Lazy Dialog Tags or How to keep the reader from yawning.

There’s so much fad writing/grammar/punctuation/editing advice out there that even professional get confused. The poor inexperienced author that’s just starting out hasn’t got a chance.

Let’s see if we can at least help fix one small area:

Dialog tags – what to do with them, why, and some common sense thrown in for fun.

First, let’s define a dialog tag, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. A chunk of spoken dialog is enclosed inside quote marks. It tells the reader that meaningful sounds are being produced by something. What those sounds are is simple – an attempt to communicate something. But how they sound, how the object delivering them feels, that’s not so simple.

Because authors use a pen and paper instead of a paintbrush and canvass, it’s not always easy to convey to the audience what’s going on inside the object that’s delivering dialog. In fact, it can frequently be confusing to said audience to determine which object is delivering the dialog.

Thus the basic reason for the dialog tag. It tells the audience clearly what object is delivering dialog.

But…

Dialog tags can be so much more. They are little golden opportunities to move the plot forward, or develop the character of the object that’s delivering the dialog, or enrich the entire picture of the world that the story takes place in. Dialog tags that do nothing but just tell the audience who is delivering the dialog are lazy – they need to work for a living, so let’s see how this can be accomplished.

Let’s take the sentence ‘The dog just ran off with my pants,” the man said.’

That sentence does give you data. It tells you there’s a dog, a man, a pair of pants, and the dog just left with them. But how much more do you know? Nothing. Do you know how the man feels about this? No. Do you know anything about the dog? No. Do you have a clear picture of the scene? Possibly, but how colorful is it? It’s not. In fact, all you have is a black and white sketch. Your imagination can fill in the blanks, but the author can create a much richer picture with just a few strokes of a pen (or taps on a keyboard).

So, some examples:

“The dog just ran off with my pants!”
“The dog just ran off with my pants?
“The dog just ran off with my pants…,”
“The dog just ran off with my pants.”

Notice that in all of those examples, you get a clear picture of an emotion just because of the punctuation. There’s no need for me to add “exclaimed” to the first one, because the exclamation mark tells you that’s how the dialog is being delivered. Same with “questioned/asked”, “trailed off”, “said”.

Now granted, sometimes for a specific effect you WANT to add such words to a tag, but usually the punctuation does a perfectly fine job and there’s no need to be redundant.

Notice also that all of the sentences except the one with the period convey some emotion. The period is flat. Dull. Boring. Mater-of-fact. Bleh. But useful. Because people rarely go around screaming, hollering, questioning and never just saying. And if you want people to connect with your story, your characters (even if there are the strangest aliens ever seen) need to be real people.

Now let’s add the man to the sentences.

“The dog just ran off with my pants!” The man jumped up and down, screaming in rage.
“The dog just ran off with my pants?” The man jumped up and down, screaming in rage.
“The dog just ran off with my pants…,” The man jumped up and down, screaming in rage.
“The dog just ran off with my pants.” The man jumped up and down, screaming in rage.

Which of those actually makes sense? In all of them we see the man doing something. He’s active, we get a glimpse at his personality AND we see motion. But would someone jump up and down in rage if they just said something? Would they jump up and down in rage if they were asking a question? Probably not. So the only one that paints a clear, colorful, and accurate image is the first one. The action goes with the punctuation in the dialog.

Let’s try this again:

“The dog just ran off with my pants!” The man jumped up and down, screaming in rage.
The man blinked, then stared out the door toward the street. “The dog just ran off with my pants?”
“The dog just ran off with my pants…,” he shook his head, reached down into the basket, and selected a shirt to hang on the line.
“The dog just ran off with my pants.” The man sighed, put his book down and stood. Then, tying his bathrobe around him, he set off after the fleeing animal.

Notice that in all of those sentences you get a glimpse into the personality of the speaker. But you also learn, without being told, some other facts that enrich the picture.

In the case of a novel, it’s a little less important to use all the bits of golden opportunities that dialog tags hand you – but why let them be lazy? Why waste that space (which, once your story goes to print, you’re going to be paying for even if you aren’t self-publishing)?

Make it a goal to try never to use a lazy dialog tag. And if you feel you HAVE to, put the text away for a day or so, and try the edits with a fresh brain and point of view.

And if you must, really must, use lazy dialog tags, then at least have the courtesy to your readers, your story, and yourself, to use the correct ones. If you write
“The dog just ran off with my pants!” That’s an “exclaimed”, that’s not a “said” that’s an “exclaimed”

And if you write “The dog just ran off with my pants?” That’s a “questioned/asked/inquired”, that’s also not a “said”.

Ignore the fad advice you’ll hear on the net to only use the word said. It’s incorrect advice, and will get you laughed at by publishers, editors, and readers.

Lazy Dialog Tags or How to keep the reader from yawning. 1

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