Thursday, September 1, 2011

Left to Write: Dialogue Tags

I don't claim to be an expert, however I have had some small success in publishing and I've learned what I like as a reader. Plus there have been a few that have reluctantly admitted that I'm a strong dialogue writer. So let's talk about those pesky little things called dialogue tags.

What exactly is a dialogue tag?

It's that he said/she said stuff you stick somewhere in your dialogue to let the reader know who is speaking. You wouldn't think writing Tom said or Susan said is hard. It isn't. But writers like to make things complicated.

Before we get started, first you have to erase from your memory everything that your grade six English teacher taught you about dialogue tags, unless your grade six English teacher was a best selling author, in which case he/she would have been in his/her vacation villa in Italy writing his/her next best selling novel and not teaching you grade six English.

Recently I was reading a conversation between two people, and it became the reason why I ended up writing this post. In this conversation she screeched, then he grumbled, then she harped, then he snarled, then she sneered, which made me groan and him to glare and then he reminisced for awhile to give the reader background information even though he was still in the middle of a fight, which caused me to scream.

Forget about snarling, screeching, and sneering. Just say said.

But said is boring and it doesn't tell the reader how they said it.

Exactly. Said is so boring that it becomes invisible. Your reader won't even notice the word said. And why do you want to tell the reader how the character says something? Shouldn't you show it?

What does a sneer look like? What does it feel like? Show your reader what your point of view character is seeing and feeling. Show us how the other characters are reacting.

But if I use said then whole lines of he said'/she said looks stilted and amateurish.

In a conversation between two characters you don't need to identify the speaker in very line. You just need a reminder every few lines. Readers can follow along quite well. However, this gets tricky when you have more than two people speaking.

In that case show us what's happening.

Tom brushed his hair from his eyes and adjusted the goggles over his face with his gloved fingers. “Race you down! Last one there buys dinner.”

In that sentence, the word said doesn't even appear. Yet we know Tom said something because the statement is connected with his actions. Not only do we know what Tom said, but how he said it without using any explanation. We get that he's excited and confident. We've probably discerned that he's skiing and if we haven't, the next couple of paragraphs will make it clear.

Now lets talk about those little ly adverbs that your English teacher taught you to tack onto the end of said to make your sentences more interesting. You probably spent a few hours with these guys and your teacher never told you that he sent out all kinds of work to publishers and doesn't understand why he's never been published.

“How are you?” she asked cheerily.

“I'm just fine,” he said grumpily.

“Well, you don't have to be sarcastic,” she said angrily.

"I'm not reading any more of this." The editor said pointedly.

Don't do them. Just don't. Not unless you want editors to use your manuscript for the paper plane contests that they have once a week in the cafeteria.

You need to trust your dialogue. Often the dialogue will automatically tell us how something is being said.

You need to trust your characters. If we know that he is generally a grumpy person we don't need to be told that he says something grumpily.

You need to trust your setting. If someone enters into a kitchen where bread is baking, and a character says “What's that smell?” then that's enough. We don't need to read “What's that smell?” she asked rapturously. You might want to show us how she's reacting. Maybe her eyes are closed and she takes a deep breath. Maybe she adds "it's marvelous". But don't tell us how she says it. Maybe the fact that she uses the word marvelous tells us something about her character that you don't have to explain.

You need to trust your audience. For the most part your audience can figure out without the sneering and the harping that a fight is going on and the characters are not getting along.

Aren't there exceptions to the rules?

There are always exceptions to the rules. “Stop! she said, doesn't work. It looks stupid. Not only that but it gives the reader opposing statements. You need to use yelled or shouted. It is redundant, but it supports the exclamation mark. The same with question marks. When someone is asking a question, you can use the word asked in place of said. In fact there are a few words that are almost as invisible as said  that are acceptable if not used too much- asked, stated, commented, added for example,. Y ou can even use an action word as a tag. “You're kidding,” he laughed. “I'm not going,” she pouted. Laughing and pouting are concrete words. Sneering isn't. Sneering is a perception word.

If you are going to insist on using an ly word as a tag even though I've told you not to, then use them sparingly. The same goes for words instead of said. Do not under any circumstances, unless you are deliberately writing a parody, use these words throughout a conversation. Even those concrete words need to be used sparingly, otherwise you've got people just pulling a bunch of faces which can get quite unattractive and distracting.

Here's a practical exercise. Get out a piece of dialogue that you've written, or write a new one. Now don't put in any tags at all. Just write it like two people talking. Or take out all the tags you've put in. Now read it over. Is it clear? What needs clarifying? Can you tell who's speaking? Now you can put in the tags. Just where they are needed. Put in said. How does it look? Can you do something different than “he said” without telling us how he said it? What is going on in the conversation? Put that in. Don't overdue it. The dialogue should sparkle on its own. It only needs a little support. Why encase it in an entire cast when it only needs a cane?

If you're writing a long piece such as a novel and you want to use that ly word because you don't know how else to convey it, put it in for now, highlight it in red, and after you're done writing and you're in the editing process, go back to those red words and ask yourself how you can show the reader how your character is saying things. If he's saying things sadly, then show us what he looks like. If he's the POV character then let us know how he feels. What does sad feel like? What does it look like? How is his statements and behaviors affecting others visually?

But what if the reader doesn't understand what I'm trying to convey?

Then the reader doesn't. She'll figure it out. She'll ask questions. Maybe she doesn't have to know everything right now. Not every question gets an answer.

For some fun there's something called a swifty. Years ago there was a series of books about Tom Swift, a boy detective. The writer was liberal with his ly words and as a result the term “swifty” was born. A swifty is a tag that is a pun of the statement. Here are some examples.

"I'll have a martini," said Tom, drily.

"Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.

"That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly.

"I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.

"We just struck oil!" Tom gushed.

"They had to amputate them both at the ankles," said Tom defeatedly.

"Who discovered radium?" asked Marie curiously.

"Hurry up and get to the back of the ship," Tom said sternly.

And that's why you don't use ly words.


JQ said...

Hey, there was no reluctance when I told you your dialogue was good. :)