Last time we discussed dialogue tags, and I recommended you replace tags with body language. “What if I just have dialogue—no tags or anything?”
“Wait, we’re supposed to meet with the Smith’s today?”
“Yeah. Why? Didn’t you get the message?”
You see, dialogue is a tricky creature. Wrapped up in it is the pace of the story. How quickly or slowly a character says something reveals a lot about their personality or their thoughts on certain topics. When something (tag or description) surrounds the dialogue, there is a natural pause. However, when dialogue stands alone, it indicates to a quick passage of time in a conversation between characters. This flow of the conversation would be interrupted if body language was inserted. This is how dialogue tags came into existence because they are considered to be ‘invisible’, and they’re brief enough to only tell the reader who said what then move on.
However, as I’ve said previously, tags have been overused. Not all dialogue should be merely lines as I demonstrated above. Such dialogue should be reserved for rapid conversation, but it can be crafted in such a way to show a scene full of tension. Say you have two characters—both of them at a stalemate, and neither are willing to budge. When they converse, they will fire back responses immediately because they know exactly where they stand. However, for the element of tension, little pauses must be inserted as their own line. Consider the following. For this to work, you need to set the scene similarly to having characters in a room standing across from each other, arms crossed and glaring at one another. As long as neither of them moves, the conversation could go something like this.
“If you had only done what I said.”
“We would be dead then!”
She tilted her head. “You don’t know that.”
“Oh really? I’m fairly certain I remember which direction that car was coming when I pushed you out of the way!”
“Maybe that was the plan.”
“I can’t believe you.”
What has happened with today’s writing is everyone has reverted to using one-line dialogue but tag it with ‘said’ for good measure as not to confuse their readers. Pure dialogue has its place in stories, but that place must rediscovered. Just like dialogue tags, you should use pure dialogue sparingly. This forces you to listen to the pace of the conversation and therefore the pace of the story.
“Okay, say I won’t use ‘said’ or ‘asked’, but what if I use tags like ‘begged’, ‘bragged’, ‘cried’, ‘promised’, ‘scolded’, or ‘requested’? Doesn’t that show more?” No—it doesn’t. It’s repetitive. Let me show you:
Example 1: “Please, don’t leave!” she begged him reaching for his hand to stop him from leaving.
Revised: “Please, don’t leave!” She snatched his hand to keep him from leaving.
‘Please’ indicates the plea, and the exclamation point stresses the urgency. Why use a dialogue tag when you can show it using vivid verbs? Here’s another example.
Example 2: “Oh, please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy,” Joseph bragged as he cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. “And it wasn’t you,” he told her.
Revised: “Oh please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy.” Joseph cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. He gave her a smug smile. “And it wasn’t you.”
When you use tags such as ‘bragging’ and ‘begging’, you label the character. To the readers’ eyes and subconscious, that character is proud and boastful because you said he is. There is little room for redemption or surprise in the character because they’ve been stereotyped. However, if you don’t place a label on them, they’re more flexible and fluid. They can surprise you and the reader. That moment of pride or weakness may have been just that—a moment. The character had his reasons for acting that way at that time, and those reasons are for the readers to discover later.
Now, on the topic of using tags such as ‘cried’, ‘whispered’, ‘grunted’, ‘sputtered’, ‘grumbled’—because these are closely tied to body language, they should not be banned altogether. Yet, like everything I’ve been saying, they should be used sparingly. If you set the scene right, and you have two characters sneaking around hoping not to get caught, when they talk, we already know they’ll be whispering. No need to tell us—show us with body language, and maybe even have one character hush the other and tell him to lower his voice. However, if you have a scene out in the open where two characters are talking normally, but suddenly one leans in and whispers, “Whatever you do, don’t look behind you,” that is acceptable because it was unexpected, and the next several lines will likely not be whispered but continued as usual.
So you see, it is fundamental to understand the pacing of your story as well as the environment of the scene. Try to do without tags but rather use body language, and you might surprise yourself.