Thursday, June 11, 2015

5 Ways Your Dialogue Tags Suck: Dialogue Diatribe #2

Dialogue tags shouldn't be difficult. Trust me. As an editor who reads the work of new writers, dialogue tags can get really screwed up and entirely disrupt the flow of a story.

Don't take this lightly.

In my last post on dialogue, I explained the mechanics of dialogue. Today I want to talk about the tags themselves.
Make your tags invisible. Image: José María Pérez Nuñez
The thing with dialogue tags is that when people begin writing fiction, they often begin to see that they are writing he said and she said and it feels like a lot of repetition. As writers, we're taught to avoid using the same words too often, so we want to fix this problem. Unfortunately, in attempting to fix dialogue tags, many writers wind up with bad ones.

Using bad dialogue tags is like admitting:
  • I have never taken a writing class.
  • I'm too lazy to go to the library to check out a copy of Strunk & White.
  • I don't know how to use the internet for reference.
  • I like to torture readers and editors.
  • No literate human has ever read my work. My writing group is a clowder of cats, a baby doll I found in the dumpster, and an old bottle with a face drawn on it.

1. Overtagging

     "It's beautiful," she says.
     "What is?" he asks.
     "That painting in front of you," she says. "Don't you think it's beautiful?" she asks him. "Sexy," she purrs.
     "That's the one my mom painted," he says. "There is nothing sexy about it," he tells her.
     "I had no idea," she smiles. "She certainly has a talent."
     "A talent that tore apart our family," he grumbles.
     "I didn't know," she says, putting her wine glass down. "And you're still not over it?"
     He furrows his brow. "Mothers are not sexy," he says. "They should not display their sexuality to the public."
     She stares at him for a minute before saying, "I need to get up early. I think I'll head home."

I swear, every workshop I have ever been in has at least one person who insists that they can't understand who is speaking in someone's story and that dialogue tags are missing. That's how we end up with things like the above.

A dialogue tag isn't needed each time a character speaks. If it is a conversation between two people, readers can usually follow properly paragraphed dialogue once the first lines are tagged. Too much he said/she said calls attention to itself. Try omitting some of them and seeing what conversation can happen without a tag.

Let's experiment. I'll remove all but two dialogue tags.

     "It's beautiful," she says.
     "What is?" he asks.
     "That painting in front of you. Don't you think it's beautiful?" She pauses to take the image in more intently. "And sexy."
     "That's the one my mom painted. There is nothing sexy about it."
     "I had no idea. She certainly has a talent."
     "A talent that tore apart our family."
     "I didn't know. And you're still not over it?"
     "Mothers are not sexy. They should not display their sexuality to the public."
     She stares at him for a minute before speaking. "I need to get up early. I think I'll head home."

The rhythm may be off and actions may give more to this conversation, but who is speaking is not unclear. It won't hurt to add one or two back in when you have more than one speaker, when the conversation is long, or when there are longer diversions inserted--but think about what is necessary.

2. 1001 Synonyms for "Said"

     "What's your best writing advice?" John inquires.
     "Start with a baby at the edge of a cliff," Dennis declares.
     "Oh," Mitch scoffs, "if everybody does that then we're all writing the same thing."
     "I have your beers," the waitress chirps, but she goes unheard.
     "That's ridiculous. There are a finite number of stories," Dennis informs Mitch.

All these verbs are intrusive. Stop being creative with dialogue tags. If you think the simple say and ask call attention to themselves, try reading the same thing with those instead of the synonyms:

     "What's your best writing advice?" John asks.
     Dennis looks up from his computer. "Start with a baby at the edge of a cliff."
     "If everybody does that," Mitch says, "then we're all writing the same thing."
     "I have your beers." The waitress goes unheard.
     "That's ridiculous. There are a finite number of stories," Dennis says.

I admit it. I removed a couple of the says because, um, I just wrote about overtagging. But the second dialogue simply moves more smoothly. Save those unusual verbs for tags in which you are trying to create impact.


3. Describing the Dialogue

     "I don't have time for this," Louise said brusquely.
     "It's just a quick signature," Ruth said pleadingly. "I need to get it out in the mail today."
     "I have to read it first. No time."
     "You dictated it," Ruth said, frustrated. "I wrote exactly what you said."

You know what? If the dialogue and the actions around it don't speak for themselves, then they need to be rewritten. We'll get into that in Dialogue Diatribe #3. In the meantime, read this without the adjectives and adverbs. Does the dialogue convey the hurriedness? Where does the dialogue need to be improved? Where would action help to amplify Louise's lack of time?

     "I don't have time for this." Louise threw the files into her briefcase without looking to see if they were in order.
     "It's just a quick signature," Ruth said. "I need to get it out in the mail today."
     "I have to read it first. No time."
     "You dictated it. I wrote exactly what you said."

