Thursday, August 16, 2012

He Said, She Gasped, They Shrugged

Lately, I've been struggling with something in my work as well as in things I'm reading both for pleasure and critique. It's the eternal battle over dialogue tags. (For those who may not use that term, I'm speaking of the words you see preceding or following a character's statement, most commonly "said.")

Dialogue tags are like spices in a recipe. Too little results in blandness, too much will ruin the dish, and just enough  make that dish lively and delicious.

The standard "said" is a perfectly useful and reader-friendly dialogue tag - as more than one mentor has said, the reader's eye glide right over it. This is not a bad thing, but if all you use is "said" the reader will begin to notice and may become irritated.

Do not swing to the other end of the spectrum and try to jazz up your said's with things like said angrily, said sadly, said softly. Better choices would be shouted, sighed, murmured. These dialogue tags portray your characters and their dialogue actively.

More so than active tages, my personal preference is to use physical beats, gestures as often as applicable. Why? Because that's how we talk.

Think about it.

When we talk to someone we gesture, our face changes expression, we move around. Communication is as much body language as it is words. Sometimes it is more about the body language than the words.

Though it's often said in jest, it's true that some folks couldn't talk if their hands were tied down - gestures play a huge part in communication. Other folks are more physically restrained, but facially expressive - a raised eyebrow can convey a thousands words. And there is inflection - rise and fall of vocal tone as well as cadence (but that's a different blog).

The interesting thing is that these notations of physical movement or expressions can take the place of the dialogue tag. And they serve the dual purpose of helping to round out your characters, make them more 3-dimensional as they move through their space.

Mary shrugged. "I don't care." VS "I don't care," Mary said.
Barry scowled. "Don't you dare walk out that door." VS Barry said, "Don't you dare walk out that door."

Don't be afraid to have your excitable character jab their finger, jump up and down, or pace the room. Feel free to let your more physically reserved character glower, laugh, or stare.

Another way of looking at it is to consider the difference between a static comic and an animiated comic. Both will entertain, both will convey the message, but which one is more engaging?

Most folks would prefer the "moving picture," so make sure your writing gives them the same thing.


  1. Dialogue is also a challenge. I end up having long, animated conversations with myself to help me illustrate the conversation. Fortunately, most people realize I'm a bit on the crazed side anyway.

    1. LOL! That is one of the perils of being a writer--that whole talking to oneself thing! But you raise an excellent suggestion. Dialogue SHOULD be spoken aloud to test it. It's amazing the little things you discover by "hearing" it aloud; things you don't "see" reading it on the page. Thanks for mentioning it, and, if you get those looks, you might say - "You're just jealous the voices only talk to me!" hehehe