Invisible Words: Dialogue Tags and Why You Don’t Need Them (Much)

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, “Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags. Use only said and ask.” And that’s good advice. It makes a lot of sense because it is really jarring to read something like this:

John quipped, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah gasped, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John grumbled.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” whispered Sarah.

John paused. He exclaimed, “Sure!”

Yeah, that’s terrible. So, how are we supposed to do it? Like this:

John said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah said, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John said.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” said Sarah.

John paused. He said, “Sure!”

The reason why the second sample was better than the first is that the words said (and ask if used) are invisible to the reader, and it shifted the emotion in the dialogue for the reader to figure. However, sometimes this can be jarring. Why? Because examine all those times I used the names John and Sarah. If I keep writing, John, John, John, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, guess what your brain is likely to tune out or keep stumbling over?

And that’s what this post is all about–provide you another tip on style by omitting said and ask as much as possible. Let’s redo the example.

John snapped his fingers. “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah lifted a hand to her mouth. “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun.”

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex.”

“Sure!”

In the last example, I’ve picked up the pacing on this and used a little body language to instead of a dialogue tag. Second, I eliminated the dialogue tags in the last three lines.

So how does this help you? Here’s how this stylistic approach can improve your writing.

It strengthens your showing, not telling. What did you think of when John snapped his fingers and then said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”? He hit upon an idea is what most of you will say, but some of you will have a different opinion, and that’s fine.

Since our brains are trained to ignore the words said and ask, just get rid of them anyways. Use them sparingly, but for the most part, you don’t need them. Warning: you don’t want to get yourself into “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”. You do need to show who is talking. Here is an example:

Samdel patted his rider’s coat, lifted out the lapel, retrieving a cigar. “What were you saying, girl?”

“I hate it when you smoke those thrice-damn things around me!”

“Huh. A demon said that to me once.”

You know right off that Samdel is the first person who started this part of the conversation with the narrator telling he’s fishing out a cigar. Then, we know whomever he’s talking to responds, and then he says something back.

Now, when does this not work really well? When you have three or more people involved in conversation. Still, you can eliminate a great deal of said and ask by utilizing your prose to indicate actions from all your characters, but if you need to move rather quickly, you’re better served by using said and ask to ensure your reader doesn’t get confused or lost in the conversation. Another problem some writers have created when using this method is “floating heads” or “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”, and I covered that topic in an earlier post.

In short, here’s a tip on honing in a stylistic choice to remove mundane words and help your prose with more showing than telling.

Happy writing!

Author Interview with Melinda Kucsera

Dragon Soul Press had the privilege of sitting down to interview Author Melinda Kucsera.


How long have you been writing?

Melinda has been writing fantastic short stories, novels, and books when not being kidnapped by dragons or chased by armies of fictional creatures. (Her characters do, on occasion, rescue her.) She leaves the running of her newsletter to the cast of lovable characters who hog her inbox AND handle all her interviews for her. ❤

Enough about Melinda, it’s us you’re really interested in, her cast of characters! 🙂 Join us every week for a new story by visiting: www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters

When Melinda is left alone, she writes mostly about a young man (Sarn) and his adorable son (Ran) who might be one of the characters responding to this interview. They adventure together through a fantastic world full of enchanted people and things and take on all kinds of monsters and mayhem. It’s all in a day’s work when you live steps away from an enchanted forest.

Oh, and, we have a special portal in our cave that connects to your world and gives us exclusive access to our scribe whenever we feel an adventure coming on. You can grab the first four books of the Curse Breaker series here: https://www.books2read.com/b/bP516z

Join us on an adventure now. 

What inspires you?

Well, since I and my fellow cast members are real people living in a real, though, fantastic world, we are Melinda’s inspiration. This is Ran, son of Sarn, the Curse Breaker in the Curse Breaker books.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I was explaining our reality to you. 😊

Since we only exist when you read us, getting more page time is essential. It’s literally a matter of life and death for us. So, we must make sure our Scribe, Melinda, is continuously inspired.

That’s why there’s a line outside her door full of prospective characters, and each has a story to tell. We must bar the doors, or she’d never get any books done. There are that many stories breaking down her door.

