Writing | Sensorium


Creating a vivid and memorable scene is something that writers, myself included, strive for. I’ve been fortunate enough to have readers comment to me that my stories feel ‘cinematic’ to them, as though they were in the scene watching it. Of course, as with anything involving writing, an individual writer’s style can vary from the non-immersive (tons of was – e.g. “there was a” all over the place) to over-description where each piece of furniture in a room gets its own paragraph. (Which is perhaps even worse than no description at all.)

Many writers make extensive use of visual and auditory descriptions as they leap to the forefront of the mind. The human brain is a funny thing. There are three more senses a writer can invoke to bring the reader deeper into the scene – touch, taste, and smell.


Image courtesy of https://askabiologist.asu.edu/what-your-brain-doing

For many people, the sense of smell is a trigger for vivid memories, yet many writers tend to overlook it. When your character is going down rickety wooden stairs to a damp, basement – consider adding a description of how it smells down there. What does the air taste like on the character’s tongue? How does the railing feel under their hand? A few well-placed tiny bits of description can far outweigh a ‘wall-of-text’ of what the basement looks like.


People tend to attach smells to powerful memories. An elderly person catching a whiff of some food their mother used to make them as a child can take them right back to that moment. A combat veteran who survived an IED that hit his truck smells burning diesel and the horrors of the battlefield paralyze him with grief over the friends he lost a decade later.

Here is an excerpt from Division Zero: Thrall (Book 3). Kirsten, even ten years after the scene below, still can’t tolerate the smell of beef stew laced with the hint of chemical.

She jumped at the touch, fearing the kind of hand Mother would lay upon her. His was different, warm, comforting. The man’s voice fell away to the warble of indistinct remembrance as he said comforting things and kept petting her hair like a cat. Kirsten stared at the metal octagon in her hands, salivating at the promise of untainted food. She listened to his thoughts; he would not harm her―she was precious.

The crack of the lid, yielding to a grimy little finger, startled her awake amid the remembered hiss of the chemical warming agent and the smell of beef stew.

Sometimes the use of smell can be small – a few words – to add more depth to a scene (excerpt also from Thrall):

She wobbled back, rubbing her leg. “Damn, tough doors.” Out came the E-90. “You have two seconds to open this door or I’m opening it for you.”

One laser blast melted the retaining bar and flooded the air with the glue-plastic stink of molten Epoxil. The door swayed ajar. Kirsten raised her boot to kick it, but dove sideways at the sound of a gunshot. A bulge in the door showed where the dense material trapped the slug. Rolling onto her back, she aimed through her knees. Another shot―no bulge.


Another often underutilized descriptive tool is the sense of touch. There are thousands of ways to use touch to add to a scene depending on the mood of the piece. In a tense scene where a character is creeping through an unknown place, consider a trail of sweat tickling down under their clothes. Another character has to cross a small creek – and her sneakers get waterlogged. For the rest of that chapter, she’s walking in squidge. Almost everyone can relate to being stuck in soaked shoes, and how miserable that is… especially when its cold out.

This excerpt is from Prophet of the Badlands, illustrating the use of ‘touch’ as a sense.

At the bottom, she dropped thigh deep into water frigid enough to paralyze her. Althea clamped her hands over her mouth and swallowed a shriek, fearful of attracting attention. Seconds later, she sucked in a breath through chattering teeth and forced herself to move. Ripples spread from her legs as she walked, jostling the floating junk. Her natural reaction to such cold water kept her motion slow enough not to make noise. A layer of clammy slime squished through her toes as it gave way to the coarse texture of old concrete below. Althea advanced without hesitation, pushing the flotsam aside; she had stepped in worse things than this before.


In short, remember to involve your reader’s senses―all five of them. Drop a line here and there about what a scene smells like, even two words about a character’s cologne or the overpowering smell of wood varnish in the air can ramp up the immersion factor of a scene. Maybe if you get lucky, a reader will catch a smell in the air long after reading your work – and remember it.

Writing | The Mirror Trope

The Mirror of Venus Edward Burne-Jones

The Mirror of Venus Edward Burne-Jones

Well, it’s bit a bit since I’ve posted. I suppose one of the downsides to the whole sleep-work-write-sleep thing is a dearth of interesting things to ramble on about. Due to a recent encounter with it, I figured I’d talk a bit about a writing habit some people refer to as “the mirror trope.”

