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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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Honing In on What Matters Most

AverageEverygirl092

Last week, in the midst of procrastinating a fair number of tasks, I read a book. It was a decent story, sound in writing mechanics, pretty good dialogue, interesting plot points, and so forth, but there was one major problem: its pacing was

so

very

slow.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I kid you not, it took eight pages—eight—for the protagonist to wake up, get dressed, and go down to the kitchen for breakfast.

Eight pages.

There was backstory aplenty and introspection galore, and even a little eavesdropping on other characters Doing Things, but the end result was a narrative that dragged like a legless dog on a leash.

Which was tragic because, again, the writing was sound. This was a skilled author.

I’m not passing judgement. I’ve been there before, so deep in my character’s life that I included every minute detail and motivation and thought. To some extent, it’s part of my drafting process, to reassure myself that I know my character, that I know my plot, and that I know what’s happening at any given moment.

But the reader doesn’t need to know 90% of it and may well get annoyed at the surplus of information. We live in an age of instant gratification. No one wants to wade through eight pages of prose just to transport a main character from their bedroom to the breakfast table. Those details might make it into the first draft, but that doesn’t mean they should stay for the final one.

The Value of a Crisis Mindset

I’ve heard publication dates referred to as “book birthdays,” but I prefer to view them as another life event entirely: they are manuscript death-days. The book, once published, exits the creative process. Sure, you can make minor changes or corrections here and there, and the modern indie industry actually allows for full-blown plot overhauls and rewrites, but going forward, any drastic changes will disrupt the trust relationship between author and reader. The goal in publishing has to be a polished end-product.

The publication deadline, then, presents a crisis—an end-of-the-world scenario, if you will.

And, as with real-life crises, it gives the author cause to hone in on what is truly essential.

The drafting process, hard work as it is, has a carefree angle to it. You can create a whole cast of characters, endless gratuitous scenes, and witty dialogue that runs on for pages and pages. Eventually, through this drafting stage, everything gets cobbled together into one flowing narrative, and you type “The End” with a final flourish on the last page.

But that’s actually only the beginning. With a first draft complete, the looming crisis of publication engages. You enter the editing stage.

Some authors edit as they go along. (I do, certainly.) They get to the end of a draft and feel as though their project is complete. (Again, guilty as charged.) There is a fundamental difference between the drafting and the editing stages of writing, though:

Drafting is for the author’s benefit; editing is for the reader’s.

Pretty much any project that does not consider its audience’s needs separate from its creator’s intentions will fall short of its full potential. The purpose of the editing stage is to refine that raw material produced in the drafting stage.

This is a time to strip away all the extra descriptions, break up with the unnecessary characters, ditch the irrelevant scenes, and train a narrative’s focus upon the fundamental themes of the story. It’s a time to honor the reader by considering their expectations and ensuring that the story delivers on any promises it made.

The crisis mindset allows an author to sit down with their manuscript, acknowledge that the two will soon part ways, and to reinforce the story’s most important principles before sending that little bundle of joy out into the world to get shredded to pieces by the rabid readers that await.

(Only kidding, readers. You are mostly wonderful.)

While there’s no possible way to please 100% of an audience—and I’m not saying anyone should try—the end goal, simply, is to present the most polished story that an author can for where they are in their writing journey.

As difficult, tedious, and headache-inducing as the editing process can be, it’s nothing to bemoan. Editing is where the true craft of writing begins.

It is, in short, essential. Carefully attended, it allows an author to meet that crisis of publication with confidence and bid farewell to their lovely manuscript with no regrets.

 

Make No Mistake, Or Else

AverageEverygirl080

Typos are the worst. You check and re-check, proofread and edit, send the copy out to third parties for proofreading, and when you finally think you’ve caught every errant mark, you hit “publish” feeling mostly confident.

And then, voila.

The rogue typo magically appears.

The brain, in its helpful fabulosity, has filled in blanks and reordered letters to perfection, so that you swear up and down that typo was never there before, even though it always was.

Dear Brain,

This is not actually helpful. However, I won’t ask you to stop because I’m not sure what other functions this ability ties to, and I’d rather not mess with how my synapses fire. So, carry on, I guess…?

Love you lots,
Me

Over the course of my dubious writing career, I have employed three methods for finding typos:

  1. Let the draft sit. Like, for 6 months, so that you can look at it with fresh-ish eyes. Obviously this does not work well for blog posts that have a twenty-minute turnaround between drafting and publishing. (I exaggerate. It’s more like ten minutes.)
  2. Give the draft to someone else to read. This also does not work well for blog posts, since I’m usually typing them late at night when I’m alone and friendless. (As opposed to earlier in the day when I’m also alone and friendless but might have a chance encounter with a passing family member. Hi, Mom!)
  3. Read the draft in a different font and format. The altered visual disrupts the brain’s auto-correct filter. This is my blog-post method, mostly because of the handy “preview” button. I hate changing fonts in longer documents for a multitude of reasons, but it’s supposed to help there too. (Maybe someday I’ll actually try it.)

None of these methods produces perfect results 100% of the time. Ninja-typos infiltrate where one least expects them, lurking in the shadows, waiting for their opportunity to humiliate. And humiliate they do. Typos can strip away intellectual authority and rob one’s dignity in one fell swoop.

“Whoa. They flubbed that one tiny word in their argument? How can I trust anything they say if they’re not smart enough to catch that?”

Of course, as with any grammatical mistake, the severity of the offense is inversely proportional to how much we love the offender. It’s easy to brush off a friend’s typos with, “Oh, everyone makes mistakes from time to time,” but an adversary’s typo is cause for rampant mockery and scorn.

It almost makes one yearn for the bygone days of anything-goes Middle English spelling. Almost.

But the standard is here to stay, so the never-ending search for elusive typos shall continue.

Fight the good fight, my friends, and happy hunting.