Dialogue. “Show, don’t tell.” This writing mantra seeps into every aspect of our fiction, but often overlooked is dialogue. Dialogue can be tricky, but this week’s Fiction Friday looks at dialogue tags and how, when used properly, can greatly effect your story. What are dialogue tags? Dialogue tags are placed after (or before speech and include: said, asked, retorted, quipped, hissed, and many more.
There’s a “rule”, mostly taught in University writing courses, that “said” and “asked” are the only appropriate dialogue tags a writer should employ. This is because these words are invisible to the eye, allowing readers to understand who is speaking without breaking the fluidity of the dialogue. It’s expected that your character’s tone, inflection, meaning, even subtext be evident by the words they use. Your dialogue tags shouldn’t carry the words of your character, only clarify who said what.
Let’s look at an example.
“I’d ask you to sit down,” she mused. “But you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
“What vase?” Neo asked. He turned around, confused, and in doing so knocked over a vase of flowers. He reached for it too late and it shattered at his feet.
“That vase.” The Oracle said patiently.
“I’m sorry.” Neo apologized.
“I said don’t worry about it.” The Oracle insisted. “I’ll get one of my kids to fix it.”
“How did you know?” Neo asked, bemused.
“Ohh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”
Notice how in this example we’re letting our dialogue tags do all the work? We’re telling readers what’s happening, not showing. We’re using “said patiently”, “asked bemused”, and “insisted” to paint our picture. And actually, some of these tags are a little redundant. Of course the Oracle is insisting, we can tell that by the fact that she’s still saying in her dialogue there’s nothing to worry about. Why repeat it, and risk pulling the reader out of the dialogue?
“I’d ask you to sit down;” she said, “but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.”
“What vase?” Neo turned around, confused, and in doing so knocked over a vase of flowers. He reached for it too late and it shattered at his feet.
“That vase.” The Oracle smiled.
“I’m sorry.” Neo said.
“I said don’t worry about it.” The Oracle waved it off and sat down at her kitchen table. “I’ll get one of my kids to fix it.”
“How did you know?”
At this, the Oracle beamed. “Ohh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”
In this second option, we use action to paint a better picture, we’re showing the reader Neo’s confusion instead of telling the reader he “replied, baffled”.
There also happens to be a saying that rules are meant to be broken, and we’re all for that too, but we believe writers should still know the “rule” and the reasons why it’s employed in order to break it purposefully, and artfully. You may have noticed some popular writers breaking these rules- J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Robert Ludlum, and probably more- but your mission this week, should you choose to accept it, is to write a scene rich in dialogue. Write a first draft and then look it over to see what you’ve written. What dialogue tags did you use? Are they redundant? Do they add or detract to your scene? Keep them or lose them, and tell us a story.
You have until next Friday, so do try to hit the 1k mark. This is brain strength training, after all. (It’s only 143 words a day.) If you don’t hit 1k, don’t beat yourself up, and please still share it! 700, 500, or 300 words is still better than 0, we’re proud that you’re writing- and you should be too.