Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dialog Tags

I was reading over here about dialog tags.

I hate dialog tags. They irk my nerves. I’m reading along and I’m all sucked into a story when all of a sudden someone says something and THEN the writer tells me they said it. One, the quote marks are enough of a clue, thank you very much. Two, the word “said.” Can’t we come up with something better than said? And a string of “saids” is enough to send me in the shower with a scratchy luffa.

Yes, yes, there are some people who go over the top with their dialog tags. And, yes, yes, there are times where they are needed. And yes, yes, there are those few rare times where “said” really is the best for the situation.

Fine. Fine freaking dandy. I’ll accept that. A few “saids” sprinkled here and there, I can handle. Yes, one of my editors goes behind me and tacks them in there. Usually when I break a piece of dialog with an action tag and haven’t punctuated it properly. Personally, I think it’s her form of punishing me for not punctuating correctly, but I digress.

I like action tags. You’re already having the characters doing things maybe they’re setting the table, killing the bad guy, feeding the cat, or scratching their noses, but whatever they’re doing in the story can be used to identify the speaker of the sentence.

The best writing advice I have ever read was “use what you have.” That meant to use the characters you’ve created. If a character such as a desk clerk can also be the one who talks to the police about the make and model of the suspect’s car then use the desk clerk. Don’t create a new character when you have a side character that’s being lazy.

However, I think it holds true for action tags versus dialog tags. As humans, even in bland conversations, we do things. Remember non-verbal communication makes up somewhere around 75% of the information conveyed. Body language, eye contact, voice inflection—all of that is a part of communicating in real life. It needs to be there for your characters too.

Do they doodle or fidget with things? Are they sighing, rolling their eyes, or making or avoiding eye contact? All of those things can be used as action tags as well as SHOW the reader something. If a character is avoiding eye contact, are they being dishonest? Trying to distance themselves from the topic of conversation? Or are they really bored and more interested in the butterfly on the other side of the window. All of these, if done well, can give the reader insight into the character.

If done well—that leads me to a word of warning about action tags. In the latest round of edits for “Tainted Past” I’ve caught myself falling into a lull of sorts. Certain things that I’ll have the characters do that in and of themselves isn’t a problem, but repeated over and over again IS a problem. Don’t be lazy like me and end up getting a habit you’ll have to break. Keep an eye on your comfort zones and make sure you’re not falling back to the same-old same old.

Also, do NOT throw in a bit of action JUST to use as an action tag. Readers and editors see right through that. If there isn’t a natural action that fits the scene, then use a dialog tag. Yes, use “said” if you must.

As far as punctuation goes...

Action tag. “Line.” A period separates the tag from the dialog.

Dialog tag, “Line.” A comma separates the tag from the dialog.

And it gets more complex from there.

It seems this is another habit I had to break. I had originally been taught that a period meant the action was completed by the time the dialog started and a comma indicated that the action was ongoing at the time of the dialog.

Gotta love the living ever growing English language.

No comments: