Tag Wrestling and writing dialogue? #ww exercise for #writers

This week I thought I’d offer up the writing exercise to a guest to direct. I put the call out on twitter and one lone wolf called back: Dan Holloway, author of: The Company of Fellows.

He offers us a writing exercise on dialogue. I hope you comment to let him know how much you enjoyed this week’s exercise, and as if a nifty exercise wasn’t enough, I am offering the gift of Four Years from Home by Larry Enright to a random commenter from the month.

 Tag Wrestling

There are things you’ll commonly hear when people talk about writing dialogue. And like every worthwhile lesson they’re both essential and utter rot. Never use anything but “said” and “asked” is the first, and it’s coupled with “use them sparingly if at all, and only so people don’t lose track.” And the second is a qualification of that “though you shouldn’t really need tags at all because each character should have their own distinctive voice.”

Super. And there are other great pieces of advice like “enter the conversation late and leave it early” and “make it realistic not real” and “don’t use dialogue for information dumps” and “dialogue gets you from one point in the scene arc to its goal”.

Super duper. Very true. Great. You’ve got the mechanics. Try telling your disgruntled lover the morning after “what are you complaining about, I’ve got the mechanics.”

So here’s the exercise. It’s about colour and sound. And taste, touch and smell I guess. Basically it’s about mood. Feel. You know the kind of thing – like those apps for cameras that make your photos look sepia, or soft focus.

I’m giving you a man and a woman in a cafe. We don’t know what they’re doing but we do know it’s 6pm and the man she’s with isn’t the woman’s husband but she’s going to be with her husband 8. and you’re going to write them three ways. You know, like those fancy meals. Like venison cooked three ways.

The cues you get are all mood cues. And they’re all based on movies. First up, think Vincent and Mia in Pulp Fiction (watch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HQh4YRw9H8). It’s hip, it’s slick, it’s hard-boiled. Next we have Brief Encounter (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hubyFqSUaGA), all propriety and repression and denial. And finally a masterclass from the one and only Juliette Binoche in Three Colours: Blue (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8R0RQ3F0hE), full of worldliness and flirtation and layering and menace.

And here’s the thing. I want you to have the characters have the exact same conversation (word for word if you can, but at least blow by blow the same subject). And I want you to make them as different as those three clips.

Prompt 1: it’s all about how you tag and POV the dialogue, because tagging is about so much more than telling us who said what. It’s about fell, mood, rhythm. How do you create a breath, a beat, a pause in dialogue? Throw in a “he said”. Take the following sentence:

“I always loved you but it wasn’t enough.”


She said, “I always loved you but it wasn’t enough.”

“I always loved you but it wasn’t enough,” she said

“I always loved you,” she said. “But it wasn’t enough.”

Three completely different rhythms. Three completely different lines of dialogue. But only because of the tags.

Prompt 2: Read your first conversation again. Now try omitting all quotation marks, writing it as a single sentence and splicing every piece of dialogue together with “and he said…and she said…and he said”. Go on. Let loose and try it. I dare you.

 Dan Holloway (http://danholloway.wordpress.com) is a writer and spoken word performer. He is the author of, amongst other things, The Company of Fellows (http://www.amazon.com/The-Company-of-Fellows/dp/B004PLMHYC), Black Heart High(http://www.amazon.com/Black-Heart-High-ebook/dp/B0053CPFDC), and Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Other-Side-Wall-ebook/dp/B003LN1UBG).

Feel free to comment below, paste your story, a line from your story, a complaint about the exercise, whatever…and get entered to win a copy of Four Years From Home by Larry Enright at the end of the month.

Now, go. Be creative if you can. Mwah ha ha


Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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Posted in writerwednesday exercises
8 comments on “Tag Wrestling and writing dialogue? #ww exercise for #writers
  1. Dialog’s never been one of my problems. Description–expositives, narratives–that’s my downfall. Why? Because expositives don’t have people interacting with the scene or each other. Expositves are the author lecturing to the reader, or at best, the protagonist examining his or her own navel.

    My greatest strength is and always has been characterizations and IMO the reason why is that my writing style is to be dialog-heavy. My dialog has always been tagged heavily, since I was about 16 and first discovered there WERE other ways to tag besides “saidisms” and adverbs. Now, at 50, I’ve been reverting to less choreography, less emotional content and less of ME in the dialog-tagging and wondering why my writing has lost that special lustre.

    Thanks so much for endorsing my natural style, Dan, though you didn’t even know it!

    • danholloway says:

      🙂 For me the best dialogue in the world is written by Cody James (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dead-Beat-ebook/dp/B004DL0MT6) and she is physicallly incapable of letting her fingers leave the keyboard unless she’s attached an adverb to every tag – but I’ve never read conversations so real. The occasional “he said” “she said” just doesn’t capture the rhythm of real conversation. Which is fine. There’s a place for everything, and most people overtag and put in adverbs that are wholly inappropriate. It’s a real case of doing it for the right reason

  2. danholloway says:

    YES, Robb – which just goes to show that tags needn’t simply be stark “s/he saids”. Weren’t we talking about that a few days ago…:) or me dialogue is all about mood and rhythm. It’s the literary equivalent of jazz I guess.

    Elly, give me a shout if there are any bits of dialogue in particular you want an eye on 🙂 Foucault’s Daughter is a seriously exciting thing

  3. RobbG says:

    Great stuff, Dan. And so true. The mechanics are essential, but use the mechanics while going with the feel, the flow, the mood (I am still talking about dialog here). And for one more example on your example:

    “I always loved you.” She spun her wedding ring round and round on her finger, then glanced toward the door. “But it wasn’t enough.”

    • I’m sure Dan will chime in very soon again, but I wanted to thank you for stopping by the blog RobbG. Dialogue is a study in itself and it’s not easy to get just right. I think this was a great exercise. I’m so glad to see the comments and discussions.

  4. Thanks Dan. My novel came back from Doctor Horne’s surgery and the only real criticism he had was of some ‘flat’ dialogue so this is really useful!

    • Hi Quiet Riot Girl:

      welcome to the blog. So glad you commented. I thought Dan’s exercise was really good, and i’m glad you found it useful. I’ve entered you in for the monthly draw. I hope you’ll come back each Wednesday.

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