Good thing there’s this handy portal in her apartment. When the queue gets too rambunctious and threatens to break down her door, we spirit her away to our world. Then all Melinda needs to do is write down our adventures as we live them.

Through some alchemical process, books are created from our running amok in fantasy land. You’ll have to ask our Melinda about that process because we have nothing to do with it. Our job is to get that all-important page time, and we’re really good at that.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?

Woah there, hold up a minute. Other people aren’t allowed to influence our Scribe. Melinda’s apartment is a no-influence zone. Seriously. We don’t allow anyone to mess with her process. Somehow, she can see what goes on in our world even when we don’t kidnap her. Chronicling that mayhem doesn’t require any influence except occasionally from us when she does silly things like try to outline our adventures.

No one’s life has ever followed a script exactly, and neither do ours. We do what we’re going to do and trust her to capture it in words. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever?

The cast of her books certainly thinks so, but we might be a tad biased. There’s a book coming out soon that illustrates just how Melinda can see our world, and how characters like me can cross over to your world. It’ll be called Curse Breaker’s Companion: Catch the Scribe (because that’s what we’ll be doing in that book). 

One last thing before I move off this topic. I might have borrowed Melinda’s computer to type up this interview. Don’t tell her about that, okay? She gets upset if we drop in when she’s not home.  

What do you like to read in your free time?

Our Scribe buys the deal of the day on audible most days, so her taste in books ranges wildly from fantasy to science fiction to physics books to lectures on all manner of topics to mysteries, thrillers, true crime and so on. She’ll basically listen to anything that’s not a bodice-ripping romance or a horror story.

I might be a child in a fictional story, but I often borrow her cellphone to keep in touch with readers through Melinda’s social media accounts. So, she doesn’t listen to anything that’s overtly sexual, very scary, or too violent in case I accidentally overhear it. She particularly likes mysteries, hard sci-fi especially when the hard sci-fi is blended with military fiction, and police procedurals. She cannot read enough of those last two.

What projects are you working on at the present?

Melinda’s working on a new series that’s really close to her heart. It’s a mother-daughter fantasy series called Robin of Larkspur. It begins with Hunter’s Night, part of the Rogue Skies: A Limited Edition Science Fiction and Fantasy Boxed Set. Grab it now while it’s on preorder for a buck: https://www.books2read.com/rogueskies then get ready for Rogue Night, the explosive sequel.

Details about Rogue Night can be found here: https://melindakucsera.com/rogue-night/ It will publish around the same time as Hunter’s Night/Rogue Skies, so you won’t have to wait like our editor and our beta readers to find out what happens next. 

Both books feature me as an adorable baby. In Hunter’s Night, I get kidnapped and need a rescue, but Papa needs help to take me back from my supernatural kidnappers. Too bad they also nabbed Robin’s baby because she’s one formidable lady. She and Papa team up in Rogue Night to get me and her daughter back. So do check those books out. 

As of right now, Melinda’s still editing it and dithering about sending it in. It’s darker than what she usually writes, so she’s doing the insecure author thing. Don’t worry. I’ll submit it for her if she procrastinates too long.

I think it’s a great story and she already has the next two episodes planned out, one for each of the next two Dragon Soul Press Anthologies, Lost Love and Reign of Queens

What impact have they had on your writing?

That’s a great question. Hunter’s Night/Rogue Skies and Sealed in Blood had a profound impact actually. Since they had iron-clad word limits, our intrepid Scribe had to learn how to pause our shenanigans.

We did not enjoy being paused. I just have to get that off my chest. It made me all itchy, but it was for a good cause.

Adventures tend to lead to other adventures, which is great for real life but not so great in a book that has an iron-clad word limit. But adventures in real life don’t have limits on length.

So it took our scribe, Melinda, some time and trials to learn how to stop us from haring off on another adventure long enough to end one the book and start another. Of course, we’ve been learning from her too. Just because a book has an end doesn’t mean it’s THE END.

We can always sneak in new scenes and get more page time during the editing rounds because Melinda always leaves a few thousand words in reserve. The cast might be sharpening this skill as we speak. Just don’t tell Melinda. She hasn’t caught on yet.  

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? (If you write more than one, how do you balance them?)

