One of the things we see the most that plague the new writer is unnecessarily “creative” dialogue tags. Today’s guest blog about dialog from Teyla Branton, one of our authors, explores this and other dialogue problems.
Dialogue Tags by Teyla Branton
First of all, make sure dialogue tags are actually tags.
“Hey, Sue,” Ben smiled, “you want to play ball?”
“No,” Sue glowered, “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe pouted, “You’re always so mean. I wish you weren’t my sister.”
Uh, folks, these aren’t tags. Your characters can’t smile, beam, frown, glower, gape, sneer, glare, or sulk words. They should say them. Don’t saddle your character with impossible speech tags.
What you can do is change them into bits of action between the words like this:
“Hey, Sue.” Ben smiled. “You want to play ball us?”
“No.” Sue glowered. “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe pouted. “You’re always so mean. We wish you weren’t our sister.”
“Well, I wish I didn’t have brothers.” Sue glared.
“Drop dead.” Ben sulked.
Note the periods after the speech and after the action. Of course this isn’t very interesting without variation and all the smiled, glared, sulked is NOT good writing, but we’ll get to that in a minute. However, grammatically, the above is correct.
Likewise, you shouldn’t do something like this:
“Hey, Sue,” Ben yelled, “you want to play ball with us?”
“No,” Sue growled. “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe complained, “You’re always so mean. We wish you weren’t our sister.”
“Well, I wish I didn’t have brothers,” Sue retorted.
“Drop dead,” Ben screamed.
People, people, people. Avoiding the word said, by using all these creative variations is a big mistake, the mark of a novice. These are to be use sparingly. On the other hand, said is nearly invisible, and when used with the bits of action we’re going to talk about in a minute will make your dialogue more believable.
Another big no-no in dialogue is the following:
“Hey, Sue,” Ben said happily, “you want to play ball with us?”
“No,” Sue said forcefully, “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe whined sadly, “You’re always so mean. We wish you weren’t our sister.”
“Well, I wish I didn’t have brothers,” Sue said tauntingly.
“Drop dead,” Ben growled angrily.
You see it? The dreaded ly adverb. Gushingly, warmly, eagerly, sweetly, gently, softly, brusquely, etc. Not only is this annoying to your reader, but marks you as someone who hasn’t learned enough about writing because you are telling not showing. Some authors try to avoid these altogether, especially in dialogue tags, and while I feel you can use some occasionally, that they have their place, almost without fail you can write a stronger sentence that shows instead of tells. Ly adverbs are often used to prop up weak text, and it’s better to simply make the text stronger.
Which is stronger?
“Stop it!” he said angrily.
“Stop it!” He slammed his fist on the desk.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she said despairingly.
“I can’t do it anymore.” With a single frantic motion, she swept everything off the counter onto the floor.
This brings us to the bits of action between your character’s spoken words. Action (also called beats)
These can and should be used as dialogue tags because while said is the preferred tag, this isn’t quite perfect either:
“Hey, Sue,” Ben said, “you want to play ball with us?”
“No,” Sue said, “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe said, “You’re always so mean. We wish you weren’t our sister.”
“Well, I wish I didn’t have brothers,” Sue said.
“Drop dead,” Ben said.
This is better than anything we’ve seen so far, but I absolutely don’t mean to imply that a writer should always deny himself the use of other speech-related verbs—replied, answered, cried, yelled, or shouted, among others—these verbs can clear up an ambiguous meaning or enhance a certain mood—just use them in moderation.
Now, by using both tags and action between the spoken words we can do much better than anything you’ve seen so far with this little scene. Using action between the words, grounds your characters and connects with the world you’ve created, instead of having just the conversation take place, you get a feel for where they are, what they’re doing, and how they’re feeling and if that relates to what they’re actually saying.
“Hey, Sue,” Ben said, his grin wide. “You want to play ball with us?”
“No.” Sue glanced up from her stack of school books. “I’m busy. Go away.”
Joe saw Ben’s grin die and felt the hope in his own heart crumble. He didn’t know why he cared. It was just one more time she’d lied about playing with them. “You’re always so mean. We wish you weren’t our sister.”
“Well, I wish I didn’t have brothers.” Sue slammed her book shut and stomped to the door.
“Drop dead.” Ben stuck out his tongue at her retreating back.
Now we begin to see more of the story, don’t we? Sue made a promise to Joe that she never keeps. Joe, who is our POV character, keeps hoping even when she’s let them down. That’s a bit of internal dialogue, which is another piece of “action” between the spoken words, and which adds leaps and bounds to your dialogue. Also notice the strong verbs, slammed and stomped instead of shut and walked. It’s not the best piece of literature ever written, of course, but it makes a great example as you look at the difference from where we began.
For different bits of action, don’t be afraid to look in the mirror, try out facial expressions or gestures your characters might use. Or pantomime something your characters might be doing. I can’t tell you how many times I push away from my desk and start pretending to do something—you know, to time it. To see how it’d be in the mind of the reader. Read the dialogue aloud while you do this to see if it comes naturally.
Remember that if the dialogue is only between two people, we can go paragraphs without any tags at all, or actions, especially when you have a lot of fast back and forth. The main rule is to not confuse your reader. And don’t make them go up half a page and count down to see who is talking. Clue them in every now and then.
