Wednesday, April 18, 2018

5 Sources for Character Names - Guest Post by JPC Allen

Creating names for characters is the one writing task I always find enjoyable. I’ve been fascinated with names since I was a kid, pouring through baby name books to look up the meaning of my name and those of my family.

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If you have run out of inspiration for new names, check out the sources below. But remember The Golden Rule of Characters Names: It must be easy to sound out. I invented a Slavic-sounding last name, Stalvochek. Although it’s long, it’s easy to pronounce, “Stahl-voe-check”. But if I tried something like Tziwowicz, my readers would give up and skip over it every time it reared its ugly head.

1. Family History – If you have an amateur genealogist in your family, take a look at her work. My sister fills that role in our family and has uncovered relatives named Moses, Minerva, and Oral. Among the last names, she’s found Bonar, Righter, and Talkington.

If you are planning to write about a family that covers several generations, studying your family’s naming patterns can help you build realistic-sounding names. In my family, we use middle names to honor someone while first names are usually ones the parents just like. Five of my parents’ grandsons are named after grandfathers or great-grandfathers. My sister gave her daughter the middle name “Brooke” in memory of a college roommate.

2. Social Security Baby Names – With this site, you can search baby naming trends back to 1880. I wanted to use popular names for a wealthy family as a signal that they follow social norms and are boring. The father, born in the 1970’s, is Jason, a top-ten name from 1971-1983. His teenage son is Jacob, a name that soared in popularity around the turn of the millennium. This site does have one drawback. It doesn’t combine spelling variations. “Aiden” is much more popular than you would think from this site because parents spell it so many different ways, and each of those ways is listed separately.

The next three categories are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction. But contemporary writers might still find inspiration. Maybe you have a professor of Celtic mythology who named all her children after the gods in those myths.

3. Scientific names for animals – Get a field guide. Flipping through my husband’s book on birds, I find Calidris, Striatus, Thula. Asio, Strix, and Zenaida. Tyto Albo is the name for barn owls. It also sounds like a great name for the hero of an epic. If I change it to Tyta Albo or Alba Tyto, I have a heroine.

4. Mythology – A search through less well-known Greek, Roman, and Norse myths can provide names. I recommend dipping into mythologies that aren’t as well-known in America, like Celtic and Slavic. Just a few names I’ve found from Celtic and Slavic stories are Bres, Korrigan, Sadko, Morevna, and Caradoc.

5. Reverse and tinker with well-known names – I take a name like William and write it backwards, Mialliw. That’s unpronounceable. But if I take off the “iw”, I have Miall. Changing the “i” to “y”, I now have Myall, a name any English reader can sound out.

Where do you find inspiration for characters’ names? Let us know in the comments!


5 Sources for Character Names #writingtips #amwriting

JPC Allen chose initials for her pen name because she thought it had to be more memorable than “Jennifer”. She is a 2016 semi-finalist in the ACFW’s Genesis contest for her contemporary YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers. An English major and former children’s librarian, she loves to introduce tweens and teens to the adventure of writing through her workshops. She offers writing tips and prompts for beginning writers at and A lifelong Buckeye, JPC Allen has deep root in the Mountain State.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags – Part 2: Showing vs. Telling

Last week, we discussed why an issue arises when we use too many dialogue tags in our fiction. So how can us fiction writers write effective dialogue tags that 1) don’t distract readers from the scene, and 2) shows rather than tells?

It’s much easier to show how this is accomplished rather than tell you about it. (See what I did there?) ;)

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Here’s an example of what NOT to do:

“I don’t care!” he shouted angrily. “I want some ice cream.”

What’s wrong with this example?

The writer uses the adverb angrily to tell how he said the speech. Since adverbs almost always tell rather than show, they need to be omitted from manuscripts when possible.

Let’s rewrite this in a way that shows that the character said this “angrily”:

“I don’t care!” He yanked the lid off the ice cream tub and jammed a spoon into the nearly-frozen dessert. “I want some ice cream.”

Why does this work better?

For one, because the tag “he shouted” is unnecessary in this case. The exclamation point implies that he shouted this sentence. Also, do you notice how the action tag invites the reader deeper into a scene? The reader will pick up on the fact that he’s angry by the way he “yanks” the lid off and “jams” a spoon into the container. (Side note: Always replace adverbs with strong verbs when possible. When chosen carefully, these strong verbs will set the mood you’re trying to establish.)

Are you starting to see how action beats can be far more effective in showing than dialogue tags?

Here’s another example of what NOT to do:

“I’ve never been good enough,” Sarah mumbled sadly.

What’s wrong with this example?

First, the statement she makes—that she’s never been good enough—can stand on its own. The reader will most likely pick up the hint that she means this in a sad way, not in an enthused way.

Let’s rewrite this in a way that shows that the character mumbled this “sadly”:

“I’ve never been good enough.” Sarah’s words were mumbled, and her head lowered as she stared at the big red F on her report card. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring the ink.

Why does this work better?

Again, this rewrite invites the reader to step into the scene. The action beats don’t interrupt the flow of the story, and the reader understands that the character is sad. How does the reader reach this conclusion? Through her dialogue, mumbled words, body language (head lowered), tears, and props (red F on the report card).

The other reason we want to avoid dialogue tags in our fiction is because it could result in choppy dialogue.

Here’s an example:

“Why are you here?” Ben asked. 
“Because I want to be,” Jessica said. “Is that a problem?” she asked. 
“No, I just thought you might have plans this morning,” he said. 
“I canceled them,” she said. “Besides … maybe I wanted to spend my day with you.”

