Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dialogue Tags for Squirt Guns

It's the sharp voice at the start of the chapter.  It's the old man saying to go west, young man - west.  It's the young woman telling off that scumbag loser who wants to go on a date.  Yes: it's dialogue.

But dialogue can't stand alone.  It requires attribution, so we know who's speaking.  And this is where dialogue tags come in: the "he said/she said" of your story.  Here are some quick tips you need to follow in order to avoid voices that sharply cut with the jagged feel of rusty nails, old men who snort out directions, and young women who shriek out rebuttals...

Part I: Words to Avoid

Think of these words as being inflected with plague - yes, they sound interesting, but do you really want to die covered in black pustules?   And yes, your writing will drown in pestilence if you abuse your dialogue tags.  Remember, dialogue tags are primarily meant to convey the identity of the speaker.  If you try to overdo it, then we'll remember the speaker, but we won't notice what's being said.

So, armed with this knowledge, immunize yourself against the Black Death:

Hyperbolic Dialogue Tags

"We have to run!" he shrieked.
"Why?" she demanded.
"Mom is Really Mad Now!" he rejoindered.
"That's your problem," she rebutted.

Yes, it's tempting - we see a lonely little strip of dialogue sitting there, and you want it to sound stronger.  The words "we" and "have" and "to" and "run" seem so tragic by themselves.  So we tack on a "shrieked."  But this doesn't really help.  In fact, throwing on this emotionally charged word makes the weak words weaker.  It's like trying to get people to notice a Picasso by driving up in a Bentley.  Onlookers don't know what to look at - the historical work of art, or this masterpiece of machinery causing them to salivate uncontrollably.

Moral of the story: "he said" and "she said" provide plenty of attention.  It's like driving up in your hatchback, popping the trunk, and people are like "wow, this man is awesome - he has a Real Live Picasso in his trunk."  Never mind that Picasso is dead, or that you may get charged with transporting human remains across state lines - people will notice you.  And the Picasso.  And the line of squad cars chasing you down all the way to Mexico.

Words that Aren't Dialogue Tags

Yes, it's heartbreaking news: I've been told to stop chortling words.  I chortle in my sleep, and I chortle at the site of some guy in a Bentley pulled over on the side of the road waiting to get his speeding ticket, but chortling and speaking are two very different actions.  Speaking produces words - chortling produces this white phlegm stuff that flies out of your nose during humorous interludes in conversation.  (At least I thought it was funny...)

Grammatically, semantically, and stylistically, you cannot do this:

"I saw him mowing his lawn," she laughed.  "Oh, and he's so cute," she sighed.  And then, remembering that ugly mole on his nose: "I'd never date him," she snorted.

Instead do this:
"I saw him mowing his lawn."  And that made her laugh - he did look ridiculous in his Hawaiian shorts and flip-flops.  "Oh, and he's so cute," she said.  But then she remembered the ugly mole on his nose.  "I'd never date him."

**Note: sighed and snorted are rarely necessary.  After writing, hit "Find Evil Nonspecific Words" and then exorcise them from your story.

Modifying Your Dialogue Tags with Desperate Prepositions and Hungry Adverbs

It' a fact: adverbs are carnivorous.  They chew the meat off your story and then gnaw on the cartilage.  Overused prepositional phrases are no better - they are omnivorous creatures, willing to nibble away at immediacy of your words.  And both forms of speech love the to swallow a soft morsel of speech.

As mentioned above, the purpose of the dialogue tag is primarily to reveal who's speaking - you don't want the tag to distract from the dialogue itself.  So beware of modifying dialogue tags with adjectives or prepositional phrases:

"I'm hungry," he said sharply.
"You're always hungry," she declared loudly.
"What, don't you like food?" he asked with a snotty air.

Compare - all I did was pull off the blood-sucking modifiers:

"I'm hungry," he said.
"You're always hungry," she declared.
"What, don't you like food?" he asked.

The modifiers really weren't needed at all - we still get that snotty tone from "What, don't you like food?"  We still feel her exasperation without having to hear it told loudly.

Part II: Techniques to Make Your Dialogue "Pop"

Yes, you can use dialogue tags and actions to draw attention to your dialogue, to embed it in the reader's mind, to leave us hungering for more words and less adverb:

The Alternative to Dialogue Tags: Action

Remember that part about how dialogue tags are really only there to indicate who's speaking?  Check this out: if we know who's speaking, we can drop the dialogue tag completely.  And that makes me happy.  It's because I hate being "it."

He rested the gun on the table.  “Fine – go ahead.”
She laughed.  “You’re crazy.”
His voice was matter-of-fact.  “You’re a twit.”
She was, however, nonplussed.  “I’m not the one who put red food coloring in the squirt gun.”
“Right,” he said.  “And I wasn’t the one squirting across Mom's new table cloth."

Notice how we have five dialogue exchanges here, but only one dialogue tag - a simple "he said."  Note, too, that the voices are described without dialogue tags or modifiers.  She laughed, his voice was matter-of-fact, she was nonplussed.  This allows the reader to focus attention on what's important.  Person is nonplussed - check.  She didn't put food coloring in the squirt gun - check.  As opposed to the following:

"I'm not the one who put red food coloring in the squirt gun," she declared in a nonplussed manner.

Is she nonplussed?  Yes, she made a declaration, but declarations are normally loud, and I thought...now I'm confused.  And it's a long sentence.  So I'm going to go find something less intellectual to do...

Place Your Dialogue Tags Strategically

When the bubonic plague comes, you need to convey the utter terror of this moment:

The doctor leaned his face into his palm.  "It's the adverbs," he said.  "They're everywhere."

Note how "he said" puts in a natural pause between those adverbs and their nefarious presence.  This allows us to linger on this word, this terrible word: adverbs.  What have they done?  How have they tortured this doctor?  What are we going to do about them?

Compare to the use of a longer dialogue without breaks:

The doctor leaned his face into his palm.  "The adverbs are everywhere.  They will destroy the very foundation of our civilization and our way of life."

Okay, this is pretty terrifying.  But look at what happened to the tone.  The doctor leaning his face into his palm suddenly doesn't have the feel of terror.  This is more of a lecture.  The man can't be afraid his dialogue is too long and intellectual for him to be afraid.  So maybe he's just worn out after a long week of dealing with people who love adverbs - what's so bad about that?

Conclusion: Avoid Words like the Plague

Wait...I mean, you should avoid words that have plague-like properties, and...oh, never mind.

But do follow these techniques.  Use your dialogue tags to accentuate your dialogue.  Avoid leaving your dialogue out there treading water in a sea of speech attribution.  And, above all, remember this one incontrovertible fact: of all forms of speech, adverbs are the closest thing we have to brain-sucking zombies.

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