What is the mirror trope? Basically, it’s a cliché shortcut where an author gives the description of a character to the reader by having them look in a mirror (or similar reflective surface) and describe themselves. If the story is written in first person narration, this often seems forced – especially if the tone of the description carries hints of sex appeal or adoration. When a character’s description of their own body happens in a mode of phrasing that sounds more like someone else who finds them attractive is talking, it gets a little creepy (or becomes glaringly obvious that the description is for the reader’s benefit.)

With the possible exception of a vain or narcissistic character, people don’t rush to a mirror as soon as their day starts and admire how beautiful their eyes are, or how their hair is stunning, talk about their awesome curves, or otherwise spend that much time ruminating about their appearance. The mirror trope falls somewhere between making the character come off as self-absorbed and being an obvious “hey, reader, this is what my character looks like” message from the author.

Another (less obvious) example of the mirror trope is when a character refers to their appearance in strange ways. For example, in first-person narration:

I pull my long, luxurious ebon hair off my shoulders and lean forward, thrusting my perfect round breasts against my sweater.


I stepped out of the van and clenched my statuesque jaw, darkened by three days without shaving. They couldn’t see my steel-blue eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses, but look on the three morons’ faces as they regarded my towering height and bulging muscles was priceless. Wish I had a camera.

In both of these quick examples, the first-person narrator speaks as though they are in adoration of themselves. Granted, if a female character is vain, they might think of their own breasts as perfect or their hair as “luxurious.” If a male character is overly proud of their appearance, they might call themselves statuesque or talk about their own eye color – but in both cases it makes the characters seem narcissistic and a touch cartoony. When I read something like that, it feels like the author is passing on their opinion of what the protagonist looks like by shoe-horning it into the character’s thoughts.

A Better Way

So what’s an author to do? Some writers offer nothing in the way of description, allowing the reader to fill in whatever appearance they want. For me, I try to convey a sense of what the character looks like by spreading the descriptive elements out and working them in a bit at a time. (This also avoids another bad habit of weak writing I’ve come to know as “index card” descriptions – which is where a new character coming “on screen” causes the narrative to stop so a full paragraph of description of what the character looks like can pop up like an index card, after which the story resumes. (Pardon the tangent of a tangent here, but another thing about “index card” descriptions that is weak is describing another character’s height exactly. E.g. “Bill walked in. He stood 6’3”, and weighed 322 pounds.” Unless the narrating character has cybernetics capable of performing a visual measurement of a person, giving exact height and weight feels ‘canned’ and a little silly. Of course if the two characters were close (like on the same sports team or military squad and they’d know this, a line like: “Bill walked in, all six-foot four hundred some odd pounds of him” sounds less obnoxious than giving exact numbers for height and weight.

Rationing it Out

In my opinion, the best way to convey a character’s appearance to the reader is to portion it out a bit at a time, and do it in subtle ways. For example, convey a sense of the character’s height by having them “look up” or “look down” at other characters. Instead of calling your main short, you could have them climb up on the kitchen counter to reach a cabinet. Rather than tell the reader the character is baby-faced, have other characters mistake them for a teenager. If they’re extra-thin, portray that by having them shimmy through a tight spot or fit somewhere a “normal” person couldn’t. If they’re heavy or huge, describe their difficulties with an environment made for smaller people.

Bear in mind that the more obvious a physical trait is, the sooner it should be provided to the reader. Don’t let them spend 250 pages thinking the main character is a feline-catgirl-alien with a furry tail only to learn on page 251 that she’s actually reptilian with scales.

Don’t Saturate

The urge to skip over large swaths of description is common to many readers. This gets more jarring with the “index card” method, and after a few characters come into the story, that standing wall of text-description may wind up getting skipped right over. Focus on the most obvious aspects of the appearance. What hits the eye / ear / nose first? (And don’t forget the sense of smell – a character’s clothing can be saturated with the scent of incense, pipe smoke, cologne/perfume, etc.) Give the reader a few tidbits to establish a mental image, then add little (more subtle) things bit by bit as the story progresses.

