Who’s Telling Who?

Dialog ballons

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I posted a really basic overview of several facets of writing dialog. Now, it’s time to focus in more tightly and have a more in-depth look.

Dialog tags serve as attributions, telling the reader which character is speaking. When I was in High School – more years ago than I care to admit – we were required to use descriptive dialog tags. Points were marked off for every said, asked, or replied, and the tag would be crossed out, leaving the speech unattributed. If anything was left unattributed, either on purpose or because the tag was crossed out, the teacher crossed it out, refusing to read it, then marked off for incomprehensible dialog. So we had lists of descriptive verbs to use instead of said. Words like: admonished, advised, exhorted… Plain old said bored the reader, and our teacher did her best to keep us from such a dreaded fate.

Imagine my surprise at learning Mrs. Smith was *gasp* wrong! Back then, I knew that some of my favorite authors didn’t use outlandish words to replace said. They also often left several lines of dialog unattributed, expecting the reader to understand that when there are two speakers, they generally take turns. I didn’t have access to any writing craft materials in those days, so I had to study my favorite authors, and attempt to emulate what I liked about their writing.

Now I know the reasons behind…

The Missing Descriptive Dialog Tags

Our goals as writers should be to disappear, let the reader forget they’re reading a story and get lost in our world. So we do whatever we can to help them get lost. One of the simplest ways is to be unobtrusive. If the reader has to stop and figure out what pontificating sounds like, they’re worrying about their dictionary rather than the story. Readers don’t have to think about said, so it becomes less intrusive, and lets them stay deeply involved in the story.

During a conversation that’s more than one or two lines for both speakers, the use of said will stand out. And here’s a huge revelation: readers can be trusted to follow a few lines of dialog and know who’s speaking. As long as we follow standard formatting, 5 or 6 lines are easily understood. Of course, we don’t want long exchanges with no way for the reader to know which character said what unless they go back to the beginning to count lines. Yup, it happens regularly.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

And Now, The Disappearing Author!

If our goal  is to disappear, and said is less intrusive, wouldn’t it be better to use no dialog tags? Well, yes. Yes, it would. The trick is, using no, or very few tags, effectively. Occasionally, a tag is simply necessary to let the reader know who is speaking and how, but normally, dialog tags really aren’t necessary.

We still have to be sure the reader knows who’s speaking. There are several techniques for doing that, and using a combination of them is often the best approach. The good thing is, those techniques also serve to make our dialog more realistic, more like people actually talk. So, by using them, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.

No two people speak exactly alike, so giving each character a unique voice will make it less necessary to use dialog tags. People don’t often sit and look at each other, and exchange roughly equivalent bits of conversation. They squirm, adjust clothing, play with their hair, eat or drink. And that’s just if they’re sitting. We can use those little actions, or action beats, to let the reader know who’s speaking, as well as make our dialog more interesting.

We can let the reader know how something is said through word choice, context, action beats, and description. Using an adverb with said is pretty much on a par with those descriptive verbs. Rather than telling the reader that the character spoke plaintively, use all those other techniques to show it.

Next week, I’ll take a look at giving each character her own way of speaking, complete with accents, patterns of speech, vocabularies, and favorite expressions. The following week I’ll cover action beats. Both will tie in with showing how the character is speaking.

What’s Your Favorite…

Line of dialog from your WIP? Why?