The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: "When you call me that, SMILE." And he looked at Trampas across the table.
The Virginian, Owen Wister
It’s been a while since I’ve done a writing post!
Blogging about writing, offering writing advice, is the topic of choice for most writers (second only to promoting the latest book), with -- it seems to me -- the most vociferous opinions proffered by the least experienced scribes. Anyway, nothing triggers enthusiastic conjecture like dialog tags, and since that subject is one of my pet peeves, I thought…why not chat about that and see if anyone else wants to offer some thoughts.
What is a dialog tag, you ask?
“What is a dialog tag?” she asked.
She asked is a dialog tag.
Dialog tags serve a couple of purposes. First and most obviously, they identify who is speaking within dialog.
Secondly, they define or clarify the emotional currents within a scene; they color the moment for us. They tell us how the characters spoke: their expressions, their tone of voice, and their gestures. Dialog tags establish character, they can be used (as all body language within a scene can be used) to deliver clues about everything from who killed Mrs. Beasley to whether Jake loves Adrien.
Thirdly, the deliberate placement and usage of dialog tags affects the rhythm of storytelling, the cadence of the scene flow, the dramatic beats within a conversation.
It ain’t just about telling us whether Dick or James is speaking.
Dialog tags are tricky.
The vast, vast majority of dialog tags I see are unnecessary, ill-chosen, or just plain wrong.
Dialog tags are unquestionably difficult to use, and used badly, they are worse -- by far -- than no dialog tags at all. Which is why a lot of writers eschew using them at all. Ever.
It’s a valid choice. But that’s all it is. A stylistic choice. An opinion on what makes for better prose.
There’s no question that the current trend in writing -- with the exception of speculative, romantic, and literary fiction -- veers away from the use of such literary devices as dialog tags.
I don’t argue that, and I would much prefer to see fewer dialog tags used in most romantic fiction I read. But that’s my personal preference. There are no Laws of Literary Style. There aren’t even any rules. There are guidelines and these change because they are based on literary trends and fashions. So you can quote Stephen King or Anne Lamott or eHow. The opinions offered are simply…opinions. We can agree or disagree with them, but they are only opinions. Not a one of the Ten Commandments deals with writing, believe it or not. What was God thinking?!
The occasional use of an imaginative dialog tag can change plain prose to sparkling storytelling. He said doesn’t actually cover every situation. In fact, if all you’re using is a he said, you can probably dispense with it.
Unless you’re using the tags for purposes of rhythm or dramatic beats. Like critically acclaimed Joseph Hansen does in this example from Living Upstairs:
“Everybody seems to know him,” the sailor says.
“He lives near here,” Nathan says.
“Do you? I’d like to go to your place. This place” -- he looks around -- “is too fucking noisy.”
“I live in Hollywood,” Nathan says.
“An actor,” the sailor says. “I figured that. Did I ever see you in anything?”
“I’m a writer,” Nathan says. “Nobody ever sees them.”
There are only two people in that scene so Hansen’s tags are merely for the rhythm and the cadence of the storytelling; it’s nothing to do with keeping track of who’s speaking. Now, I’m not suggesting m/m writers start emulating Hansen, I’m merely pointing out that, contrary to what some aspiring copyeditor might tell you, dialog tags have purpose beyond the obvious.
Anyway, I get so tired of hearing mediocre writers proclaim that relying on dialog tags is a sign of lazy writing, I thought it might be kind of interesting to take a look at how famous and bestselling genre writers, both past and present, handle them.
Aside from fame and popularity, the thing all these writers have in common is that they use dialog tags both deliberately and (generally) sparingly. You might not care for their writing or their style, but you cannot argue that they don’t know their craft or they’re not making conscious choices.
There are pages and pages where Chandler uses no tags or merely the he said or she said tag for the purpose or rhythm and place keeping, but when he needs something stronger, he goes for it.
He doubled a meaty fist.
“Darling, think of your manicure,” I told him.
He controlled his emotions. “Nuts to you, wise guy,” he sneered. “Some other time, when I have less on my mind.”
“Could there be less?”
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
I guess you could argue that Chandler is out of fashion, but Laura Kinsale is a still considered a contemporary romance writer, right? She’s certainly bestselling and award-winning. She’s sparing in her use of tags, but when she needs something more from the arsenal -- as in this dramatic and public climax between the brain damaged Christian and his estranged wife, she’s not afraid to reach for dialog tags and exclamation points:
“Helpmeet!” he shouted at her, at the blank weeping façade of her. “God…a charge…love! No rule but love! Duchess!”
Her lips moved. She moistened them.
“Think…not?” he demanded. “Think you’re a meek mild little Quaker?” His reckless laugh at that echoed to the rafters. “Stubborn…self-will…pride opinionated liar! Won’t curtsy to the king, damn you! Walk in madman’s cell--head up…no fear…I could have killed you, Maddy. Killed you a hundred times.”
“It was an Opening,” she whispered.
Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale
I had to search and search for any dialog tags from another bestseller -- Jayne Ann Krentz. She uses them sparingly and only in scenes of great emotion or action, and when she uses them she doesn’t waste them on a bald he said.
“That’s bullshit,” Ryland snapped. “McPherson isn’t conducting an investigation. I made it clear that I didn’t want one.”
