Characters Should Say and Do Only Things That Have Purpose.

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Writers may think characters should talk and act like real people. If a movie showed actors doing that, the theater would soon be empty. That’s why films cut to the important dialogue and actions. It’s the same with novels. 

Purposeful dialogue, inner thoughts, and actions deepen motivation, conflict, and tension.

Let’s take a look at an example.

No Purpose (reality)

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor.

“Did you get milk? I’m low on milk for my morning cereal.”

“Yes.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves. The plant looked better. 

“Good.” Alex turned his attention to his newspaper.

Gretta moved across the room and collected a stack of folded laundry on the coffee table. “Well, I guess I should put the groceries away and get dinner started.”

Analysis: The example shows no conflict or tension to intrigue readers. Nothing is said, thought, or done that tells us something about the characters. Boring.

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Purpose: Show a Shaky Marriage 

“You’re back,” Alex tossed his book onto the end table. “Where’ve you been?”

Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor and planted her hands on her hips. “Where do you think I’ve been?” 

Alex checked his watch. “You’ve been gone a long time to get milk.” 

“So you think I’m having an affair?” Gretta crossed her arms over her midriff.

“I don’t know what to think anymore.” Alex stood and walked toward the back of the house, shaking his head.

Had she pushed him too far? “I stopped to look at houseplants,” she called. “Dinner will be ready in thirty minutes.”

His car keys jangled as he returned to the den.

Her heart raced. Was he leaving her for good? 

Analysis: The actions show Alex is irritated, disappointed, and has had it. Gretta’s actions tell us she’s defensive. The dialogue and Gretta’s internal thoughts show she goads then is afraid she’s gone too far. We have conflict, tension, motives, and feelings. Deeper. 

Purpose: Show a Possible Murder

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her bag of unnecessary groceries on the floor and concealed in her fist the bloody necklace she’d found in his car. Did he believe the store had been her one destination? If only Kirsten had come to the door when Gretta had made the detour.

“Come here.”

Her heart shot up against her throat. Would he recognize her fear if she came too close? What if he asked what was in her hand? Kirsten had always worn that necklace.

Gretta nodded toward the bag. “I should put the groceries away.” 

“Come here.” Alex laid the newspaper aside and extended his hand.

Had his voice held a slight edge? 

“Just one second.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves as she let the gold chain slip to the soil. She wiped her hand on her black slacks. 

“You pay more attention to that plant than to me. Maybe I’ll dump it down the garbage disposal.”

Analysis: Conflict, tension, feelings, and a good reason to pull leaves off the violet. We know Gretta suspects Alex of hurting Kirsten and is afraid of him. We see Alex is a jerk.

How do you check your paragraphs for purpose?

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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  —Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

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Speaker Attributes and Beats: They’re to Subtly Help the Reader

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A speaker attribute is a way a person says something, such as he said, asked, whispered, or yelled. A beat is an action connected to dialogue. It reminds readers people are talking, not solely their heads.

The main job of speaker attributes and beats is to let the reader know who’s speaking. Usually, they should not call attention to themselves. And a speaker attribute should be a valid way someone could speak.

After the examples below, see if you can revise the conversations to focus more on the content of the conversation than how something is said. Use words in the dialogue or character’s actions to show how the speaker feels.

Dialogue Between Talking Heads

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“Why’d you say that?”

“I was telling the truth.”

“What you said about me was far from the truth.”

“What did I say that was untrue?”

“You know very well that I didn’t steal Mandi’s boyfriend.”

“I saw you flirting with him.”

“You’re mean.”

“What about you?”

“I’m not mean.”

“Says you.”

Notice the conversation is like two heads are talking. Did you get lost as to who said which line by the end?

Overbearing or Impossible Speaker Attributes


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“Why’d you do that?” Meredith fumed.

“I was telling the truth.” Cal grated.

“What you said about me was far from the truth,” Meredith threw back.

“What did I say that was untrue?” Cal defended.

“You know very well that I didn’t steal Mandi’s boyfriend,” Meredith seethed.

“I saw you flirting with him.” Cal accused.

Fumed, grated, threw, defended, and seethed are not valid ways a person speaks. How does one fume or defend words out of their mouths?

In Cal’s last statement, his words show he accused Meredith of flirting. The author had no need to explain or tell that’s what Cal did.

Too Much He said, She said


“Why’d you do that?” she said.

“I was telling the truth,” he said.

“What you said about me was far from the truth,” she said.

“What did I say that was untrue?” he said.

“You know very well that I didn’t steal Mandi’s boyfriend,” she said.

“I saw you flirting with him,” he said.

An Improved Rewrite


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“Why’d you do that?” Meredith asked.

Cal stared at her. “I was telling the truth.”

“What you said about me was far from the truth, Cal.”

“What did I say that was untrue?”

She clamped her hands on her hips. “You know very well that I didn’t steal Mandi’s boyfriend.”

“I saw you flirting with him.” His gaze drilled hers. “Do you deny that?”

Use only speaker attributes and beats that improve dialogue for the reader. Click to tweet.

I invite you to share your rewrite in the comments.


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Amanda Larrowe’s lack of trust sabotages her relationships. The English teacher and award-winning author of middle-grade adventure books for boys has shut off communication with friends and family to meet her January 2 book deadline. Now, in the deepest snow accumulation Richmond, Virginia has experienced in years, Camden Lancaster moves in across the street. After ten years, her heart still smarts from the humiliating aftermath of their perfect high school Valentine’s Day date. He may have transformed into a handsome, amiable man, but his likeability doesn’t instill trust in Amanda’s heart. When Cam doesn’t recognize her on their first two encounters, she thinks it’s safe to be his fair-weather neighbor. Boy is she wrong.

Aphorism: True, Short, and Witty

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A truth that is said in a quick and witty manner is an aphorism. Aphorisms don’t have to be humorous, but that’s half the reason we like so many of them. And aphorism’s brevity makes their truths easy to remember.

An example of this literary device is Benjamin Franklin’s familiar statement, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

A character in a story might have the quirky habit of quoting famous aphorisms. However, several characters using famous aphorisms may sound clichéd. The solution would be to create some fresh aphorisms and spice up dialogue in our stories.


To get the feel of what aphorisms sound like, here are six.

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From Proverbs 21:19: “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.”

By William Faulkner: “A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.”

Russell Banks: “There is a wonderful intelligence to the unconscious. It’s always smarter than we are.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

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Albert Einstein: The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.

Attribution uncertain: “If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”



Aphorisms Learned From My Life’s Lessons

The first one is based on what I believe in writing romances about extreme opposites. The others rise from truths I’ve learned from life so far.

“Before opposites attract, opposites distract.”

“Prickly people will stick it to you.”

“Listen, instead of mentally forming your clever response, then you’ll have a clever response.”

“It’s best to ignore a boss who refuses to punctuate his email directives.”

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“Give colleagues what they need, and you’ll have a mob at your door.”

“It’s ludicrous to cover up the awful taste of avocados by smearing butter on them.”

“It’s better to grow up average than beautiful; in an old folks home, developed personality trumps looks.”

Create an aphorism from a character’s grasp of a truth & enliven your dialogue. Click to tweet.

Your turn. Will you create an aphorism from your life’s lessons and share it with us?