Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dialogue Tags

Dave Hardy commented on this blog the other day about dialogue tags, so I thought I might say a few things about them from my perspective.

As a reader, the most important thing to me is not to be confused about who is talking and when. Even if there are only two people in a scene, I'll get lost after half a page of dialogue without tags unless the speech of the two individuals is dramatically distinct. I know for myself (and I suspect it is true for most readers), the dialogue tags largely become invisible to me, especially if it is the ubiquitous "said." Thus, as a reader, I'd probably prefer the writer to err on the side of more tags rather than fewer.

As a writer, I actually tend to use dialogue tags for three purposes. The major purpose is to make sure the reader knows who is talking. However, dialogue tags can also slow the pace of a scene, which is just what you want in some situations. Tags can also change the, for want of a better term, "music" of a scene. I don't know why, but to me dialogue tags, particularly things like "I told him" or "he responded," add a bit of gravity to a scene when I read it out loud. This may just have to do with the slowing of the pace. It's clearly a "sound" effect for me, though.

Anyway, here's another slice of that story I posted a piece of yesterday, but this is almost solely dialogue. This is how I identified the speakers in this piece, although there are certainly other, perhaps better, ways of doing it.


Chalathar was waiting for us, leaning on a marble balustrade. Behind him loafed three rough looking characters.

“Been expecting you,” Chalathar said.

I arched an eyebrow.

“You are going up to see Kuurus, aren’t you?”

“We have to get through his guards first,” I said.

He nodded. “I know. I’ve brought some friends along for the fun.”

For a moment I studied his companions, hard-cases all. Two were men, the third a big Nokarran whose light gray fur was mottled with dark rosettes so that he resembled a snow leopard walking.

“Looks like you need a leash for ‘em,” I said.

The Nokarran smirked. Chalathar chuckled. “Then they couldn’t kill,” he replied.

Now it was my turn to nod. “Let’s make that happen, then,” I said, stalking past him up the steps.

Note: The last "said" certainly doesn't have to be there, but when I broke the sentence into two, giving me: "I stalked past him up the steps," it seemed more jarring and I thought it flowed better as one sentence with the "said" in there. Sometimes it's amazing how many little decisions we make each moment in writing.


Dave Hardy said...

Thanks for the detailed response!

I started off with a very bad tendency toward "said bookisms". Now I try to minimize tags and instead embed dialog in action or description: James picked up the gun and aimed it. "I'm going to kill you now." His voice was low and steady, yet suffused with hate.

I also tend to assume that two characters in a statement/response dialog don't really need it. I guess I poicked that up from reading Raymond Chandler.

The trouble is that I'm not sure my assumptions are valid!

Danny Tagalog said...

Hi Charles,

What you say is true, about fluency, as it's good to keep "jarring" sentences for specific scenes, perhaps...

BTW: I love the word 'loafed'...

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent post, Charles. Your point about how dialog tags can slow down or speed up the action is well-taken. In the sample, you used them properly and paced the scene beautifully. On one hand I find rapid dialog scenes with no tags confusing--often it seems that even the author became confused about which character was speaking. On the other hand, using too many tags or tags that are too elaborate can make the prose sound amateurish or interrupt the flow.

(Even my writing idol Robert B. Parker sometimes overuses "said" as a tag between short lines of dialog, to the point that it detracts from the pace. I don't have a Parker book here at the office to quote from, but tonight I'll look for one at home and post an example.)

Steve Malley said...

Charles, that *so* totally worked!

The scene flowed, characterization, conflict and plot development all happened in a natural way. Can't wait to see the whole thing, y'damn tease! :-)

And Dave, there are many, many, many fine ways to handle dialogue. Since you're reading crime, check out James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane and Lauren Kelly (who is really literary-mega-star Joyce Carol Oates). All are accomplished and beautifully stylish writers, each has his or her own ear for dialogue, and all have their own ways of attributing it.

Sidney said...

I know or have read of a lot of writers who agonize over how many saids to put in. I agree, you need some to help keep track.

I think it's also helpful to do some things like Dave mentions - if they can be nuances the add to characterization or convey further emotion all the better, he said slamming his hand down on the desk beside the computer.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'm in agreement regarding dialogue tags, and yes, you can use them to slow down the scene, to do a bit of reflection, and ease into a narrative summary.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Nice touch.

Tags are invisible, aren't they? Don't most people sort of turn a blind eye to "he said"?

I remember reading Hemingway a while back. Hemingway uses tags sparingly. Long stretches of dialog can go on without any attribution. At several points throughout the novel, I became confused and had to count the line changes to figure out who was talking about what.

Drizel said...

I am always so afraid of dialog, but I know it is necessary in some cases. Funny how I decided to write a piece today with dialog....please would you be so kind to let me know if you think I was affective with my tags as well as the dialog. Dialog is such a tricky thing for me.
Again a great post...;)

ZZZZZZZ said...

I must say, I am a huge fan of the dialogue tags! I use them often. I like to change it up too. I don't like when you see, he said.... he said... she said.... he said to her.... constantly. I love to spice it up. I have being confused about who's saying what and then finally halfway down the page you find out it wasn't who you thought was saying it and must go back and re-read the page with the right characters voice in your head.

Michelle's Spell said...

Very good points, Charles. I think every decision as a writer is huge -- what's the quote -- a period in the right place can pierce the heart? I forgot who said that, but it's good.

cs harris said...

I've been lost in dialogue I was reading so many times that I suspect I now err on the side of overusing tag lines in my own writing. Yet I still find my editors scribbling in the margins, "Who's saying this?" Sometimes all those "saids" sounds clunky, but they are necessary. At other times they seem needed, as you point out, to maintain a kind of rhythm. I suspect it's because true rapid-fire dialogue is rare. In life, one person will talk, there will be a pause, and then the other person will speak. The "he said"s supply that pause. At other times--as in the last line of your example--they apply a sense of gravity.

Lana Gramlich said...

A friend of mine who decided to become a writer was so guilty of not tagging enough! Not only did he have multiple consecutive pages of untagged lines, but he merged many of them into a single paragraph! I couldn't tell who was saying what--even the multiple times I went back & tried to figure it out. Needless to say, my friend is still not a published author, even to this day.
Keep up the good work, baby!