dialogue

Excessive Expressive Dialogue Tags | Liar, Liar

Continuing in our series of literary barrier objects, we delve into the boondoggle of excessive, expressive dialogue tags.

The Basics

A dialogue tag, as its name implies, marks who speaks a line of dialogue. It can be an attributive tag or an action tag.

  • Attributive: “That’s nice,” Mary said.
  • Action: “That’s nice.” Mary wiped her hands off on her shirt.

Both types indicate who spoke, but the action tag earns more points because it adds movement to the narrative.

This post deals primarily with attributive tags. That being said, beware the overuse of action tags, particularly if they involve a character turning, looking, staring, etc. Actions should pack a punch, not whiffle their rhetorical impotence against the air.

And thus we begin.

Excessive Dialogue Tags

When every line of dialogue gets a tag (action or attributive), those tags become barriers to the conversation. This form of tagging is great for first drafts, so that the author can keep track of character back-and-forth, but it needs paring in the editing phase.

Long story short: the author who informs their reader which character is speaking every single line demonstrates a lack of trust in their audience’s ability to follow a conversation. Don’t be that distrustful author.

(Although, admittedly, I’d much rather there were too many tags than too few. I haaaaate having to go back and count lines to figure out who’s talking.)

Expressive Dialogue Tags

I fought this one for years, y’all. Every writer has heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Inevitably, expressive dialogue tags get paraded out as the prime violation to this guideline.

It’s the ongoing battle of the editors vs. the middle school English teachers. One says only to use “said” and “asked,” while the other gives out lists of alternatives and makes assignments for students to write whole stories without using “said” at all.

word cloud dialogue tags

It’s not a matter of one being right and the other wrong. Tagging dialogue with a descriptive speech word instead of the blasé “said” or “asked” is a form of both show and tell, depending on which layer of language you’re looking at.

  • On the semantic layer, you’re telling the reader how the character spoke.
  • On the pragmatic layer, you’re showing the character’s mood through their manner of speech.

So why should semantics win out over pragmatics? It doesn’t always have to. Sometimes telling the speech style fits better in the flow of the story. (Show and tell should have balance anyway, or stories risk becoming overwrought.) But the battle between these two layers gets tipped, because there’s a third layer of language involved:

  • On the syntax layer, you’re telling the reader who spoke any time you use a dialogue tag at all.

Attributive tags blatantly remind the reader that they are reading a book. The sole purpose of these tags is to clarify who says what, but if that information is already clear, they become redundant. (Yet another reason to use action tags more often.)

If you need to give attribution, the boring “said” and “asked” can easily fade into the narrative background, whereas more expressive tags mark this already-conspicuous construct further.

A Small Addition

In this category of “expressive dialogue tags,” we also include the “said + [adverb]” construct. In general, we use adverbs to prop up weak verbs. However, we use “said” specifically because it is weak, and thus largely invisible. If you’re changing “he snapped” to “he said angrily” for the sole purpose of eliminating expressive tags, you’re better off leaving it as “he snapped.”

(Although, admittedly, I love me some beautiful adverb usage, and I admire writers who toss them in without worrying about calling down the wrath of armchair editors everywhere. So.)

Excessive, Expressive Dialogue Tags

Our barrier object of excessive, expressive dialogue tags manifests when dialogue tags become so frequent and so flamboyant that they interrupt the story to call attention to themselves. Consider this passage from Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):

excessive expressive dialogue tags in Wonderland

In this exchange between only two characters, every line of dialogue is tagged. We have said, cried, and pleaded, along with modifiers severely, humbly, sharply, and angrily. The excessive, expressive tags not only appear on every line, but they draw further attention through lack of pronoun use. (It’s always “Alice” or “the Mouse” speaking, never “she” or “it.”)

The barrier, then, becomes two-fold:

  1. The tags interrupt the spoken dialogue of each character, with sentence structure that blocks the flow of the full line of speech.
  2. That interruption in turn prevents narrative immersion, creating a block between the reader and the story.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “I had not!” line of dialogue, whose subsequent tag might cause the reader to miss the joke in Alice’s response. “A knot? Oh, do let me help undo it!”

Carroll gets a pass because A) he’s writing in the mid-1800s and B) he’s writing for a young audience. Today this style of dialogue would be more prevalent in early-reader chapter books. It should reduce with Middle Grade and disappear from YA/Adult genres altogether.

A Good Barrier

Dialogue tags can gum up a conversation, but they can also act as pauses for when a character doesn’t rattle off their full line of dialogue in one go. Take this line from the excerpt above:

“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. “Oh, do let me help to undo it!”

