Today I’m going to talk about dialogue tagging. You know, the “John said” bit of “I can’t understand it,” John said. (Okay, that was probably a little basic, but please stick with me.)
There has been a lot said about dialogue tagging, and how to do it best. Get rid of all the adverbs. Take away all the descriptive tags and replace them with “said”. Ignore them entirely. Naturally the whole thing is terribly confusing and novices like me have no idea which advice to take.
Take adverb reduction, for example. Look, I get where this is coming from. The dialogue should speak for itself without the writer having to explain the tone of voice. “What are you doing?” Mary asked sharply could be replaced with “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary asked, enriching the dialogue itself and eliminating the need for the description.
But the thing is, I think there is room for the occasional adverb. Not all the time, and not at the expense of better written conversation, but description can sometimes add to the whole experience. Besides, I am yet to read a book completely devoid of adverbs. So maybe, I’m thinking, it’s not a case of cutting them out entirely, but instead thinking about each one and whether it’s really needed. Most won’t be, but some will.
Okay, onto the “said” brigade. This is replacing the likes of “Speak for yourself,” Andrew muttered with “Speak for yourself,” Andrew said. The idea behind this is that again, the dialogue should speak for itself without the author having to explain things. Again, though, I’m less than convinced. Sure, it makes the text neater and simpler, but then again I think you lose some of the texture and feel of the scene. Perhaps again it’s a case of selective application. I’m just not sure.
Finally, there’s the idea of removing tags altogether. Now don’t get me wrong, no one does this exclusively, but it can work pretty well with conversations. It doesn’t necessarily mean not tagging the dialogue at all, just removing the “he said”, “she said” type of thing. For example:
Sarah frowned. “I just don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“Are you kidding? It’s as clear as day!” Mark got up and walked to the window, looking out. His frustration was obvious.
“It’s as clear as mud. What exactly to you hope to achieve?”
“World peace. Power over the universe. Or, failing that, I’d settle for getting that prick fired.”
I quite like this. It’s clean, it’s neat and it doesn’t detract from the conversation. However, what it can do is make the reader lose track of who is speaking. To use the example above, at this stage of the dialogue it’s clear whose voice is being used, but if it went on for two or more paragraphs I would find myself counting back to work out who is saying what. Maybe I’m alone in this – just about every book I’ve read this year has had this in several places, with me getting confused as to which words belong with which character. But then again, maybe I’m not alone, and authors (or editors) are inadvertently sacrificing clarity for the sake of brevity. I don’t know. So, while I quite like the technique, I think it should be used wisely so there is as little reader confusion as possible.
So where am I going with this post? Well, I don’t have advice to offer or an argument to make; instead, it’s really just a train of thought about how best to write dialogue. I don’t know that there are any right or wrong answers, but as I inch ever closer to the editing stage of my manuscript, I find myself thinking more and more about this sort of thing.
In the end, I think it’s down to personal tastes. Sure, there are some rules, like don’t go over the top with your descriptions – after all, isn’t it better when the reader has to make their own picture? It gets them so much more engaged – but really, do what you think feels right. Sure, some people won’t agree, but there are others who will … and if you get it horribly wrong, your editor will point it out anyway, right?*
*Unless, of course, I have it horribly wrong, in which case feel free to correct me. Thank you!
- Writing Effective Dialogue (nancyjcohen.wordpress.com)
- Editing Tip – Adverbs (fallsintowriting.com)
- He Said, She Said: The Art of Dialogue Tags (andyswordsandpictures.wordpress.com)
- How To Edit Before You Submit Your Manuscript To An Editor (aknifeandaquill.wordpress.com)