve learned something in more than fifteen years of writing.

At least he doesn’t sound like a wooden Indian.

What You Say? Using Dialogue to Strengthen Your Stories

By Lisabet Sarai

It may be a bit presumptuous for me to write a craft-focused article about dialogue. Creating engaging, lively, believable conversations has never been one of my strong points. I did a major revision of my first novel a few months ago. I found the dialogue I wrote back in 1999 to be truly cringe-worthy. All the characters speak in full sentences, rarely employing contractions. They use each other’s names far more frequently than people do in real life. There are no pauses, no hesitations, no interruptions. As a result, the dialogue feels stiff, awkward and unrealistic.

I’ve learned a great deal since then, however. Some reviewers of my most recent novel, The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, have explicitly commented on the authenticity of the interactions between my hero and heroine. I’ve become far more conscious of the entire issue of dialogue, and more aware of my own weaknesses. In addition, I’ve come to understand the important roles dialogue can play in strengthening the story as a whole.

Dialogue can reveal and develop your characters.

Your readers learn a great deal about a character from what she says, as well as how she says it. Speech reveals education level, cultural background, and mood, in addition to shining light on the relationship between the partners in a conversation. What sort of vocabulary and sentence structure does the character use? What level of formality? How long are the typical sentences? Are there profanities expletives, emotional outbursts? Endearments? What about words and phrases like “maybe”, “in my opinion”, “you might not agree but” that indicate a power differential or a lack of confidence?

Here’s an example from “Fortune’s Fool”, by Robert Buckley (who is an absolute master of dialogue):

“Oh, Maleek, oh, can you do me a big favor, Oh, please, please, please …?”

“Tianna, baby, I’m on my break and I’ve done all the favors I’m doing for you for one week.”

She grabbed his meaty arm and nuzzled her delicate chin in the hollow of his massive biceps. “Oh, Maleek, honey, just this one favor?”

Damn, she’s good, I thought. Poor Maleek didn’t stand a chance.

“Ain’t no such thing as one favor with you, Tianna. Okay, what you want?”

“Take this guy up to CT scan for me so I can go see Terry Hanchuck.”

Maleek made a face and whined, “Oh, what you want to bother with that chump for?”

Tianna just smiled, her green eyes gleaming. Maleek just shrugged his shoulders, took hold of the gurney and guided it and its passenger onto the elevator as Tianna bolted away like a fawn.

Now Maleek was muttering under his breath.

“You hear anything about Hanchuck?” I asked him.

“Huh? Ah, well, sir, a friend told me his arm’s broken in four places. Looks like his career might be finished.”

“I guess he shouldn’t have disrespected Mr. Bubba Washington.”

Maleek’s face broadened into the widest smile I could imagine on a human. “Damn,” he said, “I thought I was the only one who thought like that in this town.”

“Serves the prick right,” I said. “Maybe he’ll have to get a real job now, like cleaning out pay toilets.”

Maleek’s smile became even broader and brighter. When we got to CT scan he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Be cool, man.”

After reading this snippet, I’ll bet you can tell me quite a bit about Tianna’s, Maleek’s and the narrator’s ethnicity, power relations, and personality. Tianna and Maleek are minor characters, but the effective dialogue brings them to life.

Dialogue can reveal history and advance the plot.

Novice authors have a tendency to write long passages of description or back story, which interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. Dialogue provides an effective alternative. Characters can mention past events as part of a conversation, seamlessly weaving back story into the current action. They can also comment on the environment or the appearance of another character, helping readers to visualize what’s going on in a more natural and integrated way.

Furthermore, speech is action. Conversations can generate or resolve conflicts, changing relationships or exposing secrets. Here’s an example from the story “El Pimientero”, by C. Sanchez-Garcia:

I picked up the pepper grinder and ran my finger over the black signature scrawled on the bottom. I am looking, I said to myself, with knowledge, at the autograph of a man who knows what she looks like naked. A man who has had his dick in her. A man who has fucked her. And then I knew who he was—who he really was.

“Doña , tell me about your first time.”

She began dropping pieces of okra into the oil. She stirred them with a fork.

“May I know?”

“I suppose.” She glanced at me sideways. “But only because it’s you. It’s between us.”