In short, avoid awkward ‘forced’ description that doesn’t ring true to a character’s voice. The mirror trope is a cliché best avoided (unless you’re doing it on purpose for parody.) Note that I’m not saying a mirror should never be used – but if there is a mirror, have the character use it like a normal person. Or for a cinematic feel, the character can stare through their reflection on a window at the outside world (but don’t use it as a means to describe them.)

And just for fun:


Writing | Creating Empathy with Characters


One of the first pieces of advice given to me when I started writing and looking for feedback on it involved building a sense of empathy between the reader and the character. By empathy, I don’t mean making the reader feel sorry for them—I mean making them care about what happens to that character. Depending on the individual reader, the amount of time they allow an author to get to that point varies. Some people might put down a book if they feel ‘meh’ about the main character on page one. Some might give it ten, twenty, maybe even forty pages if they’re generous.

Recently I started reading a book by one of my favorite authors, but wound up feeling nothing for the characters. I found myself fifty pages in and wondering why I was continuing (Okay, I admit – I was continuing because “I bought this book dammit; I’m going to read it.”) despite being ready to put it down. I’m not writing this post to slam the book, so I won’t mention it by title. The story opened with one character. The next chapter showed us a different character, and the third returned to the character we met in the first.

The characters, though not ‘cardboard,’ didn’t come off as all that interesting or in any particular circumstance that made them compelling. The narrative offered a sparsity of detail that left me thinking who the heck are these people and why should I give a damn what happens to them? The female character seemed bored with life, had a failed career as a singer, had written a book, and lost half her money in a market crash—but was still comfortable. She sensed (rightly so) that she’d be pressed into the employ of a man she didn’t like, and despite hating him (for reasons not yet explained) she decided to work for him anyway. Yawn. She’s comfortable, her only conflict is that she ‘really doesn’t wanna’ work for this guy… it’s like we’re expected to feel bad for a rich girl because she can’t choose one pair out of 500 shoes to wear that day.

On the other hand, the male character was doing something that at first seemed like it might be interesting: some manner of smuggling, but he wound up taking tracings of (drumroll) jeans. Apparently, the entire plot is to revolve around tracking down the source of some super-rare designer denim so a company can produce military inspired clothing for mass markets. James Bond this is not.

Anyway, by page 58, I was sorely tempted to put this thing down (if not for the aforementioned $16 I’d spent on it) plus the ‘but… but…. I like this author’ feeling.

In an early draft of Division Zero, what is now Chapter 2 was Chapter 1. I figured I’d jump straight into some action like they do on a lot of the cop shows, the so-called ‘cold open.’ I had a few people comment that they wanted to know who this woman was and why she was getting shot at so they had a reason to care if she made it out alive. So, I added the now-Chapter-One to introduce the reader to Kirsten before things get all dusty and laser-y. Without that, she’s only an unknown blonde chasing a possessed man through an abandoned asylum while telling the spirits of the long-departed everything’s gonna be okay.


Build a Connection

It’s important to present the reader with a character that they want to invest in (preferably sooner rather than later.) Many posts and articles on writing claim the first five pages are the place to make sure the reader cares about the character and wants to keep going. Not everyone is going to wait until page fifty-eight to decide if they are going to give a damn what happens. The sooner you have the reader’s attention, and empathy with the character, the better. When the reader invests, and cares what happens to the character, you’re doing it right.

Some ways to build empathy include:

Conflict ― What’s going on in the character’s life that is forcing them into a situation they don’t want to deal with but have to? Lay out the groundwork for the conflict facing the character and build that sense of endearment early. This connects also to scene setting. If the opening is vague and difficult to tell what the environment/setting is like, your conflict may lose impact. For example, a teen trying to lug a container of water home takes on an entirely different meaning if he’s in 2015 suburb normal compared to 2040 post-apocalypse Nevada with the last four gallons of water in the nearest store.

Illustrate why the character is motivated to endure the situation rather than fleeing. Is the conflict something an average person can relate to? (Some people might not grasp how critical it is that the ninth-born daughter of the Phyrrian Dynasty make it to the Centauri sector before the triad moons align right off the bat.) Is the character coping with the recent loss of a loved one? Do they have an illness / handicap? Are they in a situation that makes them a target because of who they are or what they believe in? Are they living in an abusive relationship?