“Yes, sir, I know, but I’m afraid the Beacon implied that there were some questions about Pamela’s death that were being looked into by the local authorities, or words to that effect.” Hoyt glanced at the folder. “The good news is that no one reads that damn rag. It won’t be a problem.”
“It better not become one,” Ryland muttered.
All Night Long, Jayne Ann Krentz
Here’s my favorite though. I can imagine the flack the brilliant and still dearly beloved Georgette Heyer would get these days. In this snippet she uses her tags to convey the visuals and the emotional tenor of the scene. She paints her dialog. Could she dispense with a couple of Rupert’s tags? Yes. But those would be the tags least likely to be challenged. The most effective tags in this scene are the imaginative and unusual ones.
“You my count on my presence for the season, Justin.”
“I am honoured, of course,” bowed his Grace.
“Ay, but--but will you let me join your party?” Rupert asked.
“You will add quite a cachet to my poor house,” Avon drawled. “Yes, child, you may join us, provided you behave with proper circumspection, and refrain from paying my very dear friend back in his own coin.”
“What, am I not to call him out?” demanded Rupert.
“It is so clumsy,” sighed his Grace. “You may leave him to my--er--tender mercies--with a clear conscience. The hole in your shoulder is added to the debt he owes me. He shall pay -- in full.”
These Old Shades, Georgette Heyer
That “bowed his Grace” is about as vivid as it gets, and yet I don’t know a copyeditor in this genre who wouldn’t howl, “You can’t bow dialog!”
Years of observing writers in their formative stages have convinced me that a surprising number of writers are not particularly observant.
Observant writers…observe. And they attempt to capture what they observe in their writing. They notice that people have expressions on their faces when they talk, that they use different tones of voice, that they use hand gestures and body language. Granted, these writers have a tendency to go overboard in the effort to capture these things. That’s where using tags gets tricky.
Anyway, you might have noticed that in the above snippet, Chandler has one of his characters sneer a comment. That’s a tag that’s frequently challenged by epub copyeditors. In fact, I had a copyeditor once note: you can't breathe or sneer words. You can whisper them or say them with a sneer.
Au contraire, mein herr.
/snɪər/ Show Spelled[sneer]
–verb (used without object)
to smile, laugh, or contort the face in a manner that shows scorn or contempt: They sneered at his pretensions.
to speak or write in a manner expressive of derision or scorn.
–verb (used with object)
to utter or say in a sneering manner.
a look or expression of derision, scorn, or contempt.
a derisive or scornful utterance, esp. one more or less covert or insinuative.
an act of sneering.
You can most certainly sneer words. You may not like the word “sneer” in dialog. You may find it overly dramatic or frequently misused, but the word means what the word means. And it’s a great word. It conveys expression and tone like no other. Sneering has to do with facial expression and tone of voice. Why, if I were speaking instead of typing this sentence, I’d probably be sneering right now.
You may wish that the man who invented “sneer” had instead spent his time inventing “grimace.” True enough, you cannot grimace words. We can grimace at the words. We can grimace at uninformed opinions offered as hard and fast writing rules.
I was discussing the sneering issue with one of my content editors, and she offered this, which I think is one of the best and succinct explanations of why we occasionally use dialog tags beyond the prosaic “he said” and “she said,” and why sometimes you find yourself going to war over a comma:
It’s metaphor, and metaphor seems to me to sit firmly in author voice and style.
“Austin,” Jeff breathed.
“Austin,” Jeff sighed.
“Austin,” Jeff sneered.
These would be edited to:
“Austin.” Jeff breathed.
“Austin.” Jeff sighed or “Austin,” Jeff said with a sigh.
“Austin.” Jeff sneered or “Austin,” Jeff said with a sneer.
None of those edits says what the author’s version says. They change the meaning. The original version carries meaning that can’t be conveyed literally and isn’t intended to be understood completely literally.
Exactly! It’s about nuance. It’s about shading. It’s about the precise use of language.
Browsing various blogs and sites offering writing advice I was fascinated by the number of writers claiming that words could not be gasped or giggled or whispered or shouted.
If you really think people can’t gasp words or breathe words or giggle words or snap words or manage to speak words, here’s your homework: Go to the nearest mall. Sit down amidst a group of people. Shut up and listen to them talk for a couple of hours.
If you’re sitting next to teenage girls you will soon discover that they do, indeed, giggle out words or gasp words.
OMG! Of course they do.
If you’re within earshot of the young thugs roughhousing by the fountain, you’ll observe them muttering words or growling words or throwing words over their shoulders.
If you are sitting next to that apple-cheeked granny you’ll notice that she is cooing words and that the kid in the stroller is bubbling words back to her. Yeah, bubbling them.
Well, no need to bubble, but you can’t argue that it conveys a certain…something.
And for those folks who advise strengthening your dialog so that the tone of voice and expression are clear from the words themselves, well, sure I agree with that in theory, but he said and she said will not fit every occasion.
Take for example…
That could be said jokingly, angrily, bitterly. It could be whispered brokenly. It could be bitten off. It could be gasped in pain. It could be accompanied by a knowing grin and an elbow in the ribs.
Actors don’t deliver all lines in the same manner, so clearly no matter how brilliant the dialog, there remains a need to convey meaning through facial expression and tone of voice. In email we use emoticons. In a novel, the author cues the reader through dialog tags.
Ultimately, good writing is about finding your own voice, learning how to say what you need to say in the most effective way possible. Even if you occasionally have to snap, sneer, or smile it.