Thursday, April 15, 2010

Top Tips for Novice Novelists: Dialogue Tags

He said...She said...They said & we wept--Excuse me, ma’am, your dialogue tags are showing.

Someone criticized my example of bad writing in my 5 Tiny Tips blog. He said it was ‘contrived’. Until he said that, I had been so proud of myself for coming up with four sentences that illustrated five common writing errors—yet still made sense. *sigh*

I promise I’ll write badly much better this time.

I am deleting my definitions of dialgue tags, action tags, dialogue beats, and action beats since there appears to be much disagreement over this. Suffice to say, I am talking about the words writers use to describe who is saying something and how they are saying it. These words are used to glue written conversations to the story and sometimes to advance the plot and reveal characters.

I use lots of dialogue in my novels. Years ago an editor criticized my lack of diaglogue tags. It is more common for editors to complain about too many tags. Leave it up to me, though, to do the uncommon.

I must have over-compensated, because I now get criticised for using too many tags.

“Don’t go!” he said. The simple “he said”/”she said” is touted as one of the best tags, if one must use tags. It is basically invisible to the reader. That is, it doesn’t interfere with the flow of images that the written words are creating in readers’ minds. I’m not as enthralled with the ‘he/she said’ tags as the experts are. To me, this sentence needs more than just an exclamation mark to convey its meaning. It says more if I use a word like ‘warned’ in the attribution.

“Don’t go!” he warned. “Don’t go!” he shouted. “Don’t go!” he screamed. “Don’t go!” he ordered. Warned, shouted, screamed, and ordered are distinct behaviours. They contain important information that will make a big difference to a reader’s understanding of the story.

“Don’t go,” he screamed. The common advice I’ve received is that if I tell you he screamed I don’t need an exclamation mark. However, in my opinion, deleting the exclamation mark delays the emotional connotation too long. By the time readers get to the ‘screamed’ part of the sentence, they’ve already heard the words in their heads—and without an exclamation mark it’s not likely they’ve imagined that the words were spoken loudly. One thing that really frustrates readers is being forced to revise their mental images. Readers want their images to unfold smoothly—like movies playing in their heads.

Purists hate exclamation marks, but how else can I reveal the angst and anger driving my characters’ conversations? How can I accurately describe to my readers, the words of men who have booming, reverberating, baritone voices?

Rearranging the sentence might work to delete the dreaded exclamation mark. What do you think? Which reads smoothest?
He screamed, “Don’t go.”
He screamed, “Don’t go!”

Despite the common advice to severely limit dialogue tags,attributions, beats, creative adverbs,substitutions for "said", and exclamation marks, I use them. Like I said, a large part of my story telling is done with dialogue and it is imperative I convey the emotional intensity accompanying the words.

“Don’t go,” she pleaded.
“Don’t go,” he whispered.
“Don’t! Go!”

Describing nonverbal communication behaviours is a technique that can be used as an alternative to 'he said/she said'. You might notice that this technique fulfills the writer’s mandate to show, not tell. It makes dialogue more dynamic--enabling conversations to advance the plot, deepen characterizations, and help set the scene.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Don’t go.”
He clenched his fists and stepped between her and the door. “Don’t go!”
He grabbed her elbow. “Don’t go.”

Whatever your personal beliefs about tags and beats, keep in mind that few things annoy readers more than having to count back through sentences to determine which person is saying what. If a conversation is lengthy and you don’t want to use tags, please use something to clue me in about who is speaking.

He grabbed her elbow. “Don’t go.” (indicating gender can be a clue)
“But, Charles, you know that I must.” (name-dropping works, especially in two-person conversations)
“That ain’t true.” (dialects are a dead give-away)
“It is.” She wiped a curl from her cheek. (Some would call this an example of an ‘action tag’. Be wary of using too many action tags. They can exhaust readers and detract from the dialogue.)
He limped to the window and stared at the traffic below. “Don’t go.” (For variety, throw in some physical clues, habits, scents, etc.)

In a roomful of men, perhaps one smokes, one has a beard, one an accent—distinctive characteristics that can be woven into the conversation in lieu of dialogue tags.

“Don’t go.” A puff of blue smoke followed his words across the room.

I suggest writers quit worrying about the prevalence, benefits, and pitfalls of dialogue tags and just make sure their writing (whether it is dialogue or otherwise) includes a variety of sentence structures and minimal word repetition. Those two things, more than all else, will ensure their writing flows.

For indepth information on techniques for writing great dialogue, read this article by the great Canadian author and book marketing coach, Cheryl Kaye Tardif.
Writing Dialogue That Speaks Volumes

“That’s it for this blog,” Eileen said. She glanced at her watch and grimaced. “I must get to bed before the sun rises.”

* * *
Help! So much is happening all at once and I have to write it one word at a time...
Some tips on writing effective action scenes...coming soon.

Eileen Schuh,
Canadian writer

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