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DIALOGUE TAGS PART 1

October 5, 2011

 

            Good dialogue is essential to any story. Without it, at least to me, a story would be mesmerizing, boring to the extreme. Good dialogue is not just a matter of snappy lines, but how they’re presented on the page.

            There have been several trends about how authors are supposed to handle dialogue. One is to use so and so said after each line. Two is never to use so and so said after each line. Three is a mix of the two. Four is to be creative and use other words instead. Five, six??? What is the right choice? The answer is really about as simple and as complex as whichever way the wind blows. However, I can give you my take on things after many years of writing mistakes, reading what I think works, and insights I’ve picked up from talking to agents and listening to them argue and discuss it with other authors and agents.

            Using tags consistently comes off as repetitious and boring.

            “It’s time we gather our things and head for home,” Jane said.

            “I agree,” Roger said.

            “We’ll come back tomorrow and try again,” Jane said.

            “I’ll have to ask if I can get off work early,” Roger said.

            I know I’ve taken that little snippet to the extreme, but even a first-time author’s nose should smell something rotten. An easy fix is to mix things up a bit.

            “It’s time we gather our things and head for home,” Jane said.

            “I agree,” Roger replied.

            “We’ll come back tomorrow and try again,” Jane added.

            “I’ll have to ask if I can get off work early,” Roger said.

            By varying the tags, some of the repetition is eliminated. However, the tags themselves are still repetitious.

            “It’s time we gather our things and head for home,” Jane said.

            “I agree,” Roger replied.

            Jane added, “We’ll come back tomorrow and try again.”

            Roger mumbled, “I’ll have to ask if I can get off work early.”

            Notice how each tag is a different word. Also, two of them are at the beginning of the line while two are at the end. Better, but still no cigar. The dialogue comes off as stilted and awkward.

            A trick I learned a long time ago, especially when there are only two people in the conversation, is that tags need not be used for every line. Who is speaking can be implied by the order in which they are spoken. The trick is to throw in a tag here and there so that the reader doesn’t lose track of who is speaking. Another trick, which is a separate topic, is to use characteristics of speech. Sometimes in lieu of tags, one can tell who is speaking by how they say it, eliminating many tags. That subject will be discussed fuller in another article.

            With a bit of tweaking, the original dialogue can be changed as follows:

            “It’s time we gathered our things and headed for home,” Jane said.

            “I agree,” Roger replied.

            “We’ll come back tomorrow and try again.”

            “I’ll have to ask if I can get off work early.”

            If there were a next line, there should be a tag to remind the reader who is speaking. That dialogue isn’t what I’d personally write, but it demonstrates my point. It can be improved still further.

            In part two of dialogue tags, we’ll talk about using action instead of tags. We’ll also discuss using no tags at all.

            Until then, happy writing!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 5:21 am

    Great advice, Fred. I worked very hard to prevent that from happening in my book “Diary of a Young Musician,” but I’m not sure if I was always successful.

    Looking forward to your next article.

    Felix

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