“How old were you?”

“Younger than you.”

“How did it happen?”

She watched the okra frying for a moment, then put down the fork. “In my father’s house.”

“Tell me please. What was it like?”

“We had a guest. He had been a friend of my father’s for many years. He was working in the movies, but he wasn’t famous then, not yet. But you knew he would be. His name was Gabriel.”

“He made love to you? How?”

“In the kitchen, just like this.”

“A kitchen?”

She put down the fork and leaned a little on the stove, looking me over, that wicked twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t think people fuck each other in the kitchen? The kitchen is a good place to fuck.”

The story of Doña Soledad’s first lover helps the reader to understand who she is and why she behaves as she does. It also foreshadows her encounter with the much younger narrator.

Dialogue can hook the reader.

I really admire authors who can write “snappy” dialogue—conversations that are more than realistic, conversations that make me laugh or yearn, that make me want to read more. Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series, has this skill. I am seriously jealous.

Recently I hosted romance author Amy Armstrong at my blog. The excerpt she provided, from her paranormal novella A Hellhound in Hollywood, was so lively and funny that I went out and bought a copy of the book. I rarely do that. But she had me hooked. Here’s an example:

“You wouldn’t shoot me,” he said smugly, briefly glancing at the gun, his mouth twisting into a smirk. “And what’s more, you couldn’t.”

Now see? That pissed me off and I forgot about the instant attraction I felt toward him.

“Oh, I could,” I assured him. “And each time you open your mouth, it gets more and more likely that I will.”

He chuckled again, and this time, able to see the movement on his lips as well as hear the sound, produced an even stronger reaction in me. Arousal flooded my system. The masculinity that oozed out of him caused my pulse to accelerate and I was pretty sure my heart was trying

to beat its way out of my chest.

“You couldn’t,” he repeated. “You want to know why?”

I gritted my teeth. “Humor me.”

“Because the safety is on, and even if you did somehow get it off before I managed to get the gun out of your hand, you wouldn’t risk losing your job by shooting a fellow hunter.”

“A fellow…what?” I cocked my head to one side and lowered the gun a little. “You’re kidding me.”

I was usually great at sniffing out a lie, but I didn’t detect one.

That was a relief. For some strange reason, I didn’t want this beautiful man to turn out to be a liar. Arrogant jerk was bad enough.

A grin was his only reply—a really sexy grin—but I pretended not to notice it and continued to scowl at him.

“How do you know I’m a hunter?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Only hunters hang around in alleyways in the dead of night.”


“Or hookers,” he mused.

I was so furious that my glare, already frosty, must have turned glacial.

“Drug addicts or…”

“Okay, I get it. I get it. Good call.”

“Besides, you’re carrying a stake.”

I really wish I could write dialogue that could sell books with a single excerpt!

How can you write effective dialogue?

So here I am, five pages into this essay, and finally getting to the meat of my topic! I wish I could say I knew the secret to writing great conversations, like the ones I’ve quoted. However, all I can offer are some general recommendations, based on my own experience.

Listen to the way people really talk. Listen to people on the street, people on the radio, on TV and in the movies. Eavesdrop in coffee shops. Pay attention to the rhythm of real speech. Try to internalize it. I’ve found that my best dialogue comes when I “hear” my characters in my head and transcribe their conversations.

Allow your characters to pause and to interrupt one another. Real conversations are messy things. You don’t want to transcribe every “uh” and “um”, but used judiciously, this sort of expression can make your dialogue more realistic.

Avoid dialect, especially if it requires non-standard spellings or excessive contractions. To capture ethnicity, use word choice or word order. For instance, Bob Buckley’s excerpt suggests that Maleek is probably a black man without a lot of formal education, without using a single bit of dialect.

Use speech tags sparingly. The question of speech tags (“he said”, “she said”) is to some extent a matter of style. There are some cases where they’re essential, in order to clarify the identify of the speaker. A conversation where every utterance is attributed, though, starts to feel unnatural.

Use other actions to break up speech. All the examples I’ve cited do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Remember that people don’t usually just sit there talking. They do other things as they’re conversing, and frequently what they do, or the manner in which they do it, reveals additional details about the character’s state of mind.

