Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dialogue Tags: demanded, sneered, said, and asked.

Dialogue Tags: demanded, sneered, said, and asked.

To tag or not to tag is the question of the day.

By now most know what a dialogue tag is. For those of you who don’t, a dialogue tag is a clause of two or more words showing who is speaking.

Examples: Tim said. John asked.

Did you notice in my example I chose said and asked? My reason is in writing, they are considered invisible. Readers tend to not notice them—unless used too much.

Some don’t like to use only said and asked, they prefer to change it up, but is this wise?

Example: “Don’t drop the ball,” Tim laughed.

“Please come with me. I don’t want to go by myself,” Cynthia begged.

“You’re so cute,” Sandy smiled happily.

So, what is wrong with my examples? First, one can’t laugh dialogue. Try it, it doesn’t work. Same goes for smile. Second, they are telling. The writer—me—is telling you—the reader—how the dialogue was spoken.

Let’s use the same examples but show how the dialogue was spoken.

Tim doubled over, trying to hold back his laughter. “Don’t drop the ball.”

Cynthia gripped Carol’s hand. “Please come with me? I don’t want to go by myself.”

Sandy smiled and shuffled her feet. “You’re so cute.”

By using action beats, not only did I show more of the emotions, I did away with the dialogue tags. But like with dialogue tags, don’t overdo it with beats. Mix it up.

Here’s an example of a scene with over used dialogue tags.

“Are you coming over to my house tonight?” Trevor asked.

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test,” Jason said.

“I told you to study for it,” Trevor muttered.

“I know, and I did . . . sort of,” Jason whispered.

Okay, so the dialogue tags in my example show how too many can stop the flow. Since there are only two speaking, let’s try without them. I will start the scene by using one.

“Are you coming to my house tonight?” Trevor asked Jason.

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test.”

“I told you to study for it.”

“I know, and I did . . . sort of.”

Hmmm, better, but it reads flat and boring. Let’s try adding action beats.

Trevor closed his locker and glanced at Jason. “Are you coming to my house tonight?”

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test.” Jason scrolled through the list of songs on his IPod.

Trevor sighed and slung the strap of his backpack over his shoulder. “I told you to study for it.”

“I did . . . sort of.”

In my example I used beats to fill the scene out more. Also, rarely do people just stand there doing nothing while talking. Add some movement. I could have taken this one step further and added internal dialogue for the POV character—Trevor—but that is a lesson for another day.

What if you are writing a scene with more than two characters? The same rules apply; use a mixture of action beats with dialogue tags.

Example: Cynthia reached across the sticky cafĂ© table and grabbed Carol’s hands. “Please come with me? I don’t want to go by myself.”

“I can’t. I have plans,” Carol said.

Sarah took a sip of her coffee and then set it down. Her gaze remained glued to Carol’s face. “And what exactly are your plans? Care to share?”

Glancing away, Carol’s face turned red. “Not really.”

So to sum up, use dialogue tags sparingly, and try to stick with said or asked. They are considered invisible. Use action beats to show who is speaking, to fill out a scene, and show how the dialogue is spoken without having to tell. IE: He said angrily. She said happily.

Remember, dialogue cannot be laughed, smiled, or begged. Use a mixture of tags and beats when more than two are speaking.


Anonymous said...

Really, great post. You explained it very well, and you're right.

Brenda said...

Thank you so much, Ella.

D'Ann said...

Great post! I just edited an old ms...amazing how many tags I used. Ugh.

Brenda said...

I was guilty of over using dialogue tags too--actually, I abused them something fierce, LOL.

Thank you for stopping by.

Melissa Limoges said...

I agree. You did explain it very well, Brenda. Very cool and useful post. :)

Brenda said...

Thank, Melissa. I like useful things, lol.
Thanks for coming by my site!

Unknown said...

Great examples. I like the way your dialog went from talking heads to people I could imagine to scenes I could imagine. :)

Brenda said...

Thank you, Penny! I really appreciate you stopping by and leaving me a comment. That means the world to me!

Daryl Devoré said...

Great job explaining it. Happy New Year

Brenda said...

Aw thanks, Daryl.
Happy New Year to you too.

Sheri Fredricks said...

I like the way you showed how boring and dull and come alive with the right tags and beats!!

Liza O'Connor said...

Well done. Probably the best lesson I've ever gotten on tags.

now if only I can get beyond the spam guard. Let's hope 3rd time is the charm.

Brenda said...

LOL, Liza, you made it passed the old spam guard. I think he's taking a break.
Thanks so much for coming by and commenting.

Brenda said...

Sheri, thank you so much for stopping by. And yep, beats can really make a scene come alive.

Lisa Kumar said...

Great post! Lol, I call action beats "action tags". Oh, well!

Brenda said...

Thank you, Lisa. Action beats, action tags, all the same thing, lol.

Unknown said...

Great post Brenda. It's good to be reminded of these.

Brenda said...

Rowena, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving me a comment. I truly appreciate it.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great tips. I much prefer action beats. Thanks for commenting at Under the Tiki Hut today.

Brenda said...

Thank you, Carol. I also prefer action beats. Allows the reader to really SEE the story and what the characters are doing.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Wish I'd read it ten years ago when I stared writing, lol! Thanks for sharing, Brenda!!

Rosanna Leo said...

I love this, Brenda. I'm always agonizing over my tags, etc. My fave no-no is the old "breathed." It always makes sense to me, but apparently not to my editors! LOL

Brenda said...

LOL, Jennifer, I wish I knew about this when I started writing too. Would have made my revisions a lot easier and a lot less.
Thanks for stopping by!

Brenda said...

Rosanna, I used a lot of different D.T's as well. Sometimes I will toss 1 or 2 into the mix just to shake things up, lol.
Thanks for coming by and leaving me a comment.