I’ve been downloading podcasts from the Writing Excuses archives lately but two on dialogue really stood out for me this week. The podcasters (Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells) asked listeners to submit scenes of dialogue without dialogue tags. Eek! Have you ever tried it? When you do, you realise how many bad habits you have.
The guys on the podcast were not saying all your dialogue has to be void of tags but it does help to convey messages through the words of the dialogue rather than adding tags to ‘explain inflection or mood’ - that’s just as bad as telling instead of showing.
So what’s the deal with tags?
Dialogue tags are the he said or he asked phrases we use to indicate who is speaking. Their bad reputation comes from their excessive, and often flowery, use.
For example, you add adverbs to the basic tags, such as: he asked breathily, she said violently.
Or using verbs as your tags, such as: he raged, she grunted, he spat, she interrupted.
Why are they bad?
You’ll know when a dialogue tag is bad because it takes the focus away from the story and brings attention to the writing. If the function of a dialogue tag is merely to indicate who is speaking, then the words within the dialogue should function to reveal the tone or mood.
I think this is often a symptom of not knowing your characters well enough. If you knew them well enough, it would be easy to put the right words in their mouths. But it is also a flaw for newer writers (like myself) because we have not yet learned the proper economy of words and tend to flower things up a little.
If I avoid them, isn’t my writing going to be bland?
It’s all about balance. There are places within your story where a dialogue tag is essential because it adds to the rhythm of the sentence, or it just sounds right. Once again, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing – even the most stringent of these rules has been broken by someone who has managed to make a success of themselves. Are you a good enough writer to do the same? I have no idea. Personally, I am slowly becoming a fan of less is more. It seems the more I strip down my writing, the more I see its flaws and its beauty.
I’m not a fan of reading stories peppered with flowery dialogue tags (though I’m sure I’ve been prone to them myself) because it makes something other than the conversation important.
Some lessons from the stage...
While I was studying Drama and Performance I read a lot of plays. Most plays don’t specify how you should say the line other than to indicate volume level. The stage directions within the text indicate position and action on stage rather than tone of voice. But as you read the play you could pick up, from the words in the dialogue lines, exactly how they were intended to come out. The words carry the weight.
Maybe we should assume that our readers are smart rather than stupid, and allow them to figure the tone out by the words the character speak. It’s hard, thoughtful work - but then what about writing isn’t?
In light of all of this, I tried a dialogue exercise with some characters I’m writing in a novel at the moment. It was difficult at first; trying to get myself out of a particular rhythm I write. But I discovered so much about my characters and how to make them sound more like themselves just by carefully considering the words I choose for them to speak. Taking away the tags was a little like taking away the costumes and finding the bare character – the essence of who they are. Of course, we are writing fiction, not plays, so dialogue tags (sometimes even flowery ones) have a place, along with description, world-building, character arcs and the like. Again, it’s all about finding the right balance for all these things and discovering the best way to tell the story.
Please do yourself a favour and go check out Writing Excuses. Seriously, you cannot go wrong with listening to their podcasts (they have seven seasons full of them which means you have a whole bunch of ‘lessons’ to enjoy).