The action of Alice searching for this supposed knot very nicely punctuates her first exclamation from her second. And while, had I been Carroll’s editor, I likely would have eliminated the “said” and made “looked” the main verb of the sentence (my above caveat against “looked” et al. notwithstanding), the placement of the tag in context really is lovely.

I’m also a fan of the occasional expressive attributive tag. They flavor a narrative when you can’t always shove an action into the mix, and they do it succinctly.

When used with care, dialogue tags of all types can become an asset rather than an obstacle.

However, One Final Caveat

With regards to expressive dialogue tags, beware mistaking action tags for attributive ones. You can’t shrug a line of dialogue. Or grin it. Or chuckle it. These and other similar tags are actions separate from speech. More specifically, they’re intransitive verbs, so they can’t structurally take a line of dialogue as their object.

(Because, as intransitives, they can’t take objects at all. Haha.)

/prescriptivism

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Dialogue and Deception | Liar, Liar

Dialogue (n. \ˈdī-ə-ˌlȯg \ )

 a conversation between two or more persons;  also a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer)

 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

For the purposes of this blog series, we will consider writing itself as a form of dialogue. In fiction and creative nonfiction, this dialogue has three layers at work within it.

Dialogue Layer #1: Character to Character

The most basic layer is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the word “dialogue”: Character to Character. This is the back-and-forth exchange we see on the written page. It can be verbal or non-verbal, including hand gestures, facial expressions, letters, and so forth. 

In short, this layer involves anything one character does to communicate with another.

Dialogue Layer #2: Narrator to Reader

The second layer is Narrator to Reader. This includes exposition and narration and consitutes the Narrator and the Reader interacting across the fourth wall.

Obviously this dialogue is one-sided. The Narrator will not hear anything the Reader says. Sometimes a Narrator will prompt what they assume the Reader is thinking (“Oh, you were wondering about XYZ? I was just getting to that,” and so forth), but these prompts feel disingenuous because most readers aren’t thinking along those exact lines.

(But you like people filling in your thoughts for you, you say? No, typically none of us does. Be very careful when using this narrative technique.)

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceThe Narrator to Reader layer of dialogue controls the POINT OF VIEW. This powerful story element is a built-in mechanism for manipulating the Reader’s perceptions and how they receive the string of events in your plot.

When a Reader picks up a book, by and large they are sympathetic to things the Narrator is sympathetic to and critical of things they’re critical of. In cases where the Narrator’s worldview differs significantly from the Reader’s, the Reader more than likely puts down the book and walks away, and the dialogue ends there. (Consider the case of a narrator who openly expresses antisemitism, or one who expounds upon the joys of animal abuse. That’s a quick way to kill the joy of reading.)

This layer also conveys SETTING and CHARACTERIZATION. Because the Narrator determines which conversations the Reader receives and which character interactions get featured or skipped, the Character to Character layer of dialogue depends entirely upon this layer.

Dialogue Layer #3: Author to Audience

The final layer of dialogue is Author to Audience. The Author is not the Narrator, and neither is every Reader your Audience. As authors this is our most important layer of dialogue, the foundation that upholds everything else.

This is the layer of conscious literary choices. PLOT, THEME, diction, analogies, metaphors, and other literary devices all combine to communicate some greater message to the Audience, to manipulate thoughts and feelings.

This layer exists whether you acknowledge it or not. It is driven by what you hope to achieve as an author writing your work.

Together the Author and the Audience engage in a cooperative agreement. The generic version of this agreement is as follows:

  • ­The Author promises to entertain.
  • ­The Audience agrees to suspend disbelief.

Every genre has a specialized version of this agreement. The Romance author promises deep emotional connections between characters, the Suspense author promises tension, the Fantasy author promises wonder and adventure, and so forth. And each of these genres has an audience seeking fulfillment of those promises.

Not an intelligent person in the world picks up a novel and says, “If this isn’t straightforward and predictable, I’m going to riot.” Even the audience for the trope-iest of trope genres wants to experience those tropes in an original way, with a fresh perspective and the promise of surprise.

Hence, Author and Audience enter a dialogue of deception, built upon mutual consent.

If the Author fails their promise, the Audience will drop their side of the agreement as well.

In a nutshell, it is your job as an Author to deceive your Audience.

Workshopping Questions:

  1. As an Author, what specific promises does your agreement with your Audience include? What tropes or other literary devices might help you fulfill those promises?
  2. What point of view does your current work-in-progress use? How does this POV help or hinder your Narrator?

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