A few weeks ago, I had the fortunate pleasure of participating in Writeoncon.com—an online conference for YA and Middle Grade authors. Tom Leveen wrote a post entitled Theatre Techniques to Sharpen Your Dialogue (PS—awesome) where he discussed how being in the theatre—acting, directing, even watching can serve to strengthen dialogue in a story. Considering I’ve been in, directed, choreographed, viewed umpteen plays and musicals since I was a wee little lass, his message resonated with me. And validated why I think writing clever dialogue has always been and continues to be my niche in my writing.
But the tagging… uh, that’s where I found I needed work. In writing my first two stories, I discovered I suffered from a classic case of CTS—Creative Tag Syndrome. I had to use all these glorious words (unnecessary adverbs included) to tag dialogue such as “he proclaimed vociferously” (Uh… if you’re proclaiming something, it’s probably pretty loud) or “she whispered quietly” (Okay—how else do people whisper?). Or “she remarked” or “commented” or “purred”.
Or my fav (PS—still finding these cringe-worthy tags as I clean up my novels):
“How ‘bout we shut up until I say so,” he sneered.
Yeah, uh… people don’t really sneer their speech. Sneer is an expression. Not an effective tag.
To demonstrate why you don’t want to be infected with CTS, I beefed up an excerpt from one of my novels. (the “I” is Becca—the protagonist and Josh is her lab partner)
“You going to talk about it?” Josh screeched stridently . He still looked at me with a most grating concern.
“Nope,”I sneered. I scowled at Josh and ceremoniously picked up a paper towel to dry my arm that Josh drenched in water.
Josh huffed dramatically and eventually returned to cleaning up our work station.
“You know I should report it,”Josh muttered with another sigh.
“Report what, Josh?” I exhaled noisily and rinsed out a test tube. “I have a few scars on my arm. For all anyone knows, my dog bit me when we were playing around.”
“You don’t have a dog,”he remarked.
“So,”Josh replied and cleaned a beaker for the twentieth time. “It doesn’t even look like dog bites. It looks more like cigarette burns and—” He stopped when I interrupted him.
I slammed a beaker onto the table, practically cracking the glass. “Ugh. Give it a rest, Josh. I don’t. Want. To talk about it,” I shouted with a vociferous clamor.
There’s only one word I have to describe that little give-and-take.
Okay—so how do you avoid contracting the totally curable CTS and tag effectively? And what’s so wrong with using all these glamorous words?
First… the most fundamental purpose of the dialogue tag is to indicate who’s speaking. If we already know who’s talking, don’t use a tag at all. Why not? I’ll get to that in a minute.
Second… keep it simple. If the purpose of your tag is describe the emotional state of the speaker, then do it by blocking in an action. Or an expression.
“You don’t love me anymore,” Ginger pouted. (Cringe)
Ginger’s lower lip quivered. “You don’t love me anymore?”
See: the action tags the dialogue (tells us who’s the pathetic drama queen), is more descriptive, and well… people can’t pout and speak at the same time.
But I like using all these flowery words that describe what’s going on and make me look like I own stock in the dictionary. Why can’t I use them?
Readers accept the words "said" and "asked". Actually, they barely notice those words as they read. However, words such as "hollered" and "bawled" often draw their attention away from the dialogue and yank them out of the story.
I don't want to be pulled out of a story. Let it flow, dude.
That’s why you only want to tag when necessary. When you need to indicate who’s speaking.
The author of my one of my fav, fav book series tags dialogue all the time. The constant “this person said” and “that person said”, draws me out of the story and takes me away from the action and flow of the scene. Seriously. By the time we get to book two, we know who says “Easy” and we know who follows with “Peasy”. (BTW… it’s the ONLY thing I don’t care for in her books—cause they’re FABULOUS!)
As for the creative tag—Ann M. Marble wrote a faboo article for Writing-World.com in which she classifies these tags (thundered, boomed, demanded, whimpered…) as “bookisms”. Not only do these “bookisms” detract from the story, they make your work appear amateurish. If the dialogue is strong enough, “Said” and “asked” work just fine… if they’re needed at all. And Marble adds, “If the dialogue is not strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster it.”
And it’s okay to “murmur” or “shout” every once in a while… so long as they’re not overused. Marble likens the use of creative tags to decorating a cookie with those cool silver candies. "If you put dozens of them on one cookie, the cookie looks silly and is hard to eat. Like the silver candies, use these phrases carefully and use them only on special occasions.”
But… but my favorite authors use these bookisms all the time. Why can’t I?
a) They’re established
b) And they’ve written a powerful story where they can get away with it
Sooo—the wrap-up on effective dialogue tagging.
1) “said” and “asked” are effective
2) Tag with action instead of flowery bookisms and adverbs
3) Tag only when necessary
4) Ineffective tagging disrupts flow of story and takes reader out of the action
And with that being said… here’s the real excerpt from one of my stories:
“You going to talk about it?” Josh still looked at me with a most grating concern.
He sighed and eventually returned to cleaning up our work station.
“You know I should report it.”
“Report what, Josh?” I rinsed out a test tube. “I have a few scars on my arm. For all anyone knows, my dog bit me when we were playing around.”
“You don’t have a dog.”
“So, it doesn’t even look like dog bites. It looks more like cigarette burns and—”
I slammed a beaker onto the table, practically cracking the glass. “Ugh. Give it a rest, Josh. I don’t. Want. To talk about it.”
Soooo—maybe not perfect but definitely better than the gag-induced passage from up above. But, hopefully you noticed, that the teensy-tiny scene flowed much better, I didn’t use any “bookisms”. In fact, I only tagged with action. Not too many flowery words to take the reader out of the story, and I only tagged when I needed to indicate who was talking, describe the scene, or provide insight into the emotional state of the character.
Hopefully you won’t get bitten by the CTS bug. It’s not at fatal affliction, but can def kill a novel before it has a chance to flourish. Fortunately, it’s curable. And I find I don’t have so many bouts with it anymore.