Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dialogue Tags -- What's Better?

Dialogue should reflect the way people really talk, but needs to be controlled – that means no chitchat – real and purposeful. Start dialogue in the center of the conversation where the "meat" of the important information begins.

How can an author do this? First, people don’t speak in long paragraphs. Dialogue is often broken by interruptions or by action and introspection. Sentences are not always complete or follow a logical pattern. Responses sometimes only repeat what the other character has said. Questions are avoided by talking around the question or responding with another question. This keeps the dialogue sounding real while creating conflict and interest. It also gives the page white space which is reader friendly.

"Why are you so quiet?" Sue asked.

Bob lifted his head, "I’m thinking."

"Thinking?""Yes, about my business trip this weekend. I’ll have lots of free time."

"Free time?"

He fidgeted a moment, then looked her in the eyes.

"Would you like to go with me?"

"Go with you? Why?"Her answered caught him off guard and he had to come up with answer. "Well, I thought--"

"You figured I’d jump at the chance to go. Well, you’re wrong."

Notice how Sue responds with questions and also how she cut him off. We can sense his confusion and her irritation, and as readers we know something important is underlying this conversation.

He Said. She said
Look at the dialogue above. Notice the word said or asked is used only one times yet the reader knows who is speaking. If tags are used, said and asked are the two most acceptable choices but avoiding them as much as possible is the way to go. Most tags, such as: replied, inserted, quipped, queried, responded and inserted, are distracting and are signs of an inexperienced writer. Rather than using tags, an author can use an action or internal monologue and introspection to show the speaker as you see in the example above.

Using the lines above, you can create emotion but using body action and introspection to add even more to the lines.
"Go with you? Why?" She shifted closer.

"Well, I thought--"

You thought. I bet you did. For the first time she realized the kind of man he really was. "You figured I’d jump at the chance to go. Well, you’re wrong."

When Sue shifts closer, you can almost picture this as an attack, and you know if for sure when you hear her introspection before her response, "You figured I’d jump. . . "

You can add so much more to dialogue by using body action and introspection to replace tags in dialogue. You not only make the dialogue more interesting but your additions can add to the emotion of the scene.


Kristi Holl said...

I enjoy your posts--it's like taking a mini writing course. You really accomplish a lot in a few words, making the words do double and triple duty. Great example!

Kristina said...

Hi Gail!

What if the hero is intelligent, but he had to take a lower paid/lower skilled job due to discrimination?

For example, during the 19th century, there were many intelligent Irish folks that came to America, but they were discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

Would my hero be out of character if he was intelligent and worked in a menial job, but spoke normally or intelligently?



Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks so much, Kristi. It makes the work worthwhile when writers benefit from the entries. So glad you're finding it helpsul.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kristina,

Yes, be true to your character. A rich young women, hiding her identity, might very well use bad grammar and slang when she knows better but to throw off people identifing her. In the same way, an educated man doing menal work can also be true to his education. In fact that could add an interesting hook in the story if someone thought he was putting on airs or if his language confused someone who wanted to trust him but weren't able to understand him. I hope that was clear.

Use details like this to create unique characters as well as to add a little twist to the plot. As I said stay true to the character.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gail,
Thanks again for sharing your expertise with us! You are a great teacher.
When I think of "show, don't tell" I see that is possible much through dialoguing without tags as you discussed. Is that a correct? I have recently read a few books that hardly had a traditional tag and they really came alive.
Am I getting close?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Carla - Yes you understand corectly By use action or introspection, you can let the reader know who's speaking without using tags which are pretty useless except for identify the speaker -- and with the other technique you don't need it.