Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cutting Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags— the said and asked we use to connect the speakers name to the dialogue—keeps our writing from using deep POV. Deep POV is the pure viewpoint of the character in a scene whether in first or third person. Authors know that first person is more personal and provides the deepest form of POV possible. But authors have also learned that they can add more depth to POV by avoiding phrases such as I believe and I think and even more by discontinuing to use dialogue tags.

In my last three novels, I have cut all dialogue tags. You will find no characters using said or asked (or any other tag — and those should be tossed into the trash anyway). By cutting dialogue tags, I was forced to use action beats, emotion, introspection, and description to help the reader identify the speaker.

When dialogue is between two people, lines can be spoken without any tags or action beats two or three times before something is needed to remind the reader who’s talking. The easiest way to explain it is to provide an example. This is from my March, 2011 release, A Dad Of His Own. Story background: Ethan represents Dreams Come True Foundation that provides dreams and wishes for sick children. Lexie is the POV character and is the mother of a young boy with leukemia. Here’s the dialogue sample:

Ethan rested his hand on the back of a chair. “No men in this group, I see. Why is that?”

“The M in MOSK stands for mothers. Mothers of Special Kids. ” Still, he’d made a point. She studied his face, wondering why support for men interested him. “A number of us are single mothers, and the married women haven’t asked about men in the group.” But the question did arouse her curiosity. “You’re a man. Do you think--”

“Glad you noticed.” A twinkle lit his eyes.

His look tripped her pulse, and she worked to regained her composure. “As I was saying, do men really want to talk about their feelings?” She eyed him. “I thought men preferred to take action. We have so little we can do to make things better. It’s the emotional ups and downs that cause us problems.”

His smile had faded. “True for many men, I suppose.” He motioned toward the front of the room. “So, what did you think?”

“About Dreams Come True?”

The corners of his mouth edged upward.

“The idea is wonderful, but. . .” Why had she added but? From his expression, she’d put a damper on his excitement about offering trips and fulfilling kids’ hopes. “My son isn’t well enough. He’s being home schooled right now. Clawson district has been great with his schoolwork, but it’s not the same. A child wants to attend school.”

Understanding filled his face. “They miss the friendships and being part of it all. It makes learning more fun.”

“I think it does, too.” His compassion touched her. “It’s not that your foundation isn’t a lovely idea. It is. Whoever started this certainly has a generous heart.”

His eyes searched hers.

Perspiration dampened her palms, and she ran her free hand down her pant leg while her other clung to her shoulder bag strap.

A faint frown darkened his face. “But it won’t work for some kids. That’s what you’re saying.”

She closed her eyes and opened them again releasing a ragged breath. “Yes. Some aren’t well enough to enjoy trips or days at an amusement park.”

“But one day maybe. Illnesses go into remission. Sometimes they nearly vanish. Isn’t that true?”

“True.” Curiosity spiked Lexie’s thoughts. “Have you had a child with--?”

“I don’t have any children.” His shoulders lifted. “I’m not married, and I’ve only read up on children’s illnesses and read about remissions that cause physicians to marvel. I realize that’s nothing like living it.”

Not married. Single as she was. She studied his face, wanting to know more about him. “It’s thoughtful that you’ve taken the time to understand what our kids go through.”

His expression softened. “But it’s not just the children. It’s families. So many without hope.”

He’d hit truth on the head. She’d tried to keep hope foremost in her mind.

As you read this scene, you can follow the dialogue without using tags, and instead, action, emotion and introspection is used to identify the speaker, to heighten the tension and to help readers draw closer to the POV character, Lexie. Try using this technique for some of the scenes in your novel. Cut tags as much as you can. And remember, do not use anything other than said or asked. Let your writing provide the power and dynamics of the words. Be a strong writer, not a weak one. Since I’ve stopped using tags, they jump out at me when I read other’s novels.


Sherri Wilson Johnson said...

You've done it again, Gail! Always giving inspiration to your fellow writers.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Sherri. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


Anonymous said...

Well done. I've just returned from the Montrose Christian Writers Conference, where I was on faculty. I presented the continuing morning beginners' basics class. Tags and beats were part of the discussion concerning good and bad fiction writing. You just confirmed my "knowledge" of the subject with your excellent excerpt in today's blog.
I've also got a writers' tips blog. Please visit me at:
Marsha Hubler
Author of the best-selling Keystone Stables Series

essay said...

Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, essay. Glad you found it useful.


Fiona Ingram said...

Thanks for these great tips. This technique really draws the reader into the scene.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Fiona - Love your name. I should name a character that. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the post and yes, the purpose of cutting tags is to draw the reader into the character's life and into the story more deeply.


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