Friday, February 1, 2008

Say What?

by Meghan Miller

"Say something witty."
There was a long pause.
"That wasn't witty."
"What's it for, your article?"
"Why are you writing our dialogue? Oh! Because you're doing dialogue tags."
"You're a jerk."
"No, I'm researching."
"You're not researching, you're chatting!"

Guess how many people were involved in that conversation. If you guessed two, you're wrong. Try it again.

"Say something witty," she said.
There was a long pause.
"That wasn't witty," came a voice over the cubicle.
"What's it for, your article?" he asked.
"Maybe," she said.
"Why are you writing our dialogue?" he said. "Oh! Because you're doing dialogue tags."
"Yup." She didn’t look up from her typing.
"You're a jerk," he said.
"No," she replied, "I'm researching."
"You're not researching," said the voice from the next cube, "you're chatting!"

Now how many people? Without the dialogue tags, you don't even know how many people are involved in the conversation, let alone who's saying what.

Some people dislike dialogue tags—they feel they disrupt the flow of the conversation, or that the tags tend to be too repetitive. And, to be fair to those people, sometimes tags are disruptive or repetitive, but it's usually not for the reasons that people think. When they're done right, dialogue tags add to your writing, making it easier and more enjoyable to read. Done wrong, they're not only repetitive and disruptive, but sometimes downright confusing and silly.

Going back to our example (which is, in fact, an actual conversation that occurred in the office while I was gearing up to write this), let's talk about how to do it wrong. Obviously the first way, with no tags at all, is confusing. But what about something like this?

"Say something witty," she announced.
There was a long pause.
"That wasn't witty," informed the woman in the next cubicle.
"What's it for," he retorted, "your article?"
"Maybe," she prevaricated.
"Why are you writing our dialogue? Oh! Because you're doing dialogue tags," he presumed.
"Yup." She kept typing.
"You're a jerk," he interjected.
"No, I'm researching," she decreed.
"You're not researching, you're chatting!" shrilled the woman in the next cube.

In that example, it's still clear who's saying what, but it's much more awkward to read. We have announced, informed, retorted, prevaricated, presumed, interjected, decreed and shrilled. They’re all good, but used in a row the way they are here, they interrupt the flow of the conversation and fail to add anything—other than, maybe, the sense that the author really, really likes her thesaurus.

The other weird thing about the conversation above is that at no point did I use the word “said”. But, you're saying, said is boring! Said is repetitive! Said is a meaningless filler word that doesn't add anything to the conversation—at least not unless you add adjectives to it.

To all of that, I say this: Said is one of those magical words that most readers will never even notice. With rare exceptions, authors want to be invisible to their readers. You want your reader to be wondering what your characters will do next, not wondering what clever writing technique or phrase you'll use next. The problem, then, is that the dialogue belongs to your characters, but the dialogue tags belong to you. Said—no adjectives needed—is easy. It’s unobtrusive. Said is simply assigning words to someone, and most readers will barely notice that it's being used. The more complicated your dialogue tags are, though, the more you are showing in your book—and if people are paying attention to you, they're paying that much less attention to your characters or your plot.

So let's say, then, that you agree said is largely invisible, that said is unobtrusive, that said is useful. In the last paragraph I said that said was easy, and for the most part, I believe that's true—it's an easy way to convey who's saying what without getting caught up in seventeen ways to say said. But I lied a little bit, because said is hard, too. Like I said, it's just assigning words to someone; it doesn't assign an emotional value to the words. Using said means that your dialogue has to be strong enough to stand on its own. The reader will need to be able to look at the character's dialogue and body language and understand that the character is angry or sad or delighted—and they'll need to understand without being told that she was exclaiming gleefully.
"Creative" dialogue tags are often an excuse for the author to tell rather than show. What the character is saying no longer matters as much as how the author tells us that they're saying it.

Let your dialogue speak for itself.


Anonymous said...

Love this post, and mostly the reminder that the more complex your tags, the more you (the author) shows through. Very helpful, well put. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The Fear of Said is often instilled by bored English teachers.

I have a friend who suffers from it. The problem is, he rarely knows what the other tags he uses mean.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most concise explanations of how to use tight dialoge that I have ever read. Thanks so much for this post.

BernardL said...

Great post! A reader seldom even notices said, except when it's missing, and the reader has to search for the speaker's identity.

Anonymous said...

Then there's the brief description of action, as in "Yup." She kept typing. That gets the point across as well, and also gives us clues to how she said the "Yup".

Ebony McKenna. said...

I've only recently found your blog, and I am loving it.

Great post.

Shayla Kersten said...

If possible, I like to use action tags instead of dialogue tags. The conversation mixed with the characters actions keep the reader straight and give a better picture of the story.

Christine Carey said...

My writing partner and I were discussing dialogue attribution the other day and I'm sending this to him now. Great post!