Hello SEers. It’s John with you again, and today we are going to discuss dialogue tags.
Hold on. Before you run off or decide to take a nap give me a moment to introduce the subject.
We all know dialogue tags are intended to make it very clear who is doing the talking. Especially if there are more than two people involved.
Many authors also use dialogue tags for emotions or other indications about how the words are delivered. There is nothing wrong with this but the chance of overdoing it to a point of complicating the action and confusing the reader is always present.
So, what do I want to accomplish today? My objective is simple. I want to cause a little thought about dialogue tags. “Yes, the person with the raised hand. You have a question?” “Why on Earth would you want to make us think about dialogue tags?”
A very good question and one that deserves a quick answer. Dialogue tags not done well tend to slow the reader down and, by doing so, can add an unnatural burden to the quickness of the pace of your novel. Let me give you an example. John is very angry. He enters a room and wants to confront his best friend, who he knows has taken his horse.
John enters the room. “I’m very mad at you,” he screams and slams the door, which causes Ed to jump.
The tag here (he screams and slams the door, which causes Ed to jump) takes the showing action, “I’m very mad at you,” and turns it into a telling action that the reader has to now figure out. So, John is screaming, slamming a door, and Ed is jumping. All actions that have been explained to the reader by the author and hence could be labeled “telling “ actions. Let me give you a different way to express this scene so that the action flows without any telling interference at all.
So again, action.
John enters the room. “I’m very mad at you.”
“I can see that, but there is no need to raise your voice?”
John swings the door closed with a force that causes Ed to involuntarily jump. “You have my horse.”
Notice there are no tags at all in the scene above. The two characters are interacting with each other, and there is no doubt John is angry. We also have more show than tell as a result.
Elmore Leonard, in his Ten Rules of Writing, gives two important rules around dialogue tags. They are 1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. 2. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Let’s look at a couple of ways to break Elmore’s rules.
“Help me,” he pleaded
“Shut the door,” she scolded
“Are you serious?” he asked. (I always love this one. Makes you wonder what the question mark is doing there.)
“Get out,” she said threateningly.
“Put up your hands,” he ordered forcibly waving the gun.
“Dear God,” he said solemnly.
“I love you too,” he chuckled.
For whatever reason, we all want to put into dialog tags what eventually looks like stage directions when usually the dialogue alone will suffice. For practice, I create short stories using only dialogue with no tags. The trick is to bring in two or more characters and still be clear on who is talking. It does take some planning with the idea of writing each character’s dialogue with cues on who’s talking built-in. You can check out these stories which run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday on my blog. The link is below..
I hope this post gave a little food for thought and possibly cause you to pause on those tags to see if they are necessary
Are we cool? Cool.