On the other hand, composing dialogue-only flashers can be a great way to hone your skills in writing speech. Can you create a two-hundred word story that includes no speech tags, no action, nothing but quotations?

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from this type of exercise. Here’s a recent example—not exactly realistic, perhaps, but I think it clearly distinguishes between the characters, as well as explicating the plot!


By Lisabet Sarai

“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”

 Until next month…!

Letting My Characters Lead

By Lisabet Sarai

My ninth novel comes out next week. I am, of course, excited. Publishing a new book is a bit like giving birth, without as much pain. I’m eager to find out what the world thinks about my new baby. My beta readers and my editor have been unabashedly enthusiastic. I can only hope the general reading public—okay, the few hundred of them that I manage to reach via my hit-or-miss marketing!—feel the same.

I’m particularly curious to discover whether this book (The Gazillionaire and the Virgin) is more successful than my previous work because this is the first novel I’ve written using the Character-driven Random Walk Method. When I began writing, all I had was a title and the two main characters (reflected in the title), Rachel and Theo. I really had no idea what they’d do, other than having sex and falling in love.

I did know this was going to be an erotic romance. In fact, although the book deliberately shreds romance stereotypes, it preserves the essential core of romance, namely, the characters’ journey toward a loving relationship. So I understood there had to be obstacles or conflicts that would stand in the way of the happy ending. At the start, though, I couldn’t have told you the nature of those obstacles. I didn’t plan. I didn’t outline. That’s not like me at all! I simply sat down at my computer, invoked Rachel and Theo, and let them interact. I can’t say I heard voices in my head, the way some other authors claim, but at each point in the plot, the focus character in some sense decided what would happen next.

I’d expected the book would be 20K at most. As I let Rachel and Theo lead me deeper into their story, I discovered I was wrong. They did not want to be rushed. It took four chapters for them to get to their first erotic encounter. The revelation that they shared kinky interests took another four. By the time I reached the book’s climax, the events that tear them apart, I had more or less figured out how they’d reconcile, but I couldn’t make them follow my script. Theo turned out to be far more stubborn than I would have guessed. Fortunately, Rachel’s imagination came to the rescue. Still, every time I sat down to write what I thought would be the final chapter (as I discussed last month), I’d come to realize there was yet another one needed.

When I finally wrote “The End”, I was seriously relieved. I wasn’t sure Rachel and Theo would ever let me finish their story!

So what were the results of this exercise? (Because I really do want this blog to discuss craft issues.) How does this book compare to those I’ve written using my usual technique, the TV Serial Method?

1. There’s not much plot

Don’t get me wrong. Gazillionaire is not boring (at least I don’t think it is). Things do happen in the external world. However, compared to my other novels, this book is far less “plot heavy”. My eighth novel, for instance, includes mistaken identity, kidnapping by an international crime syndicate, disguises and deception, infiltration into the bad guy’s headquarters, and a rescue involving a bloody shoot-out—as well as the usual intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, spanking and so on. My seventh novel includes abduction, secret agents, self-powered bondage devices, mysterious energy sources, exotic Asian ceremonies, a curse and the ritual to reverse it, along with plenty of kinky sex. Even my first novel had a plot trail involving industrial espionage.

In this novel, by contrast, the most significant events are those that change the protagonists’ feelings for one another. Indeed, there are very few secondary characters, compared to my other books. There’s enough movement to keep things interesting (I hope), but far less world building than I usually do.

2. Dialogue propels the book forward

The story is narrated in the first person present, alternating between the two main characters. Thus, we do get some insight into each of the characters’ thoughts. However, a significant part of the “action” is actually dialogue. Conversations between the two protagonists not only reveal their natures, but also cause real world changes.

I recently re-edited my first novel, written sixteen years ago, for a re-release. I improved the dialogue, but I couldn’t help noticing how stilted and wooden it remained, at least in comparison to the interactions I write now. I said earlier I didn’t hear voices when writing this book, but when it comes to conversations, that’s not strictly true. As these characters talked to one another, I wrote down what they said. The results feel much more real than any dialogue I’ve written previously.