4. Why So Damned Weird with the Syntax?

     "Where's the monkey?" asked June.
     "He escaped the cage and has been running around the yard, terrorizing the neighbor's cats," said Mark.
     "Did you try to get him back inside?" asked June.
     "I let him out of the cage," said Mark.
     "So he didn't escape," said June, "like you told me."
     "The cats have been pooping in the garden," said Mark.
     "I'm surprised you're not watching the terrorizing," said June.

The usual syntactical order of words in U.S. English is Subject+Verb. Thus, June+said--June said. (Not said June.) It's not that saying said June is wrong; it can be appropriate to certain time periods and it isn't as uncommon in the U.K. It can also work rhythmically, though sparingly, in other time periods, too. The problem is when it is used consistently in contemporary writing in the U.S. and Canada.

I recently edited a book in which the writer used a Verb+Subject construction (said June) with all names, and a Subject+Verb construction (she said) with all pronouns. The Verb+Subject constructions stood out as especially strange. He did not want to change them because they were not technically wrong. When I asked him why he used the unusual construction, he said he didn't notice and he didn't know why he did it, but he just wanted to get the book to the printer. (One edit and it went to the printer--it's not enough. Don't be this kind of self-publisher.)

Unless you have a reason for being weird and inverting sentence structure, follow regional and current conventions.

5. Trying to Be Sneaky

     "Why did you come here?" Rufus asks, shoving his hands in his pockets, nervous about talking to such a pretty girl.
     "That's the question," she says, nibbling on a saltine.
     Rufus now begins to ask himself why he walked up to her. Maybe no one knows why they go anywhere. "My name is Rufus," he says, stammering as he pronounces his own name.

Sometimes we embed our tags with the hope that it will disguise them. This works to some degree, but when it is used over and over, the repetitive structure not only makes the reader aware of the tag, but also of the participial phrases.

This problem can also occur with varied sentence structures:

     "I called, but no one answered," Dante said, unsure of what to say next.
     "Oh," she said as she turned and walked off into the kitchen. She gave him a forced smile.
     "You still want to go on a hike, right?" he said, trying to catch her eye.
     "I don't know," she trailed off, avoiding his line of vision. "It's not you…"
     "But what?" he said as his voice rose.
     "Well," she said, a tear forming in her eye, "when you left last week, I was afraid I'd never see you again."
     "Here I am," he said and held his arms out, unsure of whether he was holding them out for her to come to him or whether it was in resignation.

Is this method of embedding dialogue tags better than just using gerunds? Well, it's at least alternating sentence structure, but it's overwritten and double-tagging. There is a way to use this, however, to create better dialogue.


Invisible Dialogue Tags are Simple

There is nothing wrong with he said/she said. Most readers barely even register the word "said". Their minds skip over it when it's not overused. Think of dialogue tags like punctuation: you use periods and commas most of the time, but occasionally, a semi-colon makes the most sense. Exclamation points are rare. Asterisks and brackets are not to be used liberally. Use said and asked (the period and comma of tag verbs) for most of your tags, only occasionally using a different verb when it enhances the story--in the same way you would use exclamation points. Occasional synonyms for said, when used sparingly and appropriately, do not cause a distraction.

Use dialogue tags only when necessary. If it's clear who is speaking, then the tag isn't necessary.

Replace some tags with action and internalization. Action within dialogue serves a similar purpose to the tag, with the added benefit of illuminating the scene beyond the dialogue. As an example of using action in place of tags, we'll look at the second dialogue from item #5. Action is highlighted in green and internalization in blue.

     "I called, but no one answered." Dante was unsure of what to say next.
     "Oh." She gave him a forced smile and turned to walk off into the kitchen.
     "You still want to go on a hike, right?" He tried to catch her eye.
     "I don't know…" She avoided his line of vision. "It's not you, but…"
     His voice rose. "But what?"
     A tear formed in her eye. "When you left last week, I was afraid I'd never see you again."
     "Here I am." He held his arms out, not sure whether he was holding them out for her to come to him or whether it was in resignation.

There are no dialogue tags here, but the effect of them remains. (Not that it makes me want to puke any less…)

So you now have 3 simple ways to improving dialogue tags. My work here is done.

Bye.



2 comments:

  1. You hit the nail on the head. I do a lot of critiquing on Critique Circle, and the use of dialogue tags is one of the things I hammer on. I beg them to use only "said" or "asked." Many of them, generally kids, are not receptive, which is okay. It's less competition for the rest of us.

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    1. Ha ha! I suppose it takes time to be receptive to criticism... or maybe that never happens. I was talking to a writer who recently won some awesome prizes and actually has literary fiction book that is selling well, and she said that she has a friend who is an amazing writer--he's always been an amazing and talented writer ever since she has known him (decades)--and he refuses to take criticism from anyone. She said he has the talent to be great, but he's unpublished after writing for his entire adult life (and he's in his 60s) and a lot of the criticism he's refused is really valuable. Listening to and choosing what criticism to pay attention to is a learning experience and if we think we have nothing to learn, how will our writing evolve into that greatness? I maintain that writing is a consistent exercise in learning and perception... among other things.

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