Sunday, January 22, 2012

“I repeat,” she repeated.

How many of you have read lines like this in novels written in the 70’s and 80’s?
I know I’ve read several.

Just for laughs, I thought I’d share a few:
…she contradicted.
…he assured.
…she echoed.
…he said laughingly.
….she said frowningly.
…she intoned.
….he asseverated. (Say again? I’d have to look that one upJ)
And last but not least…. “I insist!” he insisted.

In the days before computers, television, and all other newfangled technology, an author might have been able to get away with these, almost humorous, dialog tags. However, publishing has changed and readers want crisper and less author intrusive approaches to writing.

So how do we write dialog tags? Some authors are what I call “said purists” which means “said” is the only dialog tag they use. Others use absolutely no dialog tags. And some use beats rather than speaker attributions.

Here are three tips I’ve used when writing and editing my dialog.

1)Use beats rather than dialog tags. In this fast paced era of movies and television, readers want to visualize what they’re reading. Just as if it were being played out on the screen. A great way to do this is to use beats, which I like to intermingle with dialog tags. For example, rather than saying, “he said angrily”, I’ll use, “he pounded the table.” Of course too many beats can easily tire your reader (not to mention your characters) so I like to mix these in with dialog tags and with nothing at all.

2)Avoid using adverbs. Using adverbs is even worse than using “he intoned”, because it is very author intrusive and telling rather than showing. Using a tag like “he said sadly” pulls our focus from the story, onto the author who is telling the story.
For example:

“I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed incredulously.

Instead we can show she’s incredulous by using a beat. This also reveals more about the character. See the difference:

“I can’t believe it!” Her eyes widened and her fingers dug into her palm.

Writing this way is much less intrusive and also plays the line out cinematically.

There are times (albeit very rare) when using an adverb is acceptable. For example, if you want to emphasize a character saying something “softly” or “quickly”. However, I’ve found weeding as many adverbs as possible from my dialog tightens my manuscript.

3) Try using no tags at all. Usually in a conversation between only two people its possible not to use any tags at all. This actually makes for a very smooth flow of dialog and keeps the reader tuned in to the story. Description or internal monologue also acts as a good tag between character dialog without breaking the flow of the story.

Upon editing my first drafts, I usually take out unnecessary dialog tags and replace them with beats. I think the best rule for dialog tags is, “less is more.” Jerry Jenkins actually wrote an entire novel using only a few beats and no dialog tags at all.  His editor didn’t even notice and the readers had no difficulty following the flow of the dialog between characters. Although, I wouldn’t recommend going that far, I do think eliminating dialog tags is a helpful tool to use when polishing your novel and further increasing reader satisfaction.

Happy Writing,

Your Turn – What patterns do you use when writing dialog? What’s the strangest dialog tag you’ve ever read?

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