Personality ― Another way to build empathy with a character is to show the reader who they are inside. Portray a character with traits that endear them to the reader (and that doesn’t mean every endearing character has to be sweet – look at House MD). If the reader can’t wait to see what your character does next, you’re doing it right. If a character feels like an archetype or a slab of cardboard… or is so ‘everyman’ or normal that they meet fifteen different versions of that character at the office every day, consider changing something.

Humanity ― One of the surest ways to lose reader investment in a character is to have them be plastic. A character that’s somber and crying over their lost family in one scene, but in the next chapter forgets they ever existed to throw herself at the male lead she’s only just met, is not going to feel like a real person. (Unless the MC has multiple personality disorder or some other mental issues.) Even if a character is superpowered well and away beyond anything normal – show a little bit of normality in them. (Maybe even Supergirl trips over her underwear sometimes in the morning while trying to get dressed.)


In short, the most important thing you can do within the first five pages of your novel is Make your reader care about the character. They don’t have to like them; they need to want to invest in them to see what happens. If the reader is ambivalent about what happens to the characters, they might not keep reading.

Inspiration is everywhere


Writers often draw from their life’s experiences to create their stories. Inspiration comes from everything around us: from tiny idiosyncratic habits of our co-workers we notice during the most boring day at the office, to an adrenaline-pumping disaster, to the most emotional events, good or bad. In some novels, like memoirs or fictionalized accounts of an event the writer lived through, most or all of the narrative is based on the author’s own ordeal. Those of us who haven’t been caught up in a war or survived a harrowing calamity worthy of being an entire novel’s story still have a myriad of smaller past experiences to draw from. With a twist and a squeeze, they can be rearranged to fit the scenario we’re working with, and bring depth to our characters and scenes.

In writing The Summer the World Ended, I pulled from an event that happened when I was around seventeen. (I am pretty bad remembering dates, so it might’ve been when I was anywhere from 16-18.) Suffice to say, I was still in high school. I grew up in a two-level house that had been in the family since it was built in 1908 or so. (Alas, it no longer is, but that’s another story entirely.) My grandfather (mother’s side) lived in the downstairs section, while I lived upstairs with my mother. Some years prior, my grandfather’s second wife passed away, leaving him alone. At the time, no one really talked about depression―especially not a man, especially not one from his generation. He got into the habit of coming upstairs to eat at night.

Again, I’m bad with dates, but I think it was getting close to summer. On one particular night, I had two friends over for dinner and my mother had put out an enormous communal salad plate in the middle of the table. She only did the ‘salad thing’ when it was warm out. The five of us settled in and proceeded to attack the salad with varying degrees of enthusiasm. My grandfather had worked as a teacher in a reform school, and even at 83, he had an imposing presence that kept me and my friends uninterested in conversation. However, within a few minutes, it became apparent something was wrong.

My grandfather, who had up until that moment been a pillar of health, was attempting to stab a slice of tomato from the serving platter with his fork―only he was missing it by a few inches. The repetitive clink, clink of the tines hitting the plate got everyone’s attention. His expression of grim determination (I’m going to get this tomato, dammit) melted away to one of bewilderment after the fifth or sixth miss. Such a change in a formerly confident, powerful persona filled the air with a tangible weight.

My mother asked if he was okay. He looked up, as if he couldn’t understand what she’d said. The whites (sclera) of his eyes had gone deep red. He stared into space for another moment with a look of utter confusion, and slumped face-down over his plate.

To my left, my friends sat dumbfounded – like that deer in the middle of the road watching the truck inexorably speeding toward them. My mother came unglued and panicked. Where he sat was right under the wall phone, so anyone going for it would have had to get close to him. Something my friends were clearly uninterested in, and my mother was in no state able to comprehend what a phone even was.

I remained relatively calm―I suppose it helped I was still a bit angry with him for kicking my cat a week or two ago―and moved to the phone to call 911. (There were no cell phones then.)

He was still technically alive when they wheeled him out on a stretcher. A swollen aneurysm had exploded deep within his brain, inflicting enough damage to destroy the person he had been. His brain stem kept the basic functions going for a bit. A little more than two hours later, he passed away quietly at the hospital. There was nothing to be done for him at that point.

I don’t remember feeling much of anything about the event. However, since I remember it in such detail more than twenty years later, I suppose it did leave a mark. Life is full of inspiring moments, be they tragic, joyous, thrilling, or tedious. Drawing upon these moments can bring a scene to life, allow a writer (and reader) to relive a time of happiness or perhaps cope with loss.

