Monday, June 15, 2009

Writing Tip: Dialogue Tags

There was a great discussion happening on the forums where folks were discussing what annoys them when they're reading. One of the biggest pet peeves?

Unnecessary dialogue tags!

As a recovering Tag-aholic, I definitely agree that these are annoying and bother me when I'm reading.

Have you ever read dialogue that looks like this?

"You're so hilarious, Cindy," John laughed.
"Shut your mouth, you little bitch!" Cindy yelled angrily.
"But you are," John hissed, becoming angry himself.
"No, I'm not," Cindy argued.


From this discussion and my own Adventures in Rewriting, here are the Top 10 Things To Avoid:

10) Don't make people laugh or giggle their words. They can laugh in-between words, but laughing a whole sentence... yeah, not so much. Try it sometime. If you can actually manage to do it, it doesn't sound like you want your characters to sound. It doesn't sound breezy and fun. It sounds nutso.

9) People can't "hiss" words without an "S" sound. "But you are" can't be hissed, but "Silenceeee!" can be.

8) If you put inner monologue in italics, there is no reason to add "he thought" or "she thought." This was my #1 offense in my novel, and I am surgically removing any "thinking" tags. If thinking has been set apart visually, the reader gets it. Trust them.

7) Adverbs! Adverbs are like chili peppers. One used at the right time makes things zazzier. Tons of them all over the place give you watery eyes and flaming indigestion. Use words like "angrily," "happily," breezily," "saucily," sparingly if ever. And make sure not to rub your eye!

6) Redundancy. "BLARGH!" he yelled. "I hate going to Disneyland," the kid complained. "I despite you," he said, getting angry. We get it. If you show with the words, you don't have to tell with the tags.

5) Name dropping. This applies to both the dialogue itself and any tags.

Example of Badness:

"Hi, John," Cindy said.
"Hi, Cindy," John said.
"So, John, do you have any plans for today?" said Cindy.
"No, but if you want to go to the movies, Cindy, I'd love to join you," John said.

Just... whoa.

If you think about it, people don't often say one another's names in conversation. We also get who's talking after the first couple of tags, so you don't have to attach a name to every piece of dialogue. Put in enough that it makes sense, and leave the rest out.

4) Pronoun-a-palooza. He said/she said gets old just like name dropping. Make sure all of your sentences don't end the same way with a "he said" moment.

3) Structure Repeats. If all of your sentences end with a tag, try either removing the tag, or moving it to the beginning or middle to mix it up. If everything is "Blah blah blah," he said, then it will be jarring to the eye.

2) "Said" is the invisible word. Remember that when in doubt, using "said" instead of "hissed," "cajoled," "spat," "demanded," is invisible to the reader's eye, and not distracting like the others.

1) Do you even need one? The best tip of all is to use as few tags as you can while still getting across who is talking. Most of the time, you can do to delete a few.

I hope this is helpful! Any dialogue tag advice or tips from you guys?

What have you noticed when reading or writing that just drives you nuts?


Scott said...

I read somewhere that actions versus actually tags is a good alternative.

For example:

"I can't believe it!" Scott said.
"Me either." Jon said.

Now . . .

"I can't believe it!" Scott reached for the pitcher of margaritas.
Me either." Jon pushed his glass forward.

In the above example, the character aren't just having a conversation, but interacting with each other as well.

At least in my writing, I don't use the dialog tags at all. I have my characters interact and throw in what they are doing. I mean, some people talk with their hands, some gnaw on their bottom lip after saying something, some twirl a strand of hair around their fingers, and . . . well, the point is, especially with multiple characters in a scene, the action works better for me.


ElanaJ said...

Trust Scott to bring the margaritas! ;-)

Great list Rebecca! I try to do the action thing too. I also think there's power in just letting people talk WITHOUT attaching an action every single time. So when I do the action thing, I do it to make sure the setting is established. Like if the characters are climbing or eating breakfast and I want to remind the reader that they're not just talking heads.

Stephanie said...

Great discussion!

I try to limit my tags as much as possible, and I mix them all up too. It gets extremely annoying to read when there are too many and the form and placing is not changed. I add in some action and some internal dialogue during conversations between characters,

I have been told my dialog flows very naturally. Nothing I hate more than fake sounding conversations in a story!

Rebecca Knight said...

I like adding in the action instead of the tag, so you still know who's talking! :D

Last night, I went through my manuscript with a machete, hacking away all of the "he thought/she thought" tags, since my inner monologue stuff is in italics. Unnecessary much?

I love hearing what you guys do!

Abby said...

Great post, Becca! I'm ruthless with my dialogue tags, hacking away at them. I think less is definitely better. And I like to do the action thing too. It's gotten to the point where I have to intentionally insert he said/she said, because nothing else will work.

Danyelle said...

Great list! I used to be very bad with the pronouns. It's still something I need to check every so often, but you're right. We often use pronouns rather than proper nouns.