3. The characters change

In any novel-length work, the characters have to develop and grow. If they have the same attitudes, beliefs and behaviors at the end of the book as they do at the start, the book will be neither engaging nor plausible.

However, Theo and Rachel change far more than any characters I’ve written previously, as a direct result of their interactions. Naive and socially awkward at the start, Theo matures into a genuine hero. Stubborn, bossy Rachel softens and becomes more flexible as she lets down her guard and opens herself to love. Their relationship involves more than just incredible sexual chemistry and complementary kinks. Each gradually brings out the best in the other.

Would I use this method again?

I didn’t consciously choose to use the Character-driven Random Walk method for this book. It just sort of happened. I do think that the method requires a very clear initial notion of just who your characters are. When I start a book, that’s not always the case. Many of the novel-writing methods I’ve outlined involve character discovery in the process of writing (but not, I think, the Dissertation Method or the Snowflake Method). My understanding of Rachel and Theo deepened while I was writing, but I had a strong sense of their essential characteristics before I began.

I found it was more difficult to make progress using this method. As I’ve mentioned, my plans didn’t always match those dictated by the characters. I’d often come away from a writing session frustrated that I hadn’t moved further along in my quest toward an ending.

At the same time, I’m very pleased with the result. Despite the lack of an outline, the book feels very “tight” to me. I managed to link a lot of the early details into the ending in a rather elegant fashion, I think. (These were suggestions from the characters.) And I feel that I accomplished my objective, writing a book that was both classic romance and anti-romance (in the sense that it breaks a lot of rules).

I do believe that we authors can grow through experimenting with new techniques, as well as new genres. The last thing I want is for all my books to feel and sound the same. People who’ve read my other novels will find The Gazillionaire and the Virgin a significant change. I hope they view that as positive.

Stepping Outside Yourself

A couple of weeks ago, Jean Roberta wrote a marvelous post on what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk and act as editor. It got me thinking about some specific aspects of how I teach writing in class, and the flaws I see on a fairly frequent basis in the writing of even well published authors.

I’ve bemoaned the demise of the old-style editor before. When I hear accounts of writers being edited today by editors at their publishing houses, I find it sort of chilling. There was a time when every manuscript submitted to an agent or a publisher was considered to be ‘in the raw’. There was an understanding that each piece of creative writing could benefit from a good, stern editor. But in those days, editors weren’t proof readers or line editors; they were more like distillers of fine perfume, taking fresh, recent blooms and turning them into rare essences. They were often writers themselves who had subsumed their own aspirations in order to make other people’s writing better.  But most of all they were readers. They could spot the difference between a brave stylistic approach and a mistake a mile off. To have this kind of regard – love, even – for another’s work is an unusual calling.

Those days are, for the most part, over. If you want your writing (not just your spelling or your grammar) to be good, you’re going to have to do the bulk of this work yourself.  A considerable amount of it you can simply avoid at the outset, by interrogating your plan before you start writing.  Some of it you need to do after you have finished the work and have allowed it to sit for a while, once you have some distance from it.

Different editors have different hot buttons.  I have two major ones: unbelievable characters and bad dialogue.

People will often say that you should separate yourself from your writing. That a bad review is not a bad review of you, but of the work. The difficulty with both the problems above is that they can sometimes point to the psychology of the writer, rather than a flaw in the writing. These are dangerous waters, but fertile, also.

Let us be honest, all the characters we write are, in some small way, part of us.  Just by virtue of the fact that we create them, this must be true.  There’s no use saying this is bad practice and we should stop it.  It does help if you are writing, for example, main characters with a gender different to your own, or a large age gap, but not much. We invest ourselves into our characters like Geppetto breathed life into Pinocchio. We can’t write living characters unless we imbue them with our lifeforce, but if we invest too much in them, we impede their potential to be ‘all that they can be’ and we are reticent to see them put at the kind of external and internal risk that makes for really good conflict in a story.

One of the first exercises I give to my writing students is designed to allow them the pleasure of writing themselves as characters. I ask them to write a portrait of a character who could easily be them.  Go to town on it, I say. Give your character all the attributes you think you have, wish you had, or hope you have. Make them beautiful, sexy, clever, agile, strong, virile, courageous, rich, etc.