What’s wrong with this example?

Not only is this dialogue smoother, but as the reader, I have no idea how the characters are saying this dialogue. Are they angry with each other? Sincere? Sarcastic? Or is Ben happy that Jessica is there?

Now, the easy way to fix this would be, of course, to add adverbs. For example:

“Is that a problem?” she asked sarcastically.

But again, this is weak because it doesn’t invite the reader deeper into the scene. It relies on the adverb to tell readers that she asked this sarcastically.

So, let’s rewrite this dialogue in a way that shows and doesn’t come across as choppy:

“Why are you here?” A furrow creased between Ben’s brows. 
“Because I want to be.” Jessica took a step closer to him, fidgeting with the chain on her necklace. 
Ben couldn’t help himself—the lightness in her voice, and the brief smile she flashed at him, stole his breath. She tilted her head at him and said, “Is that a problem?” 
“No”—he couldn’t fight the smile slipping onto his lips—“I just thought you might have plans this morning.” Why was his heart racing so fast? 
“I canceled them.” She stood in front of him now and reached for his hand. “Besides … maybe I wanted to spend my day with you.”

Why does this work better?

Not only is this dialogue no longer choppy, but it also gives the reader greater insight into the scene and characters. Thanks to the action/expression beats, the readers can now understand that the two characters aren’t angry at each other; in fact, they were flirting with each other. The first example didn’t exactly give that impression.

Notice that I used Ben’s POV interior monologue to give more insight into his heart/mind. (For example: “Ben couldn’t help himself—the lightness in her voice, and the brief smile she flashed at him, stole his breath.”)

You’ll also notice that the dialogue tag “said” was used; however, it was nearly invisible, wasn’t it? That’s how it should remain in our manuscripts. We should use them sparingly, carefully, and only when necessary. (It could actually be omitted in this example and we would still understand that Jessica was speaking.)


When we use dialogue tags the wrong way in our writing, we rob our readers from having a “fictive dream” experience. This is the experience that comes when readers forget they’re reading a book and are swept into the lives of the characters.

When we write, we should pretend as if we’re allowing a movie to play on the screens of our readers’ minds. Movies rely on character’s body language, emotions, actions, and props to fill in the gaps between the dialogue. All of this shows what needs to be shown throughout dialogue rather than tells. (This includes subtext.)

The advantage we have as an author that filmmakers lack? We can go deeper. We can give our readers direct access into the heart and mind of our point of view characters.

So let’s use the tools we have—action/voice/emotion beats, description/props, exposition, and interior monologue—and weave these elements into our dialogue. Let’s erase all traces of telling by being intentional with our dialogue tags and using them the right way.

What’s your advice for writing effective dialogue tags? As a reader, do you find it distracting to read dialogue that uses too many dialogue tags? Let me know in the comments!


How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags – Part 2: Showing vs. Telling #amwriting #writingcraft @TessaEmilyHall

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags - Part 1: The Problem With Too Many

When reading fiction, dialogue tags help cue the readers in on which character is speaking. However, when a writer uses too many dialogue tags—and when they’re used incorrectly—the dialogue is being told to the reader rather than shown. If you use too many dialogue tags within your manuscript, you may risk coming across as an amateur to an agent or editor.

So how are readers supposed to know which character is speaking if dialogue tags should be avoided when possible?

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Here’s how: Writers should show who is speaking rather than tell the reader who is speaking. They should also show how a statement/question is spoken rather than telling them how it was spoken.

In movies, the viewer does not need dialogue tags. Why? Because they’re shown which character is saying what. They also know how they’re saying it.

The dialogue tags should be almost invisible in our manuscripts as well. In other words, our characters should be so alive in readers’ imagination that they, in a sense, forget that they’re reading a book. However, this effect is impossible to accomplish if we use a dialogue tag for each line of dialogue. Those dialogue tags are constant reminders that practically scream to the reader, “This scene isn’t really happening; it was only written by the author!”

Rather than telling the reader that the character said something “angrily”, the action/emotion beats we use should bring the reader to that conclusion. By doing this, we’re inviting the reader to use their imagination rather than telling them how they should imagine the speech being spoken.

It’s okay to use dialogue tags sparingly within your scenes—especially when it’s unclear who is speaking. When necessary, we should use the tag “said”. The word “said” tends to be invisible to readers. By doing this, we'll allow the scene to continue unfolding before their eyes without bringing attention to the dialogue tags. We never want to bring attention to dialogue tags, as this is an interruption to the story and its flow.

However, too many dialogue tags in a row—even the word said—can come across as choppy. When dialogue is choppy, then the scene can no longer play out like a movie in the mind of our readers. To avoid this, we should weave in other fiction elements into our scenes to make it come to life, such as description, interior monologue, action/emotion beats, and exposition.

For every writing rule, there are always exceptions. Although editors will advise that you stay clear of dialogue tags, it is occasionally okay to use the following: 

  • Asked 
  • Shouted 
  • Mumbled 
  • Whispered 
  • Muttered 

 Why? Because these dialogue tags are almost invisible, just like said tags. They’re simple and often necessary. When used sparingly, these tags won’t distract from the scene that takes place.

So how is it possible for us to write effective dialogue tags that, 1) don't distract readers from the scene, and 2) show rather than tell?

We'll discuss the answer to this question in next week's post.

~ ~ ~ 

Have you ever been distracted by too many dialogue tags in a book? Is it a struggle for you to write effective dialogue tags in your manuscript? Let me know in the comments!


How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags - Part 1: The Problem With Too Many @TessaEmilyHall #writingcraft #amediting