(By the way, those friends never did come over for dinner again.)

Writing | Dialogue Mechanics


Dialogue Attribution

Characters in fiction writing often speak―let’s face it, a story would feel strange if the characters never said a word to one another. However, just throwing dialogue down on a page soon becomes a chaotic mess. Authors have a number of techniques at their disposal to control dialogue and keep the reader from getting lost and confused. In the course of reading, editing, and proofreading, I seem to find issues with dialogue mechanics that stand out as a little iffy at best and downright distracting at worst. In a spell of attempting to be all helpful and stuff again, I decided to ramble a bit about dialogue attribution.

— Tags, Beats, and Cues —

Feel free to skip this part if you know the difference between a dialogue tag and a beat. If not, read on! There are three primary means of dialog attribution. Simply put, this means telling the reader who said what. Overreliance on any single technique makes for weak writing. Good dialogue should use a mixture so as not to create a feeling of repetition.

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag (also known as a ‘saidism’) in its most basic form is the word ‘said.’ Many authors regard ‘said’ as invisible to the reader and as the ideal, perfect, only tag anyone should ever use (with the occasional permission slip granted to ‘asked’). Dialogue tags may also include other words such as yelled, shouted, whispered etc, and are separated from the dialogue by a comma.

Tags can be in front of, behind, or amid the dialogue:

“Meet me at the wharf at six,” said Nigel.

Faye said, “Six? Isn’t that a bit early?”

“Hardly,” said Nigel. “Lassiter wanted us here at five. I managed to talk an hour out of him.”


Dialogue Beats

A beat is an action occurring on the same line as dialogue, used to attribute that dialogue to a particular character much like a tag. Beats offer a way to connect a line of dialogue to a character with a sense of flow, especially when you’re looking to convey a sense of the dialogue occuring while action happens. Beats should be separated from dialogue with periods, can occur at the beginning of dialogue, between bits of dialogue, or after:


Nigel rolled down the driver-side window. “Oh, bloody… I don’t like the look of that mist.”

“Neither do I.” Faye shuddered, clutching her silver derringer close to her chest. “Something’s wrong.”

“Too late now. We’re past the point of no return and all that.” Nigel opened the door and got out.


Context Attribution

The third method of dialogue attribution is contextual. A contextual attribution connects the dialogue to the character speaking it by the context of what is going on around the dialogue or by the words themselves.

Examples of context tagging include:

  • Characters with a distinctive, recognizable speech pattern/accent (the reader will know which character says something if there’s only one character that talks like that). In this example (From Emma and the Banderwigh) the second line of dialogue has an elongated ‘s’ sound, which is a speech attribute of a specific character. Only one character in the book speaks with the ‘s’ sounds elongated, so any line of dialogue with this in it can be context attributed to that character.


She struggled to unstick her finger, and pointed at the dead man two feet away. “What about him?”

“Hisss companion killed one of my children.”


  • Direct responses to questions, either when a character is addressed by name or if there are only two characters present in the scene.

“What time did Doctor Lassiter say he was going to be here?” asked Faye.


(Assuming that Nigel and Faye are the only characters in the scene, the answer to the question is assumed to be from Nigel. If the answer is intended to come from the extra-dimensional being in the glove box, you’d need to identify that.)


“You never did tell me what her name was, Nigel.”

“Would it have mattered?”


Here, the question is directed at Nigel by name. The answer logically comes from Nigel so there’s no need to tag it apart from the context.

  • Dialogue that only one character in a scene could possibly say and would not make sense coming from anyone else. This example is from Prophet of the Badlands. Althea, the main character, has found a malfunctioning android stuck in a creek and is having a conversation with it. The line that begins with “prophet not found” has a speech pattern (short, direct statements plus it ‘sounds’ like a machine talking.) Also, Althea’s mangling of English can also serve as a context tag.

She noticed the gun closer to the water did not spin as fast as the other did, though both still pointed at her. “You want me to help you so you can shoot me?”

“That is correct.”

With a confused face, she ventured a peek. “Why? I am the Prophet.”

“Prophet not found. You are biological contaminant. CRP directive implies removal of biological contaminants from central North America. Please move to within twenty four inches of main unit.”

