Thursday, September 7, 2017

Editor's Notes #38: Dialogue Part 3—Those @#$!$%^ Tags



This is the third and final part in my series on dialogue. Click HERE to read Part One—Regional Overkill, and click HERE to read Part Two—Sounding Real.

Book after book has been written about them. Blog after blog has featured articles with cautionary tales. And yet . . . the overly awkward dialogue tag still manages to work its way out of the garbage can and into manuscripts the world over.

In fact, while researching for this post, I was astounded at the number of articles I found which advocated "the death of 'Said'" and "making your dialogue more interesting with anything but 'said'" and other generally bad advice.

I'm not saying there's never a good moment for a shout here and there, but the advice to young writers on various teaching blogs & forums goes directly against the advice of best-selling authors, who sometimes advise to skip tags altogether as often as possible, and more often suggest "said" or "asked" as a way of making the tag disappear.

Personally, I tend to skim over dialogue tags when I'm reading, so I like the idea of eliminating them more often than not, unless the conversation becomes confusing. Maybe it's because I read decent books that use "said" and "asked" and, as promised by those high-level authors, those two particular words become invisible after a little while.

No one wants to read the old-fashioned (and thankfully, almost never used) "he ejaculated" as a dialogue tag. The more obscure tags will pull a reader from the story as physically as tipping him out of his chair. Think of how often you've read "blustered," "queried," "wailed," "bellowed," "quipped," and the like. I don't know about you, but when I read those words, in my mind the character is instantly replaced by the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, a blusterer & bellower from way back. Or suddenly the character is Lucille Ball, wailing her trademark waaahhh.

Elimination of dialogue tags in certain spots can be effective for quick back-and-forth action. If your characters are written distinctly, their manner of speech should indicate easily enough who's talking.

Another mistake inexperienced writers often make is to use dialogue tags that don't work in the physical world:

  • "I love you," she breathed. Nope. You can't breathe in while speaking. And breathing out is not the same as forcing air through your mostly closed vocal cords.
  • "Don't do that," he growled. Nope again. Try growling and saying anything intelligible. You're not Batman.
  • "Get over here, NOW," she hissed. Double nope. Hissing and speaking don't mix, and hissing sounds usually require the use of the letter "s." Just ask Harry Potter.
  • "What do you mean, you won't?" he barked. Nooooope. Unless it's a dog literally barking, and you understand that he sounds like arf arf woof woof grrr but you can translate it in your head like a foreign language, or—oh, forget it. You get my point.
So . . . to recap these three posts neatly: don't overuse regional dialect and slang, make sure your characters sound as real as the people around you, and make those dialogue tags disappear, whether literally or figuratively.

I'd love to know: Have you ever read a truly abominable dialogue tag? Have you written one you regret (or that your editor made you regret until you removed it)?


25 comments:

  1. No animal tags. Check.
    You can't do Batman for too long or you'll really hurt your vocal chords.

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    1. But what if Byron someday gets a dog with telepathic powers? You may have to rethink your whole strategy.

      As for Batman, my daughter and I used to sing Taylor Swift songs in a Batman voice whenever we were in the car alone. We typically could only make it halfway through any song before I had to back off. I don't think my boss would appreciate me losing my singing voice because I *had* to be Batman.

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  2. Gulping is one that always gets me. How do you speak and gulp?

    Great post as ever!

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    1. I would suspect it's much like saying the alphabet while burping.

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  3. Years ago, probably when I was in high school, I read somewhere that one should avoid the overuse of "said." So for a while, I was using some real sticker-outers, like "he intoned," and the like. (Happy to say I never used "he ejaculated," though!) I decided it just looked wrong. Nowadays, I try to set up a good back-and-forth between two characters -- Let's call 'em Tom and Bill -- and help the reader follow the mess by using only an occasional "he said" or even "Tom said." Or maybe I'll have one of the speakers use the other speaker's name once in a while. Or I'll throw in an action, like "Tom lit his cigarette," and we can all assume it's Bill speaking if he says something like "You shouldn't smoke those things. They'll kill ya!" There are all sorts of tricks.

    Anything used too much drives me nuts. Closed captioning for the Iron Fist series on Netflix describes almost any form of a mild laugh as a "chuckle." It's very distracting.

    And you are SO right about the use of "hiss." No "S," no hiss!

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    1. I have the feeling that if you and I had met many, many years ago, we'd probably have a blog together called "Things That Tick Me Off." We have the same peeves most of the time.