Melinda didn’t really choose to write fantasy. We chose her to be our Scribe. 😊 We really do kidnap her, and armies of fantastic creatures really do show up at her home and office to demand a story. Usually, a chase ensues because there are a lot of them and only one Melinda, and sometimes, her job requires her to do work that has nothing to do with writing fantasy books.

But our Scribe also needs her exercise to stay fit, right? We ensure she puts plenty of mileage on her much-abused sneakers every day. 😊

So given all of that, what’s a scribe to do but jot down the stories that fall into her lap and publish them? Then everyone wins especially us, her characters. Remember, we only exist when you read us, so getting that all-important page time is a matter of life and death.

What is the hardest part of writing?

Controlling our Newsletter-Dragon. No, I’m serious. Our newsletter subscribers are her horde, and she’s unbelievably demanding when it comes to newsletter stuff. She eats up so much of our Scribe’s time that could be devoted to chronicling our adventures.

The worst part is that we’re stuck in limbo every time the Newsletter-Dragon misbehaves, and she’s been cozying up to the eBook-Dragons that deliver our eBooks to stores!

I know. I see it too. A confrontation is coming between us, Melinda’s characters, and that damned dragon. It draws nearer with every episode of our newsletter. Watch our newsletter for it because that’s where it will play out, and this time, it’ll be a war between us.

You can sign up here to get our weekly adventures in your inbox: http://www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters Our dragon will horde your email address. No one will ever lay their hands on it. Not even us, its stars.

Where can readers learn more about you?

 Our website, of course: https://melindakucsera.com/

Check out all our books here: https://melindakucsera.com/the-curse-breaker-saga/

We also have past episodes of our newsletter adventures arranged chronologically here: https://melindakucsera.com/blog/ but our newsletter goes back to 2016. So, fans of it (and its stars) convinced our Scribe to novelize the earliest episodes, so readers don’t have to try to find them.

Since our website is digital and so is our dragon, she regularly messes with it. Those older episodes are there, but they’re not easy to find. Our Scribe has written about 4-5 novel-length adventures for us that took place exclusively in our newsletter over the years.

So, they’re coming to eBook in 2020. No more searching for them. They’ll publish as part of a companion series under the aptly titled, Curse Breaker’s Companion.  Take that you, dragon! Problem solved. 😊

We’re also on social media, but the best way to follow us is to subscribe to our weekly adventures: http://www.mkucsera.com/welcomecharacters

And that’s a wrap. This is Ran, son of Sarn, writing on behalf of the cast and our Scribe, Melinda, signing off. Have a great day!

Some Advice: Reputation is Everything

Normally, writing blogs are just about that; most are tips and tricks on how to write better such as eliminating filler, catching redundancies, use Active Voice, etc. Others are more about the business side of writing such as marketing, self-promotion, mailing lists, etc.

In this post, I want to discuss something very near and dear to my heart, but something I see time and time again new authors throw away and that is their professionalism which affects their reputation. For people who know me as Christianmichael Dutton who writes under the pen name Hui Lang (Chinese for Gray Wolf), they know I am one and the same. I take my brand, my persona, and my interactions with everyone seriously. Everything I write here, either a blog post for Dragon Soul Press, a short story for my Red Hoods Page, or a fanfic doodle on my personal FB page, I give 110%. I am a known plotter and I typically plot out a story five or more times before deciding on how I will write the story. Then I get feedback on my work if time permits after I’ve gone through several cycles of self-editing.

Let’s start with a foundational rule:

If you’re an author who wants compensation for their work, you need to treat this as a serious business.

Let’s talk about some things that shows a lack of professionalism and how you can mitigate irreparable harm to your reputation. These things are doubly important when you’re an indie author because you have full control over your writings and publishing.  

You publish a work that isn’t edited or poorly edited. You know why it’s so hard to find a lit agent or a publisher willing to accept your story? This. This is the reason why the big trad houses have an intern whose job it is to simply read the first three pages of every work just to weed out people who cannot follow directions or send in poorly edited works. I frequently download samples of many indie authors’ books. I can’t get past the first chapter on so many of them because it comes across as if English was their second language with the help of Google Translate.