She stepped out from behind the tree, still clinging to it. “You want me to get closer? Why?”

“Please move within twenty four inches of main unit. Auxiliary contaminant removal system has a maximum effective range of twenty-nine inches.”

She took a cautious step closer. “What is a auximarry taminant system?”

Althea jumped back as a twenty-nine inch blade sprang out of its chest and waved back and forth in the air. “Detachment of biological unit component ‘head’ will result in effective contaminant removal.”


In a nutshell, if the reader can tell who is speaking a line of dialogue by the content or the way in which it is said, that dialogue is using context attribution.


— Missteps (Double tags, repetitive tags, and bad tags) —

Many new authors seem to have a desire to avoid using ‘said’ at all costs. I’ve worked with some manuscripts where the writer went to great and sometimes awkward lengths to avoid using ‘said.’ While I agree that long patches of dialogue where every line has a ‘said’ is dry as hell, there are some things that should be avoided.

Double Tagging

A double tag occurs when dialogue is attributed twice. The most often situation is when a writer uses both a beat and a tag on the same piece of dialogue. As the purpose of tagging and beats are to attribute the dialogue to the speaker, more than one of them is redundant and unnecessary.

An example of a double tag:

Nigel reached into his coat and grabbed his Webley revolver. “Wait in the car, Faye. This is going to get nasty,” he said.


Here, the dialogue is attributed to Nigel by his going for a gun. the ‘he said’ at the end is useless.

I’ve sometimes even seen triple and quadruple tags where ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is used as a reflexive add-on to the end of every spoken line of dialogue. Until the paragraph changes, the dialogue all belongs to the same character. A section of dialogue only needs to be attributed once. Something like this is going too far:


Faye leapt from the car and scrambled through the fog by the headlamps. “Nigel?” she asked. “Nigel? Come back,” said Faye. She crept towards the roiling wall of mist where he’d vanished. An hour ago, she’d wanted to kill him―now, she couldn’t imagine losing him. “Nigel!” she screamed. “Where are you?”


In this example, there’s 4 tags: the initial beat, asked, said, and screamed. While the screaming tag conveys some additional descriptive elements and might be tolerable, the asked/said are needless since the paragraph starts off with a beat. The above could be rewritten with one tag as:


Faye leapt from the car and scrambled through the fog by the headlamps. “Nigel?” She paused, listening. “Nigel? Come back.” She crept towards the roiling wall of mist where he’d vanished. An hour ago, she’d wanted to kill him―now, she couldn’t imagine losing him. “Nigel! Nigel, where are you?”

Only the sound of her own frantic screaming returned from the fog.


Bad / Explanatory Dialogue Tags

In the earnest efforts of some writers to avoid using ‘said’ as a dialogue tag, I’ve seen a lot of inventive verbs used as tags. Alas, most of them don’t do well. There are two primary forms of ‘bad tags.’ The first are verbs that do not convey speech and are not dialogue tags. Examples of this would be ‘laughed’, ‘chuckled’ or ‘sighed’ – all three of those are physical actions that are not speaking. More grotesque examples are physical actions such as winced or cringed. Using verbs like these as dialogue tags are clumsy as wincing or cringing (or any other physical action verb) isn’t a mode of speech. People don’t ‘wince’ words. So [“Ouch,” he winced.] does not work.


The second form of bad tag is what I refer to as ‘explanatory’ dialogue tags. With these, (many of which also don’t work as tags because they are not ways to speak) the author attempts to use the tag to explain the meaning of the dialogue to the reader. These tags can vary in impression from seeming amateurish to insulting the reader’s intelligence depending on how the reader takes them. Let the dialogue speak for itself and resist the urge to explain. Examples of ‘explanatory tags’ are:


“Yes, let’s do that,” he agreed.

“We have to shut down these sub relay breakers first, then we can kill the main. Once it’s off, we can change all these light bulbs,” he explained.

“I think this is an awful idea,” he opined.

“I hate this place. I hate this food. I hate this stupid dress, and I hate you!” she complained.

“No way,” he replied.


When a writer thinks the reader needs to be told ‘Yes, let’s do that’ is agreement – it’s like they grab the reader by the ear and force their face up to the page, yelling, “See, he agreed! see! ‘Yes means I agree!” A description of how to change light bulbs is obvious as an explanation, using the tag ‘explained’ here is redundant. Also, you can’t ‘explain’ words, it’s not a mode of speech.

