Saturday, June 02, 2007

Writing Tip of the Week #2: Dialogue Tags

"Those pesky dialogue tags," she cried, picking at her sweater. "They just break up the pace for me when I'm reading."

"I know," Kate responded. "I hate that 'he crooned, she moaned' stuff. It's so overdone, " she added.

She looked at her and whispered, "Can't we just get rid of them?"

"I only wish," Kate moaned.

Okay, so what is a dialogue tag and what's wrong with how they are used above? Is it wrong? A dialogue tag is what's used after or before the dialogue, a sort of clarifier, if you will. The "he said, or she moaned" thing. What's wrong with the above? Technically, nothing. For readability and interest factor, a lot. Readers accept the simple tags of "he said" and "she asked" as the norm. It's okay to use them. So many times we writers (or maybe it's just me?) think we have to use other, better, words. It gets a little choppy and overdone when every sentence has to have some emotional clarifier to the dialogue. She cried, responded, added, whispered, moaned. So how do you express that emotion in another way?

You can simply leave the tag out. Try it. See if it really changes the emotion of the passage. I bet it will make it read much smoother.
Just use "said" and other simple tags and use them sparingly.
Use action instead of expressing how the speaker said it. "I hate you!" Jim slammed the door.
Use a combination of all of the above. Mix it up. Keep the passage moving.

"Those pesky dialogue tags." Carol picked at her sweater. "They just break up the pace for me when I'm reading."

Kate nodded. "I know! I hate that 'he crooned, she moaned' stuff. It's so overdone."

"Can't we just get rid of them?"

"I only wish."

So how do you check for this when you're writing? I don't. Not very well. When I'm getting the story down, all kinds of things are usually stuffed in the dialogue that I don't need. It's when I'm revising that I realize I've overdone it. But it's important to me to the the story down, first. I'll do a little self-editing as it goes. Some days I'm better at it that others. But the important thing, for me, is to go back in with a conscious effort of checking for the tags and how I've handled them.

So my tips for checking dialogue tags are:
  • get the passage down
  • go back and check for unnecessary tags
  • where can you just use "said" and "asked" and simple words?
  • where can you leave the tag off?
  • where can you use action?
  • then -- important step -- read it out loud to yourself. This is where you'll catch anything awkward
  • finally -- have someone else read it, a critique partner who you trust and tell them -- check my tags!
Have a great weekend.


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