More on Dialogue Tags

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?”

What 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.”

He glared.

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.

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How ‘Said’ is Redundant

Professors, authors, and editors say tagging dialogue with ‘said’ is all right because it is an invisible word. Dialogue tags merely there to tell you who said what. That may be true, but that has not been my experience. Instead of being invisible to me, any dialogue tag is a massive billboard screaming at me and yanking me out of the story.

The reason is this: a dialogue tag tells you who said what. Notice, I said, “It tells you who said what”—doesn’t show

Let’s break down a piece of dialogue and dissect it:

Let’s go to the store, John,” Anna said.

Said’ implies someone verbally spoke, but did you know having the dialogue tag is redundant? The quotation marks show me the same thing. So we don’t need to know something was said—we already see that.

As for who said it, ‘Anna said’ tells us Anna did, but what does it show you about Anna? What does it show you about her character? What is she doing right now? Where is she? You might think she’s at the front door in her family’s house with keys in hand and ready to go to Wal-Mart to pick up milk—impatient, average, young American woman. What if I told you Anna and John were actually assassins, and the ‘store’ she’s talking about is a weapons shop in town, and she’s going to pick up more ammo before heading out on a job? That paints a completely different picture, doesn’t it? She might be Russian now, and her real name could be Anastasia.

How could you write that same sentence and hint at her real meaning? Here’s a suggestion:

Let’s go to the store, John.” Anna tossed him the keys, which he caught with practiced ease. She remembered he insisted her Russian driving habits would kill them sooner than any bullet, and on this rainy day Anna didn’t want to tempt fate. She wanted to go to the shop, pick up more ammo, then set out on the job.

Sure, it’s longer, but it also shows you more about both characters.

Not every conversation can afford to have lengthy sentences attached to it. Some conversations are short, choppy, and fast. If it’s between only two characters, stick with facial expressions:

You’re late.” John frowned.

Anna arched a brow. “Car trouble.”

Flat tire?”

Hijacking.”

John’s eyes darkened, but Anna smiled.

So what if there are three or more characters in a conversation? Then what?” Good question. If the conversation is natural and not quick-paced, the first option I demonstrated for you works with any number of characters. However, if the scene is an argument, and it is crucial for readers to understand whose opinion is whose, but nobody physically moves in the scene, this is the only time ‘said’ or any dialogue tag should be used. Consider the following:

You have two options.” John placed his palms on the interrogation table and leaned toward their suspect. “Tell us—”

Why should I believe you?”

Because you’ll die otherwise,” Anna said—not moving from her position against the wall with arms crossed.

What about when there is supposed to be a pause in a sentence? Dialogue tags help with the pause.” That’s true, but before you rely on a tag, talk with your character to see if he physically does anything.

Well, you see,” said John, “that’s not going to happen.”

Well, you see…” A smile tugged at the corner of John’s lips. “That’s not going to happen.”

These little moments can be an eye-opener into the character.

Go back through your writing and see what tags you use. Try to take out the tags and replace them with body language. This gives your character a chance to stretch and grow. Of course, there is a need for balance. You don’t want to overuse the same body gesture. Sometimes a tag is best for that moment, but it should be your last resort. Consider investing in a book about body language because there is so much the body says without speaking.

Are dialogue tags absolutely forbidden? No, but we have an overabundant dependency on them. Much like helping verbs from the previous post, we should limit dialogue tags in our writing in order to grow in creativity and craft our writing voice. Once you’ve discovered how to work without dialogue tags, when you absolutely need a tag, you can use it.

One final note: please avoid using ‘ask’ or ‘question’ or even ‘exclaim’. Questions marks (?) and exclamation points (!) exist for a reason. If a sentence inside quotation marks end with one of these, it is repetitive to tag the dialogue as ‘asking’ or ‘exclaiming’.

Let’s Talk About Telling

 “Show—don’t tell.” Everyone focuses on the ‘showing’ part because it is natural to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. However, to avoid something, you must know exactly what it is you are to avoid. Being unaware of the boundaries of telling and showing is like swimming in the ocean and pretending there are no great white sharks, humpback whales, and other breathtaking and unimaginable creatures in the depth below you.

What is telling? How can you recognize telling in your own writing? Thankfully telling is easy to identify. Pick up a story—could be yours or anything within reach. Study the sentences. Do they include any of the following words (outside of dialogue)?

Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

Have, has, had

Do, does, did

May, might, must

Can, could

Shall, should

Will, would

Said

Except for the last word in the list, all these are helping verbs. They make the passages passive instead of active. In and of themselves, these words are not evil. No need to blacklist them. They exist because they have a purpose and a proper place; we simply need to rediscover that purpose and that place.

When writing anything, you need two ingredients to form a proper sentence: a subject and a verb. In essays, articles, letters, and copy, any form of verbs can be used. However, stories or poetry contain movement to convey the story or the image, and action verbs are best suited for such movement.

Example 1: Mary was walking down the street when she noticed the approaching storm.

Revision: Walking down the street, Mary noticed the approaching storm.

Example 2: It had been a long time since Nathan last spoke with his brother.

Revision: Years passed since Nathan and his brother last spoke.

There are many ways to revise in order to eliminate helping verbs from sentences to make them active rather than passive. It is good exercise, and it stretches your writer’s mind to set such limitations and force yourself to get creative.

Should helping verbs be completely forbidden in novel writing? If only it were that easy, but no. Writing is much more complex than to allow such a simple solution. There are three steps to determine whether to tell a sentence or show it:

          1. try to show it, but if it interrupts the flow of the writing and is awkward then
          2. determine whether the sentence is absolutely necessary. If it is then
          3. write the sentence telling.

The key is being aware of what you are showing and what you are telling.

“When I’m writing, do I have to be so strict and thorough with everything I do?” —short answer: yes. Every word, every sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a meaning to be structured the way it is. If you cannot explain the reason, then it is unnecessary.

Am I giving license for everyone to justify writing errors that are obviously wrong just because they don’t want to go back and fix things? No. A true writer will seek to understand his own reason for writing the way he did and be willing to explain it. “What was your purpose with this?” someone might ask a writer, and if the writer gives an answer, the person might be able to say, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then maybe you should rephrase this because that’s where I get confused.” And the writer should consider this advice.

Later I’ll talk more on how to edit cinemagraphic writing, but first as you begin to write cinemagraphically, I would encourage you to exclude those listed words from your writing. Once you have mastered the ability to show without them, then you can slowly allow those words back into your writing vocabulary.

EXCEPTION: Using helping verbs in dialogue is the only exception. Dialogue is a different creature than narrative, and each character has their own unique voice. If you attempt to eliminate passive voice in dialogue, you run risk of losing your character’s voice altogether.

Next we will discuss the last word on that list—’said’.