Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dialog Tags

Notes on Craft

I've been blogging seriously for six months now and I feel like I'm starting to hit my stride and I'm discovering roughly how much I can do and perhaps what I shouldn't bother doing. All this is to say that I'm hoping to make Notes on Craft a regular (weekly) feature as a means of discussing writing and working with questions I'm getting from different sources.

Today, it's dialog tags in narrative.

"Good morning," said Jane.
"Where's Spot?" asked Dick.
In these cases said Jane and asked Dick are dialog tags.

Talk to any armature writer who is starting to take themselves seriously and they'll tell you two things about dialog tags: that their eighth grade English teacher made them use a million different synonyms for "said," and that she was an evil, evil woman.

Lay off Mrs. Sobota, okay?

She wasn't evil. She spent 35 years teaching 13 year-olds, that alone should qualify her for sainthood. Do you remember yourself at 13? Even the "good kids" were little shits. And she wasn't stupid either. She was expanding your vocabulary, something that -- as a writer -- you should be overwhelmingly thankful for even if you don't write phrases like he exclaimed, -gasped, -sighed, -whispered, -grumbled, -bellowed, -bugled, -commanded, -pleaded, -pouted, or -pried with frequency.

So now that we've forcibly removed the English teacher from you shitlist, let's address the real issue: the use of the dialog tag.

Sometime in your first writing workshop you'll have a discussion about tags. Namely, someone will tell you that you don't have to tag each line of dialog with she said, or worse, each line Jane said. (We just get sick of hearing proper names again and again.) And you'll discuss how these tags should be used like spice not sauce with the caveat that a speaker needs to be IDed if the reader can't figure out for himself who is doing the speaking by the time the line of dialog finishes.

If you read Hemingway short stories there's almost no tags. To the point where I get lost. Do you want to pare down this far? That's your choice, but I'd rather there be less Hemingway-wannabes in the world not more.

A quick witted writer walks out of the workshop with some tricks for formatting (new speaker = new paragraph) and for throwing in action instead of tags (follow up dialog with a separate sentence about the speaker doing something, particularly if this is more than a two person conversation). But we still have a beginning writer who thinks tags are evil, wonders if anyone understands which character is speaking, and (still) hates his English teacher.

I'm here to say it's lies! All lies!

It's just a tool. Don't revere it as necessary -- it's not like putting two spaces at the end of sentence which (yes!) is still necessary -- but do not fear it either. It's a technical tool which needs to be used with finesse so that it fades to the background.

Fades to background not disappears completely.

In Margaret Atwood's piece Alias Grace she tags every line with either he said or she said. Every line! Each one of them! And she didn't use quotation marks or other standard quotation punctuation either! But the whole conversation was entirely readable.


She let us know who was speaking with that little he said tool and the fact that he never -yelled or -bellowed or -bugled let us completely overlook the fact that we were being told every fifteen words who was speaking. It was there so much, within a well developed pattern and structure that it no longer mattered. The eye skipped over it and went straight for the content surrounding it.

So, yes, be judicious with -stating, -sighing, -singing or -stuttering, but know that if someone is nitpicking your dialog tags then what you might want to look at is the quality of the dialog and the narrative. Why isn't there enough interesting content there to help those tags fade to the background?

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