Notes from writing class -Creative Dialogue Tagging


Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, while sharing the things I learn along the way.   Enjoy.


Ok, so last post was all about the three basic forms of Dialogue tags. Today I'm going to talk about getting creative with them and what you should consider.

You may or may not have heard the term “Said Bookism” before. It’s considered a method of lazy writing because, rather than letting the dialogue and corresponding actions show the reader what is happening, you tell them in a quick summary.


So let’s look at some “said bookisms.”

“Stop following me, “she shrieked.
“But we need to talk,” he demanded.
“We’re finished. There is nothing to talk about,” she asserted.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” he whined.

You see how instead of just “said” I tell you exactly how it was said. It’s quick and easy and something we probably do a lot in our first drafts, but does it really add to the dialogue or does it just spoon-feed you the emotions instead of letting you feel them?

If you show us the characters reactions instead of telling us what they are, you will go farther to make a reader feel like part of the story. How is the woman going to act in this situation? A man is stalking her. What would she do? Maybe she would get into a defensive position. Maybe her pulse speeds as she turns to look at him. Instead of the man whining, maybe his body language can show us how he feels. Is he frowning? Is he giving her sad, puppy-dog eyes? Those clues will go farther to show us the emotion in his dialogue rather than telling is he whined.

She scowled at Marcus. “Stop following me.”
“But we need to talk.” He gave her a hopeful smile.
“We’re finished. There is nothing to talk about.” Sally turned to walk away.
Marcus reached out and grabbed her shoulder. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

These are just simple examples but I think you can see how the action can help a reader see the story without having to be told everything.

There are lots of words that fall into the “said bookism” category: exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered, muttered, I think you get the idea…

Now, I have to say, I don’t agree that it is lazy or bad, when used sparingly. Sometimes it’s better for flow to occasionally throw one in. Note I said OCCASIONALLY.

Breaking the rules is part of style. But you have to know the rules to break them.

In the last post, I mentioned that there are things that we use mistakenly as said tag… Laughed, sighed, smiled, frowned, sneered, etc.. Ask yourself if you can laugh the words. Can you frown words? Can you sigh words? Those would be actions not ways of saying something.


How about adverbial dialogue tags?

You remember what an adverb is, right? For simplicity sake they are the –ly’s

He said cooly
She said angrily
He said cockily
She said crossily

Just like with the bookisms, these are telling us what the dialogue or surrounding action shoud show us. These are often referred to as Tom Swifties and they are a no-no!

Think of it this way. If a character is shouting something, you don’t need to tell us they are yelling loudly, do you? Keep that in mind as you write character dialogue.

Tom Swifties are not always adverbs though.

“I love my Job!” the character exclaimed.

The exclamation point tells us the character is exclaiming it. Nuff said!

Finally, we come to the “telling” tag.

Sometimes you’re tempted to reveal something via the dialogue tag that you think the reader might not get on their own.

“Yeah, I was at the park last night.”
“With her?” She asked.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.” He decided to change the subject. “Hey, did you ever get that book you were looking for?”

Ok, this is an extremely simplistic example but you see how I told you he was changing the subject? That’s the essence of the telling tag. The dialogue should convey this but instead of trusting the reader to get this, I’m telling you.

Don’t do this. Trust your readers, they’re pretty smart.

Quick fix.

“Yeah, I was at the park last night.”
“With her?” She asked.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.” He cleared his throat. “Hey, did you ever get that book you were looking for?”



So I hope this quick lesson helped. Remember, everything in moderation is ok, but don’t treat your reader like an idiot. Don’t “tell” them everything.

Comments

Great advice... I wrote a similar post last week about how to "show" through dialogue if you'd like to check it out here. It's crazy how many authors still think that it's okay to over-use said tags, "adverbial" dialogue tags, and said "bookisms".

Thanks for sharing this. =)
Katie Salidas said…
I can't say I don't do it, but hopefully, after writing this, I'll be a little better about spotting and fixing this. =)