You chose a terrible cover. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” applies to people, but not to books. If you work with a trad pub house and they slap a cover that looks like stock art drawn by an eight-year-old or you grab a cute image from Pixabay because it’s royalty free, nothing screams out, “AMATUER!” than an amateurish cover. When I see that, I think your writing matches and I don’t even bother to download the sample. If you cannot afford a great graphics artist, then go with a trad publisher who puts out great covers on their books. Check out Dragon Soul Press’ covers and see for yourself the high quality they use. Some are amazingly gorgeous (Shadows of the Fallen, I’m looking at you).

Your writing is lazy. You use Passive Voice. You used tropes and clichés that the big trad pubishers don’t want, so now your book isn’t marketable unless you self-publish. You use a ton of adverbs. You switch POVs more times than spinning on the Mad Tea Party ride at Disneyland. The rule of “Your first million words is crap,” isn’t just some made-up mantra by self-righteous authors of a bygone era. I wrote my first book when I was fourteen. It was crap. My second book was also crap. By the time I had written my third book, I already had written well-over a million words from all the campaign and adventure writing for the table-top role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. My third book still sucked. When I finished my fifth book, Fallen From the Stars, it finally looked like something I might be able to market, but it took me over a 1.5 million words to get there. If you want to fast track your learning experience, then get feedback. Serious feedback that doesn’t hold back on where you’re weak.

You don’t leverage social media effectively. As an author, you post cute cat memes, send … ahh … naughty pics to other people, launch a vitriolic diatribe against Flat-Earthers, but support anti-vaxxers, and so on. You swear like a sailor on your media pages, but you write cute furry YA stories. It’s perfectly fine to post whatever you want to post. No one should judge you for that unless you’re harassing people or being an all-around jerk, but keep it separate. Your author page should have your million loyal fans who see you as the awesome writer, and only your close friends and family get to see your cursing sailor, hedonistic anti-vaxxer jaded personality on your personal page.

This advice may come across a bit harsh, but again, review the foundational rule. Treat being an author as a serious business, forge great relationships with other authors and fans, and people will reciprocate.

Happy writing!

Creating Good Female Villains

One thing I don’t like in fiction is female villains. A lot of their motivations tend to be cliche or at worst, misogynistic. It’s irritating that women villains cannot possess the same motivations of their male counterparts.

Here is a short post on helping you craft better female villains. I don’t say good because you still need to have good characterization as a skill, but if you get the motivation right, your villain will at least be better.

Cliche motivations for female villains are anything of the following:

  1. Anything related to “women’s issues.” The glass ceiling, relationships, unequal pay, domestic abuse, falling in love with a male Bad Boy, etc. Don’t use these issues as motivation to make the woman bad.
  2. “Amazon Women from Mars” or something along the lines of Women vs. Men in a misogynistic way.
  3. “Queen Bitch.” The female is a villain simply because she has power/money/magic, etc.

To have a motivation that doesn’t fall into these kind of traps, think of the tropes heroines are motivated to pursue and simply make the consequences of their actions bad. Despite this, they continue their goals.

For example: A super heroine pounds the living tar out of some bad guys who are trying to fire a laser at a nuclear plant thus making the Chernobyl disaster a walk in the park. Heroine saves the day. End of story. The villainess does the same thing. The bad guys die along with the support personnel who had no idea they were working on a laser to destroy a nuclear plant. This turns into a legal nightmare for the government who have a duty to enforce the law.

If this was a super heroine, she would probably hang up her cape and call it a day or mend her ways. The villainess won’t. The ends justify the means—after all, innocent lives were at stake. She does it again, this time to low-life bank robbers, then muggers, then to some teenagers vandalizing a beautiful park because she can’t control her strength (and doesn’t really care to). Sooner or later, the government has enough and puts resources to have her arrested.

The villainess now fights the government, the police, the National Guard, etc. She rationalizes they are nothing more than a system of control and the best way to deal with it is to destroy it.

One of the things that makes for a great villain is the ability to rationalize their actions in small steps, but it scales up. Real life crook Bernie Madoff didn’t wake up one morning and decided, “I’m going to create the biggest fraud in history today!” No, he altered a trade sheet here and there. He obtained and spent a $250k meant for investments here and there. He continued until he racked up billions in fraud. If he was caught in his very first year of defrauding investors, he would probably be out of prison by now. Change the gender and now you have a female villain whose primary motivation is greed, starts small, and then it builds up.

Happy Writing!