With the ‘opined’ tag, the dialogue is expressing an opinion already. The tag ‘opined’ is unnecessary.


In the last example, the character is complaining. The dialogue shows that. There’s no need to beat the reader over the head to make sure they understand that a string of ‘I hates’ is complaining.

“Replied” sits on the fence. Some people find it acceptable, while it often strikes me as a weak tag. If the dialogue tagged with ‘replied’ occurs right after a question, its presence alone constitutes a reply – there’s no need to tell the reader it’s a reply when it is already shown as a reply.

Rote Tags

Many editors believe that ‘said’ is the only true dialogue tag. There is a lot of precedent for this, but some writers can take this too far. When every line of dialogue has a ‘said’ on it, the text is repetitious and stale, and not a lot of fun to read.


“I don’t care what this thing is, I’m going to send it back,” said Nigel.

“But, it’ll kill you,” said Faye. “Even if you live, you… won’t be the same.”

“Look,” said Nigel. “You don’t have to follow me if you don’t want to. This is Lassiter’s mess. He opened the gate, and I’m going to close it.”

“I’m going with you,” said Faye.

“No way in hell, babe,” said Nigel. “You’re staying right here.

“I’m not letting you go alone. Besides, I have the amulet,” said Faye.


Here, every line has ‘said’ on it. As you can see, it reads like you’re falling down the stairs face first and cheek-slapping every step along the way. The supposedly innocuous ‘said’ becomes not so invisible.

Good tags

So what, you may be asking now, do I think are good tags? Tags that convey a descriptive element and do not attempt to explain or clarify the dialogue. I have worked with a number of editors, some of whom have been strict “use ‘said’ or don’t use anything!” whack you on the knuckles with the ruler types, and others who seemed not to care whatsoever what tags are used. Some would argue the ideal dialogue uses only ‘said’ and ‘asked’ interspersed with beats and context clues.

While ‘said’ is the most accepted tag, it’s also bad to overuse it (see rote tags above). When the need arises to use something else, consider words like: shouted, whispered, yelled, rasped, wheezed, and so on. Be careful to avoid words like ‘growled’ or ‘sighed’, which are sounds/actions unto themselves and not modes of projecting words.

The best dialogue mechanics use a mixture of beats, tags, and context clues to keep the reader immersed and the action flowing. Be wary of overusing the same words, and when in doubt, use ‘said.’


Happy Writing,



** Thanks to Richard Roberts for feedback 🙂

Writing | Character Construction


Characters are the crux of a story. Regardless of the setting, the characters need to stay true to their sense of identity. Creating believable, memorable characters brings the reader deeper into the environment of a writer’s creation more than world-building alone can do. For me, nothing kills a story like characters who either fall flat or have a weak (or no) sense of identity. When participants in a story lack depth, or their actions seem random with no basis in a constructed psyche, it stands out.

In any story I write, I put a lot of thought into the characters involved. What goes on inside is as important (or more so) than what goes on outside. With a solid character to build on, a writer can throw any scenario at them and have a thorough grasp of how they’d react. Also, it’s better not to dump everything about the character over a reader’s head all at once. Show 10-30% of what you develop for a character, and use the rest as a basis for how the character interacts with others and behaves.

A couple of aspects of character creation that I find helpful are:

Primary Motivation

For major characters, I establish a primary trait or “concept” of what that person embodies. For example, Kirsten from Division Zero: At her core, she is a good soul with a powerful moral sense. She is resilient and has an altruistic nature that causes her to forget about her own safety when someone else is in danger.

The primary trait is the essence of that alternate psyche. Everything the character thinks or does filters through it. Her primary trait (strong moral sense) is a result of seeing into the world after death and the fears and insecurities that knowledge has caused. Others, such as her genuine altruism, are innate qualities.

Another example would be the character Joey from Virtual Immortality. His defining trait is that he is a thrill seeker. His search for an ever-stronger adrenaline rush motivates his actions. To a lesser extent, he’s a slacker―talented but unmotivated, and as much as he won’t admit it, a bit of a softie.


