Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dialog Tags


copyright Aaron Lazar 2009



When I first started writing over a decade ago, I exulted in every new dialog tag I could think up. I preened over “he croaked” and purred over “she grumbled.” Finding new and inventive ways to say “he said” became my quest.

My early works were peppered with gloats, murmurs, and barks. I even started a most coveted (only by me) list.

How many words can you think of to say “he said” or “she said?” Here are some, in no particular order:

Mumbled
Murmured
Expostulated
Grunted
Groaned
Whispered
Purred
Spat
Huffed
Croaked
Barked
Choked
Queried
Cackled
Harrumphed
Stuttered
Muttered
Moaned
Hissed
Grumbled
Whined
Sang
Twittered
Tittered
Griped
Yelped
Cried
Stammered
Shrieked
Crooned
Wheedled
Retorted
Pressured
Cajoled

How many more can you think of? There are probably hundreds.

...


Okay, now that you’ve wracked your brain for tantalizing tags, let me tell you one very important lesson.
DON’T * EVER * USE * THEM.
What? Such brilliance? Such innovative thought?
Yeah. Sorry. Forget it. Never use anything but “said,” “asked,” or an occasional “whisper” or “mumble.”

Once in a great while, if you feel you really need it, slip in a “spat” or “croaked.” But I’m here to tell you that dialog tags, for the most part, should be invisible. “Said,” is invisible. “Asked,” is invisible. “Barked” stops the flow of the dialog. Anything that makes your story stutter needs to be eliminated, including these juicy but totally distracting tags.

Got that part?

Now that I’ve encouraged you to use “said,” I’m going to retract it.

Forgive me, but that’s just the way it is. If you can avoid a tag altogether–through the clever use of action “beats”– then more power to you.

Here’s an example of changing a passage from lush useless tags, to he said/she said tags, to using beats instead of tags:

Case A:


I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
“Want me to take over?” Tony wheedled.
“Why? Am I making you nervous?” I retorted, gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white.
“Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break,” he crooned.
We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.

“Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony groaned.


Case B


I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
“Want me to take over?” Tony said, leaning on the dashboard.
“Why? Am I making you nervous?” I said with a frown.
All smiles, he said, “Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
“Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony said in a panic.

***

Case C


I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
Tony braced himself on the dash. “Want me to take over?”
My knuckles turned white. “Why? Am I making you nervous?”
“Of course not, sweetums.” He forced an innocent smile. “You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
Tony’s frozen smile barely hid his panic. “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire.”

***
These examples aren’t beautifully written or perfectly rendered. But they should give you the gist of what I’m trying to illustrate today.

Add your own examples below, if you’d like. Let’s see some Case A, B, and C’s in the comments section!

5 comments:

s.w. vaughn said...

OMG, expostulated and queried! Two dialogue tags that should be burned at the stake... LOL.

Your examples are fantastic! I love the transformation from cringeworthy to awesome. :-)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Paul Lazar said...

LOL! Thanks, SW. Don't you wish you could wave a magic wand and apply all the skills you've learned over the years to every book you've ever written??

Sheila Deeth said...

That was great - I loved the way the edits improved the scene; excellent lesson. (Can I borrow it for our writers' group sometime?)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Sheila. And of course you can use it for your writers' group. Feel free and remember to tell them to write like the wind! ;o)