Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Dialog tags?" I muttered

What are dialog tags?  I'm glad you asked.  Dialog tags are these nifty little words that tell the reader who's speaking.  The most common is "said" as in "He said" or "She said".

Mary said, "But that doesn't make sense."
John said, "Sure it does."
Mary asked, "How can it?"
John explained, "Simple, you just…"
More industrious writers sometimes use more descriptive dialog tags.

Mary panted, "I just ran ten miles."
John gasped, "And you didn't collapse?"
Mary grinned, "Not all of us are as out of shape as you are, John."
John muttered, "I'm not out of shape…"
Now, what's the big deal?  The basic rule is to not use them or if you do, use them sparingly.  Well, how do you know who's talking?  That's a good question.  Take the above example:

Flushed from her run, Mary halted in front of John.  She bent over and placed her hands on her thighs, panting. "I just ran ten miles."
"And you didn't collapse?"  John's eyes nearly popped out of his head.
"Not all of us are as out of shape as you are, John."
"I'm not out of shape…"
There, no tags, yet the reader knows who's speaking AND it was descriptive.  I'm not saying it's great writing, but it's an example.

Okay, here's the debate.  Those that like to use tags like to use them to add description to their writing.  Using "He screamed" is a lot more descriptive than "He said" and adds another dimension.
Those that don't like to use them say that they are distracting and interrupt the flow of the dialog, especially the descriptive tags.  This group feels that using "said" (and MAYBE "asked") actually blends in better than descriptive tags and the eye passes over all the "saids."  That said, they should still be used as sparingly as possible.
I can see both sides.  Yes, they do interrupt the flow and they should be used very sparingly, but sometimes it works better if I use a "she whispered" instead of an alternative.  Yes, I could rewrite it, but sometimes it's even more distracting describing everything before someone says something.
The argument is that the dialog should show everything, so you don't need description.  If someone is angry, their words should show it and so you don't need a "he spat" or "he pouted".  For the most part, I agree with this.  But how do you show when someone whispers?  Okay, I guess the other character could lean in and / or ask them to speak up.  Even a "They spoke in hushed tones." and then start the dialog would work.  I'm sure there's a way to do just about anything, but is it better for the story and the plot?

Also, here's a little pet peeve of mine (and I know several others are in agreement with me on this).  Sometimes these descriptive tags don't make sense.  The most common one to bring up is:

He laughed, "And that's when I told him, that's no goat, that's my wife."

How can you laugh and speak at the same time?  You can't (at least not well).  Either you are laughing or you are speaking.  How to fix this?  It's just a matter of adding a period instead of a comma.

He laughed. (period and begin new sentence.)  "And that's when…"

If you are going to use descriptions for tags, please please please take this into consideration so that your tag at least makes sense.  In the above version, he laughed and THEN he spoke.

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