Now think of the most awful, most humiliating, most unfair or tragic thing that could happen to them. They could lose all their hair overnight. They could find out they have HIV. They could suffer from a bout of explosive diarrhea at the dinner table in front of their date. Whatever it is you most fear, take your character there and put them through it.

Next, write a scene in which your character willingly, consciously does something absolutely reprehensible to you.  Make them steal, lie, cheat, sell themselves on the street for $20.  Whatever it is you think would be the worst thing that you could do in life, put your character there and make them do it. Don’t make it something they have no choice about – don’t allow them to be the innocent victims of circumstance. Write them doing it willingly.

These are some of the hardest pieces of writing my students ever do.  You cannot imagine how violently they balk.  Well, in fact, if you try these exercises, you probably will. And if you find this easy to do, then you probably didn’t need to do the exercises.  But I will bet most of you will find it very hard. I know I do – I always do.

But once you’ve done it the first time, you never forget how to get yourself over the hump of reticence to really put your character at risk. You know you’ve done it and can do it again. And every new beloved character you create will be freer to be what they need to be in your story afterwards.

The other big problem for me is dialogue. I read a lot of stilted, unnatural dialogue, and not just in my student work. I find it lurking in places it has no business being: between the covers of books published by some of the biggest and most prestigious publishing houses in the world.

Bad dialogue is written by people who don’t listen.  I have noticed that as writers grow older, usually, their dialogue gets much better. Steven King used to write atrocious dialogue. So did William Gibson. Now, both those authors write wonderful, vibrant, realistic interchanges between their characters.

The cure for this is eavesdropping.  Get yourself to a place where you can overhear conversations and listen, and watch. It’s not helpful to do this in social situations where you know most of the people there. Because our prior knowledge and our relationships can deeply interfere with our objectivity. So, public spaces with a lot of strangers is the best option. Coffee shops and quiet bars are good because people often go there for the express purpose of talking. Notice how we speak to each other. Notice how, the closer we are to our conversation partner, the more telegraphic and abbreviated the sentences become. Notice how people establish their social position by what they say and how they say it. Notice how people put ‘spin’ on the ideas and opinions they’re trying to promote.

The second part of the exercise is observation. And for this, you need to be able to put yourself somewhere you can stare at people. Which is why I love airports. People are stuck there for hours. Everyone is people-watching.

A great deal of our communication is nonverbal. Watch interactions between people. Look at the space they make or close between themselves and others. Look at the way they tilt their heads, nod encouragements to continue, apologize. Departure areas and arrival areas are interesting, too. How people say goodbye, how they meet. Not just what they say, but how their bodies speak. Those meetings and partings are hardly ever the cliched tearful farewells or ecstatic embraces of welcome you expect. I once saw a woman say goodbye to her departing husband at the entrance to the international departure area. All her gestures to him were exactly what you’d expect, but the minute he walked through the doors, the relief on her face and in her body was shockingly obvious. And I’m sure you can guess just how fertile my mind grew after seeing that.

Finally – this is the hardest one – take a trip down memory lane to the most painful interchanges you’ve ever had with others. Force yourself past what you felt, to get to what you heard, and then to what was actually said. What words, inflections, gestures triggered the most discomfort in you? There is a clear mechanism at work there. You need to find it. You need to discover how word-choice, inflection, context and back-story fed into the ways that you were vulnerable to those interchanges. Words can open us up, but they can also close us down.

Both these sets of exercises may help to make your writing better, truer and stronger. Both involve a significant amount of self-examination and there is undoubtedly going to be discomfort.  But I’m a firm believer that good writing is seldom painless.  In fact, I have a theory about the link between masochism and good writing, but that’s another post.

Writing Exercise – Dialogue

By Ashley Lister

My wife informs me there are four types of orgasm.
The Positive Orgasm, characterised by the exclamation, “Oh! Yes!  Oh! Yes!”
The Negative Orgasm, suggested by cries of, “Oh! No!  Oh! No!”
The Religious Orgasm, identified by exclamations such as “Jesus!  God! Jesus!” and the Fake Orgasm, typified by the words, “Oh! Ashley!”

