Dialogue Tags

Reblogged from Caron Allan fiction:

Writing dialogue is one of those things that you either love or hate. I quite like it, and I’d like to think I’m quite good at it, but I could be just fooling myself.  Dialogue is conversation, it’s your characters acting and reacting together to enhance your story and move the plot along. Through dialogue, the inner person of your characters is revealed, and also their motives, hopes, desires, all the things that make them the people they are and enable them to act out their part in your story. Here are a few tips on what I feel makes good dialogue, or more importantly, what makes bad dialogue.

  1. Don’t over-tag.

What I mean is, you don’t need to assign a speaker and manner of speech to every instance of speech. If your dialogue is written clearly, the reader knows who is speaking. There is nothing more irritating than reading a constant stream of he saidhe added, she went onhe further addedshe replied, etc. Look at this:

“Henry,” his mother called, “How many times,” she asked, “Do I have to tell you to tidy your room?” She went on to say, “You know I don’t have time to do it for you. And in any case, now that you’re thirty-seven you should start to do a few things for yourself,” she added.

Eek! Really, this is all one speech – or it should be. I recommend cutting out the annoying little joining-uppy bits to create one nice smooth speech. Now, what about this one:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” asked Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

Maybe we could try writing out our little conversation with no tags at all. I’m sure we could do it so that it was clear who was speaking! Don’t over-tag. Please. I’m begging you.

  1. Adverbs and the humble ‘said’.

Some people say NEVER use adverbs, it is forbidden. They probably also say never go into the forest on a Wednesday…

I say use them occasionally if you want to. Whatever you use, it has to be carefully done. Also, it is almost as bad read a long list of ‘active’ verbs as it is to read a repeated list of adverbs:

The active verbs extravaganza first:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny declared.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” queried Mr Tomlinson.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny enquired.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson responded.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny explained.

OR with adverbs instead:

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” Jenny said warmly.

“Good morning, Jenny. How are you today?” Mr Tomlinson asked worriedly.

“I’m very well thank you, Mr Tomlinson. How are you?” Jenny replied sincerely.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson smiled gratefully.

“I’m very glad to hear that, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny emphatically.

Okay, I know you would never write anything like that. But my point is, it’s definitely a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other. They both suck.

In my opinion, a lot of the time, it’s better to just stick with the good old-fashioned ‘said’. Because most of the time, we don’t really need to know how something is said, only what was said. How something is said will hopefully become clear within context of the dialogue. Or the reader can furnish this from their imagination.

Too many active verbs or adverbs and the reader will lose the thread, get lost in the jungle of language, the information conveyed in the paragraph will be lost and the wonderful spell of suspended disbelief you worked so hard to create will be broken as your reader is dragged back into the real world. And nobody wants that.

Said is invisible. The reader’s eye glosses over ‘said’ and fixes on the actual dialogue. Responded/replied/enquired/retorted are not invisible, they claim the reader’s attention and remind them they are reading a story.

  1. Natural – but not too natural

I know we want our dialogue to sound like it was uttered by a real live actual person, but we don’t want it to be too real. In real life we rarely speak properly. And we use a lot of fillers and gaps to get our meaning across. I once knew a lady whose entire speech was made up of fillers and gaps and I never knew what she was actually saying. Conversation was next to impossible, and misconstruing her meaning was a constant hazard. In real life, the above little scene would probably go like this:

“Oh, er, good morning, Mr Tomlinson,” said Jenny.

“And a very good er…to you, er, J…er Jenny. How are you, umm?” asked Mr Tomlinson.

“Well, I’m er, oh well, you know, well erm, thank you, Mr Tomlinson. And are you er…?” Jenny replied.

“I am also very well, thank you Jenny,” Mr Tomlinson told her.

“Well, I’m um, very glad to er…, Mr ummm,” said Jenny.

So ‘real’ speech is not for us. What we are looking for is a style that gives the appearance of reality without all that dreary waiting around and time-wasting. Sometimes we want a little hemming and hawing, as they say, but most of the time we don’t.

“Good morning, Mr Tomlinson.”

“Hello, Jenny. How are you today?”

“I’m fine thanks. Yourself?”

“Yes, thank you, I’m much better.”

“That’s great. Could I have half a pound of bacon, please?”

Yay, the scene finally moved on! And we’ve even learned something from what we’ve read: that a) this is some kind of shop or purchasing situation, b) Mr T has been poorly (that may be relevant) and c) that Jenny needs bacon! Now we are all set to introduce the big scene of the great Full English Breakfast Murders

So dialogue should attempt to be natural, but without real life’s untidiness; needs to be tagged sparingly and clearly but without fuss. More importantly it should move the story along.

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