What happened in the character’s past to shape who they are? This question I tend to answer even for minor characters. Take Curtis Warren, the clerk at the cyberware shop in Division Zero. He only appears in one brief scene, however: He’s got a metal arm to replace one he lost while he was serving in the military on Mars. He’s seen enough horrible situations in combat to leave him him unimpressed with things that would scare many people. His wife left him due in part to mental issues from his service, his drinking, and that he spent more time at his shop than at home. He’s got a dog, which he got to fill the hole left behind by the divorce. He’s jaded with a society that isn’t aware a shooting war is going on up on Mars and doesn’t care that he went up there and got maimed for their benefit. He’s a rabid fan of the “Bloodthirsters” Gee-ball team, and has come close to physical violence with anyone who thinks the “Manglers” are better.

Now, most of that doesn’t come out in the story. It sits quiet in the background defining his personality and shaping his dialogue. Even minor characters benefit from a few snippets of background. These little facts weave the character into the world and make them a reflection of their surroundings, deepening the reader’s immersion.

Oftentimes, interaction with a character and their mannerisms can introduce elements of world building in ways more fulfilling than simple narrative. Also, if the character returns in another work or later revisions expand their role you have all the necessary framework to build on.


At least for the main character, and sometimes a prominent secondary character, I chart an evolutionary arc. What I mean by that is a gradual shift from one state of thought or being to another. I feel that characters should develop over the course of a story and wind up in a different place than where they started. A character that is isolated, lonely, and angry at the start of the story may wind up learning to trust someone by the end, or they may still be isolated and lonely, but no longer angry―as they find acceptance with their situation.

In my opinion, the primary trait that defines a character should not change lightly. However, a character’s nature could change with a severe enough experience. A good-hearted character is not going to turn evil because someone stiffed them for change when they got coffee. If something so trivial sets them off, they weren’t too good to begin with. When characters change, that change should feel natural and be proportional to the experiences they had during the story.

For example, Kirsten from Division Zero starts off loathing religion and anything even remotely connected to it because of the abuse she suffered from her mother. This aspect of her character changes over the course of the series based on her experiences.


Sometimes, a little quirk of a character can stand out in a reader’s mind long after they finish the story. These are little idiosyncratic behaviors or traits that everyone has, and goes a long way towards making them feel more like a real person. A character might have a fondness for jalapeños in their egg or love coffee. They might like cats, dogs, or the color puce. Do they have a phobia, a hobby, or a silly habit?

Take Nicole from Division Zero―she is the main character’s friend, but she has a short attention span. She will start a conversation on one topic and go through three more before whomever she’s speaking with can finish reacting to the first one. She is also rather free with her telepathic eavesdropping, and likes to take pictures of suspects who make stupid faces at her whenever she telekinetically yanks their weapons away.

These idiosyncrasies can be superficial or deep. In Nicole’s case, finding amusement in the criminals’ reaction to her gift is something to add humor to life and take her mind away from thinking about how her parents got divorced because they argued over how to raise a psionic child. It’s a mask for guilt, a barrier against the fear of how society looks at her and a facet of her constant attempts to be cute and endearing―she needs people to like her.

Dialogue  – Keeping a character’s dialogue true to who they are is very important. Even small traits in the dialogue can be used to help convey who they are. For example, an arrogant character (like Archon from the Awakened Series) does not use contractions and chooses words that make him sound self-important. Someone like Nicole (who is a conversational scatterbrain) has quick topic shifts, mangles some words, and sometimes abbreviates things never meant to be abbreviated.

For this, I find it helpful to read dialogue out loud and imagine the character speaking like you’re intending. Of course, sometimes this can present its own problems. For at least a week after writing Anatoly Nemsky’s lines from Virtual Immortality, I kept hearing my inner thoughts in a bad Russian accent.


In short, the most important part of a story to me are the people, from major to minor and all points in between. Every character I add to a narrative has a constructed psyche and enough history to know who they are. The grandest stage you can build will be useless without believable characters upon it, but even the most drab of setting can be brought to life with memorable characters.

Whenever a situation presents itself to a character, imagine yourself in their place. Consider how you would react in that situation. What is going through the character’s mind at that moment? Once you have your gut reaction, run it through a thought process based on the character’s inner nature and consider how their background would influence them. After that, factor in their quirks, and the result is a genuine reaction of the real person you imagined.