      I like the way you get around the dialogue tags. Those methods are so subtle that people may not even notice why the dialogue flows so well; they only know that it does.

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  4. Funny tags you have mentioned and I have come across all of them! Even ejaculated!! :D Minimum tags are the best tags, I agree.

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    1. Aren't those tags super awkward? I usually feel bad for the author and wonder if anyone told him/her. Thanks for the visit here, Inderpreet!

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  5. I wish I could say I never made that mistake. I remember right before I published Elemental I read an article about not using anything after the dialogue that couldn't work in the real world, like, "he sighed". I went cold and ran back through my manuscript frantically changing anything like that I found.

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    1. Until I started editing, I never thought about it—that something like "he sighed" would not be a dialogue tag but instead an action before or after the dialogue, complete with period rather than comma. Once I knew it, though (like most editing rules), I couldn't help but notice it all over the place . . . done both properly and improperly.

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  6. Wow!! That was truly insightful. Loved the examples you shared. Thanks for enlightening, Lynda :)

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    1. I appreciate the visit, Shilpa, as well as the comment. I hope my posts bring a smile and helpful information at the same time.

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  7. Ooooooh. I tend to go too far the other direction (if such a thing is possible), by replacing all my dialogue tags with action tags, to the point of confusion at times.

    Commenting as part of my challenge: rebekahdevall.wordpress.com/challenge/

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    1. Ha! Allow me to shake my editorial finger (which is not the same as my driving finger, of course) at you. It does seem like you realize it gets confusing at times, though, so I'll cut you a break. :)

      I hope your challenge is progressing well! There are a lot of great blogs out there. I noticed you follow a lot of the same blogs I do, and I'll attempt to make my way through the list you've collected. What a great idea!

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  8. This was funny. Yes, best to keep ejaculating to a minimum. I do generally try to stick to said, or have the dialogue as its own sentence with an accompanying one showing some action by the character.

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    1. Reading older literature is always good for a dialogue tag laugh, I say. I love reading dialogue as its own sentence, no tag, but with action. I think (for me, anyway) it helps me to forget I'm reading a story, because I'm watching the action happen as people talk—as I would in real life.

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  9. Oh yes, I can't stand these. Remember that Christopher Paolini kid? The one that wrote those poorly written Eragon books? He was awful with these.

    I think my favorite was...

    "I'm sorry," he apologized.

    I'm glad he clarified, otherwise I might have thought he wasn't being sincere.

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    1. That kid. He gave homeschoolers a bad rep. I'm still holding it against him, years later. And now I want to find my old copy of Eragon to look up other garbage for fun. You guys always inspire me to do great things.

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  10. I remember a fellow writer/editor who came unglued at the sight of "barked" as a dialogue tag. Although I imagine a drill sergeant comes really close to barking.

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    1. I can't imagine getting that emotional about it. However, I think it looks a bit ridiculous in print, and I would strongly advise the author to remove it. And, of course, in my head I would read woofwoofwoof every time I saw it, and laugh to myself.

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  11. I try to avoid tags unless in a long convo then just an occasional one to keep the speakers straight. I am on the fence with barked. You bark commands which means in a sharp almost staccato form, similar to a dog's barking, so I would say you can speak the same way but it would seem quite odd. Nonetheless, the other examples are quite good. I think people used breathed when they mean said breathlessly. (I know evil adverb.) Trying to get a sensuous effect but it ends up sounding, again, quite odd. I have noticed, that you have not had a comma post in a while, and I think it is important that people do not overuse my friend, the comma. Just sayin'

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    1. oops for got my quotation marks around "said breathlessly."

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    2. My husband took issue with both "barked" and "breathed," but I'm standing my ground . . . at least, in about 90% of circumstances. The way I look at it, I'm not opposed to the use of "bark" in the descriptive, but I don't like it as a tag itself. If I read something like,

      "Stand at attention!" He barked the words out to the men.

      then I'm good with it. But hey, it's always good to question things and to push for what you know you want to keep in your own MS.

      I'll have to see about a comma post. I think I have one in my drafts folder that deals with comma splices—something I notice more and more, even in published works.

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    3. Gosh I hate comma slices, I especially hate to see them in published works. ;) Just had to throw that in there for ya, because I sure like them there commas.

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    4. Someday the Shatner Comma will come back into vogue and you'll be all set.

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