A Different Perspective: Understanding Point-of-View (POV)

As you’re starting in your writing journey and learning the different techniques and styles, you may ask yourself what point-of-view (POV) to use for your story. Should you go with First Person? Third Person? If Third Person, should it be a narrative style or omniscient? This post discusses the most common types used in crafting today and some ideas on which genres you should use. Bear in mind, these are guidelines, there is no hard or fast rule you should follow other than this:

Don’t break POV. I’ll get into why at the end of the post.

First Person Narrativefrom the mind of the main character(s). With First Person, the main character is telling the story. Everything the reader knows is from the MC’s perception and understanding. You will know the MC’s thoughts and every chapter will always feature the MC as the one driving the story along. This is good for a writer who loves to reveal their world through the MC’s eyes and through dialogue. Here is an example of First Person from my novel, The Ties That Bind.

I sat on my trusty couch in a silk charmeuse with matching pants and a white t-shirt, eating my dinner consisting of three bags of microwave popcorn, all different flavors, some cheese spread, a half can of whip cream, and a couple bottles of strawberry soda. For dessert, a bag of chocolate cookies with white cream filling laid next to me.

I ate the cookies first—the whole damn bag.

The TV blared an old black and white film noir movie called The Mark of the Spider, the rain outside making the movie more eerie than necessary. Occasionally, my windows lit up with a flash, no doubt the storm picking up the tempo.

My cell phone rang, but the number read, “Blocked.” I ignored it, tossed it back on the coffee table. More than likely some scam artist with a thick Nigerian accent pretending to be from the FBI ready to come and arrest me unless I paid a fine of five hundred dollars. That would be the third jerk this week. The phone turned silent then rang again. And again. Persistent bastard. After the third call, it fell dormant.

As you can read, our hero discusses everything as if we’re in his head. What he sees is what we see. You want to use this POV if you really desire the reader to become attached to your main character. The disadvantage of this perspective is that if you only have one MC, you’re “chained” to that character throughout the entire story, and it makes writing epic scenes more challenging.

Third Person Narrative – the invisible storyteller. Third Person is a narrator who is an invisible person standing alongside a particular character and telling the story from their perspective. However, if there is a scene change or new chapter, the POV can change to a different character. This is great if you have more than one main character or you wish to write the story from different perspectives such as writing an epic fantasy where you provide the perspectives of your heroes and your villains. With the narrative style though, you are telling the story through one character in any particular scene or chapter. Here is an example pulled from my novel, The Rise of Evil: The Lantern Bearer’s Quest:

As the companions descended the hill, Irshad’iz asked softly, “Sai Masadi, you could have let me go. What was that about?”

She nearly rolled her eyes, but instead met the young man’s curious stare. “A battle between me and that simpleton. I won.”

“Braelann? How—”

“You cannot be this sheep-headed. Why your god continues to spare your life perplexes me.” Masadi’s eyes emanated a glint of yellow marking her irritation. “No, I’m referring to that one, Jaktu.” She sighed as she observed no change in the lad’s blank stare. “Braelann has plans for you—intimate plans as she’s clearly in season. I can smell her passion aura. The other females are in season too, but not nearly as dire as Braelann.”

“What? In season? Gnolls fall in season? But…but I’m human.” Irshad’iz emphasized his statement by pointing at himself. He didn’t conceal his shock.

In this scene, the invisible storyteller is alongside Masadi, telling the story as she sees things from her perspective. We could be treated to what she is thinking, but we will not get in Irshad’iz’s head, or Braelann’s head, or Jaktu’s head (that would be Third Person Omniscient, but these days, not considered a good form of storytelling).

Why should you use Third Person Narrative? For one, it’s easy to look at the story from the perspective of other characters who may not be the main character. In the example above, Masadi is a supporting character in the Lantern Bearer’s Quest as the main character, Samdel Thatch, was indisposed during that part of the chapter. It was an important scene for me to introduce the reader to the gnolls and provide background on their people and society. Another advantage is you can do scene changes within the chapter, particularly if you’re running big climactic battles where you want to hop around to different characters.

So I will end this as to why it’s bad to break POV. It confuses your reader and is one of the most grievous sins in writing. Nothing will turn your reader off to your story for repeated instances of breaking POV. It also screams, “AMATEUR!!” to your reader as well.

Happy writing!