Dialogue in fiction serves three main functions:

  • Dialogue advances plot.
  • Dialogue demonstrates character.
  • Dialogue shows relationships.

Dialogue is one of the main challenges that needs to be mastered for anyone wishing to write credible erotic fiction.  Connoisseurs of pornography repeatedly complain of unconvincing conversations and asinine interjections
spoiling the ambience of sexually explicit material.  Editors of erotica frequently bemoan the monological exchanges typified by banal exclamatories in erotic scenes.  No one expects the fictional participants of a sexually explicit encounter to exchange pithy views on Keats or Kierkegaard.  Yet most readers would prefer characters who can say something more insightful than, “Yeah, baby,” or “Oh! No!” or even “Oh! Ashley!”

It’s worth noting here that the current vogue in writing stands against the overuse of speech tags and modifiers in dialogue.  Whilst it is occasionally helpful to say, John complained; Jane asked; he stammered; or she exclaimed (etc), it is acknowledged that these verbs should be redundant if the dialogue has been well-crafted and is fulfilling its function correctly.

Consider the following:

Text 1

“What are you telling me?” John demanded.

Jane glared at him.  “I’m telling you that it’s over,” she bawled.

“It’s-” he began.

“Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is,” she interrupted.

He shook his head.  “I’m not making anything diff-”

She didn’t let him finish the words.  “Goodbye, John,” she said finally.

Text 2

“What are you telling me?”

“I’m telling you that it’s over.”


“Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”

“I’m not making anything diff-”

“Goodbye, John.”

The modifiers in Text 1 slow the pace of this exchange. In the first line, “What are you telling me?” John demanded, it can be argued that John demanded is redundant. John is asking an explicit question and these are not usually ‘whispered’ or ‘said huskily’ or ‘ muttered whimsically.’ The reader should be able to infer from the heated nature of this exchange’s opening that John is demanding an answer. Telling the reader this much borders on being too expository and writing beneath the readers’ abilities to understand the narrative.

Similarly, in lines 3 and 4, it can be seen that the modifiers are unnecessary.

“It’s-” he began.

“Don’t make this any more difficult than it
already is,” she interrupted.

Because the reader will understand that John has been interrupted – a fact implied by his single word utterance, ending in an abrupt en-dash – there is little need to tell the reader that John has been interrupted. This over-explaining carries connotations of the annoying tautology found in exchanges such as:

“Why don’t you smile?” asked Jane, urging John to smile.

“I am smiling,” said John, smiling.

Perhaps the most intrusive redundancy in Text 1 is the last line.

She didn’t let him finish the words.  “Goodbye, John,” she said finally.

All the previous arguments against overexposing the interruption can be applied to the first sentence in this line.  John’s previous utterance finished halfway through a word and ended with an abrupt en-dash.  Whatever Jane says after that is almost certainly an interruption.

The sentence could have effectively ended with Jane saying, “Goodbye, John.”  The final three words, ‘she said finally’ are unnecessary and potentially confusing. We already know that Jane is saying these words so there is no need for the author to tell us ‘she said’ them. We also know that they have been spoken at the end of the exchange so
there was no real need for the word ‘finally.’ In some ways this provides a dead-cat bounce: the initial impact of the statement being followed by an unneeded echo that does not offer the reader anything new and dilutes the finality of the original statement.  This is the author being overly indulgent at the expense of the story and the characters.
In this argument Jane should be given the last word but the author has taken that privilege away from her.

Having said all of the above, the conservative use of modifiers does help to ascertain the identity of the speaker.  Modifiers can also convey additional meaning that is not explicitly or implicitly present in the reported speech.  In line 2 of Text 1, the reader is shown that Jane glared at him.  This is necessary information for providing story detail.  Without this information the reader doesn’t know if Jane is avoiding eye-contact or fighting back tears of regret or shampooing her hair and considering a henna rinse.  Because no one glares at people when they are joking (or doing anything other than being part of a confrontation) the single verb is giving the reader a lot of detail about the vitriolic nature of this exchange.

As with all matters in creating enjoyable fiction, the onus is on the writer to present a clear and unambiguous text for the readers’ interpretation and entertainment. And, as with all erotic fiction, the essential point is to keep thinking about the reader with every word that’s written.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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