Tag, You're It!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Author's note: This post was first published April 29th, 2010.  Please feel free to comment.  As I am busy climbing a mountain now, I'll respond to all comments when I return.  Thanks!

I've been wrestling with dialogue tags lately, primarily because my WIP involves a number of characters (an infantry squad if you must know) who talk amongst themselves constantly.  Balancing the requirement to identify who says what against the need to avoid slowing my pace to a snail's crawl has been a challenge.

I may have mentioned at some point that I minored in Playwrighting, among my other claims to fame (we won't mention the dating a supermodel incident--primarily because it never happened).  While I was never a great playwright, I did learn a thing or two about dialogue, and I thought I might share a recent insight.

The general rule in fiction I've heard kicked around is that you should use "said" whenever possible to tag lines of dialogue.  No tag at all--so-called "naked dialogue"--is even better, as long as the "naked" doesn't go on too long.  The reason is that "said" isn't really heard by the reader (I can believe that), and so should be used in all cases where something stronger isn't needed (retorted, answered, mocked, etc.).

But how do we know when said is proper and when it is not?

To get to the answer, we need to take a short detour.  Let's look at a scrap of dialogue from a stage play (straight from my unhinged and lucid imagination of course).
GAVIN
(rubbing his belly)
Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

Here we have an action Gavin should be performing (rubbing his belly) as he says the line. Remember that stage plays have to rely almost exclusively on dialogue and character action.  Unlike fiction, description and internal monologue is kept to a bare minimum, so the tag is a way the playwright can tell the actor reading the script how to behave.

What often happens with beginning playwrights is that they misuse the action tag to describe how they imagine the line should be said, like so:

GAVIN
(hungrily, angrily, cornily, crazily, etc.)
Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

What the playwright is trying to do here is compensate for the fact that the line does not carry all the information required to express the needed idea.  Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you were to take a look at the best plays out there, you would see page upon page of dialogue where no tag is given at all (except in cases where a clear physical action is needed from one of the characters).  Good playwrights make the dialogue do all the work necessary to carry the story forward.

So what does this tell us about tag usage in fiction, you ask?  Well, I was getting to that.  As I said, sometimes dialogue needs the tag to put it in context for the reader.  Observe:

"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon crooned.
"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon barked.
"Jimmy, come over here," Sharon whispered.

In these three examples, the tag actually conveys the emotional context for the dialogue.  Without the tag (i.e., using only "said"), the emotion in the line/scene might not be clear.

As this shows, from time to time the right choice is substituting a more muscular verb for "said", to convey the meaning of the situation.  But another option available--and the preferred one in my opinion--is to think more like a playwright, and make your dialogue do as much work as possible.  For example:

"Jimmy, I want you to come over here," Sharon hissed.  {good}

"If you don't come here this very minute, I swear I'm gonna tan your hide!" Sharon said.  {better}

So that's it in a nutshell.  Let your dialogue do more work, and you may find your job of tagging a little bit easier.  Thoughts?  What do you wrestle with the most when working on your dialogue?

6 bolts from the blue:

Yvonne Osborne said...

You pretty much nailed it. I think S. King was the one who said to always use "said" because the reader doesn't really hear that and so isn't taken out of the vivid, continuous dream. For a master of dialogue I like Cormac McCarthy. Reading The Crossing right now. He uses few tags but I've noticed that when he does it's he said, she said or the boy said, etc. Good luck with that mountain!

jbchicoine said...

I tend not to use a whole lot of 'tags' per se. I generally break the dialogue with an action.
ie: Gavin rubbed his belly. "Man, I could really go for some of that pie!"

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've learned to stick with simpler tags. Seems to work better.

Nick Wilford said...

I try to go with "said" all the time because like you say, what the speaker actually says should give a clue as to how they say it. I'm not sure I always nail it, though.

oceangirl said...

I have to learn to archive my children's conversations!

Jeremy Bates said...

Me either! very well said OCEANGIRL..:)

Waddaya wanna say?

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