Example from my urban fantasy, THE CHANGE:
“So,” I said, leaning back against the counter, “how exactly is it that Unbounded can die?”
His dark eyes studied me for a few seconds before replying. “By completely severing all three focus points.”
“Yes, focus points store everything we are—our thoughts, feeling, memories, intelligence. We have a triple system backup in case we’re wounded. These are located in the heart, the brain, and the reproductive organs. Even if you sever one of these completely from the others, the body will heal and become exactly as it was before. But separating all three from each other is fatal.”
I stared at him. “You’re saying if I cut off your head, it’d grow back exactly like it is now?”
“Or if you drown me, cut me in half, or stick a stake in my heart. As long as any two focus points are connected, an Unbounded will survive.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what you believe. It’s true.” There was bleakness in the words, and I wondered exactly how damaged he’d been when he’d been taken home for dead all those years ago. Or what had happened to him in the centuries since.
“That would mean if you lost your kidney or your heart, your gallbladder—”
“They’d grow back.”
I wanted to tell him he was nuts. They were all nuts. Yet I’d seen my arm, and unless they had a way of manipulating memories, I was living proof of these claims.
“What if I’d burned so much that the tissue between my focus points burned away?”
Ritter shook his head. “Unlikely. Dimitri could explain it better since he’s a physician, but in a trauma situation, the Unbounded body protects that link. The only way, really, is to sever it.”
With something really sharp, I was betting.
“What’s the second way?” I hoped it didn’t get any worse.
“But we’re absorbing from the air constantly, aren’t we?”
“Hard to do if you’re in a sealed metal room or a cement room over two feet thick. Food molecules can’t get through.”
“How long would it take to starve?”
He thought for a moment. “Double or triple what it takes a normal human body to rot to pieces. Depending on the temperature, it could take years.”
I shivered. What a horrible way to die.
So even in a two-person conversation, you see how at the beginning and every now and then, you need to remind your reader who is speaking. You won’t need as many “saids” or other tags in a two-person conversation. (And, yes, we do need to avoid too much head shaking and shrugging—gak!)
But now look at this dialogue with more people and not how you need to tag nearly every line with something. Here we are still in first person through Erin’s eyes:
“Unfortunately, Halden is all too mortal.” Cort gave me a wistful smile. He’d taken his feet from the desk and scooted his chair closer to Stella’s monitor. “Like Archimedes, Gutenberg, Franklin, Jenner, Tesla, Edison, and all the rest we’ve worked with over the years. That means we have to protect him from the Emporium.”
They’d worked with Thomas Edison? If that was true, it would certainly explain why he’d taken out so many patents. “Why don’t you start a company of your own?”
Ritter’s eyes narrowed. “Too many want us dead. We have other enemies besides the Emporium.”
“Ritter’s right,” Stella said. “We’d be too exposed. It’d take all our resources and personnel. This works for now.”
“Until Halden’s dead.” Ritter’s voice held no emotion, but I received an impression of inner fury that frightened me with its bleakness.
“Then go save him, by all means.” I waved my arm at the door. “Don’t let me keep you.”
“Halden will be all right,” Stella said. “Our people were there in time and he’ll be extra careful now for the next little while. He has bodyguards.”
Ritter snorted. “No match for Emporium Unbounded.”
“I don’t know,” Stella said lightly. “He’s got access to really good body armor. New design. And our guys are in the wings. Besides, you know as well as I do that we’re grooming someone to run his company when he does die.”
“If the replacement can be trusted, you mean.” Ritter’s tone implied that such a thing was doubtful.
Stella folded her arms. “I think he can be.”
“Regardless, he’s not ready to run the company yet.” Ritter backed away from the computer, his eyes falling on me. “I’ll be outside in case you decide to run away again.”
“Wait a minute,” I said.
He lifted one brow, impatience in the taut lines of his impressive body.
“How old are you?”
“Does it matter?”
Why did the man have to be so difficult? “Humor me.”
“Two hundred and seventy-three.”
So, several decades younger than Ava, but older than Stella by nearly fifty years. When I didn’t say anything further, he turned and stalked away.
“What’s his problem?” I asked the others.
Cort laughed. “The better question is what isn’t Ritter’s problem?”
Stella wasn’t amused. “He has a past. Many Unbounded do.”
“What happened to him?” I was more interested than I wanted to be.
“It’s his story to share,” Stella said. “Or not.”
Cort cleared his throat. “Maybe it’s better if she knows the risks.”
“It’s his story,” Stella repeated.
“Just tell me already.” I didn’t bother to hide my annoyance at this exchange. How could I learn about the Unbounded if they didn’t give me enough background?
Notice that I do have some Stella say something “lightly” at one point (dreaded ly adverb) and sometime I’ll say “I asked” or “he growled” instead of using “said.” Used sparingly, it’s not distracting. Also, note the internal dialogue like “I was more interested than I wanted to be,” which I use a lot in most of my dialogue, though not so much in faster exchanges where it would only slow it down.
Just following these simple tags and action suggestions will make a huge difference in your dialogue.