Make Me Believe It

“You’re late,” Sara said.

“I’m sorry,” Mark said. “I had to stay at work longer than I expected.”

“You have been very busy there,” she said. “Hot and cold running water aren’t that important.”

“Did you stop at the store for some milk?”

Here we have some dialogue between two people, but what can you tell from this exchange? What sort of emotions can you recognize?

Nothing? Without emotion there’s no tension, and the dialogue serves no purpose.

Think of your story as a stage play. “Sara, darling! You’re angry at Mark. Growl at him! Slam doors! Make me believe it!”

You can make your character more vivid and more memorable if you let him express himself. You might do this by modifying the word said. “You’re late,” Sara said angrily. But too many adverbs ending in -ly (quickly, nervously, happily) are a sign of weak writing. Chuck as many of them as you can into the wastebasket and replace them with stronger verbs – verbs that create a clearer picture and better convey the sense of mood.

There’s no business like show business. Show us what your characters are doing while they’re talking. In day-to-day chitchat, people might very well just recline in their chairs like slugs, barely moving the muscles it takes to breathe and talk at the same time, but in your story, their conversation – and their actions – need to be paying for the space they occupy. You can control your reader’s perception of the scene and carry the story forward just by adding some ‘stage directions.’

For instance, when you read the following, what do you see?

• He jabbed his cigarette out roughly against the counter…
• Legs crossed, one foot jiggled repeatedly…
• Suddenly, he winked at her…
• At his side, one fist tightened until the knuckles were white…
• She sighed and rolled her eyes…

“You’re late,” Sara said angrily, slamming the cupboard door closed.

To help distinguish one character from another, writers often employ tagging. What is a tag?

“In the parlance of fiction writing, a character tag is a repetitive verbal device used to identify a character in the mind of the reader. More than a simple description, a character tag calls to mind aspects of the character’s personality and uniqueness.” (Maeve Maddox, Character Tags in Fiction)

Sherlock Holmes and his violin. Columbo and his trenchcoat. My daughter plays with her hair.

“[Sara] can become instantly recognizable if she constantly twists the ring on her finger or checks her make-up in a pocket compact (as opposed to a Mary with her double negative or a Brooke who won’t go anywhere without her Calvins).

Be careful. The choice of the bit to tag the character must be well-conceived, not random. The selected detail should demonstrate an important part of the character’s personality. The twisting of the ring, for instance, suggests [Sara’s] nervousness; the use of the compact, her vanity.” (Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, Writer’s Digest, February 1987)

You can also use your character to help set the scene. Rather than telling the reader the gritty details, show them with actions.

“You’re late,” Sara said angrily, slamming the cupboard door closed and tossing the dish towel on the counter.

We know right away that Sara’s in a kitchen, which implies that she and Mark are at home. Caution: Using too many ‘stage’ directions can distract from the dialogue. With a little bit of practice, one sentence can carry a lot of weight; it can identify the speaker, suggest their emotional state, and indicate the place where the action is taking place. And that is just the beginning…!

How do you make your characters real? What kinds of ‘tags’ do you assign them, and how do you go about choosing them? What are some of the tags that you remember from books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen?

Leave a Reply