The Grammar Grump: Dialogue Tags

A few years ago, when the kid was smaller and far less lippy, he was obsessed with a series of children’s books. Wonderful books, with interesting story lines and well drawn characters, and there were at least fifty of them at the time. One Christmas, we got a few of them on tape and listened as we drove across the country to the grandparents’ house. Nearly every line of dialogue was followed  by a ‘said.’ When you read these books to yourself, you don’t notice them. But when they are read aloud, wow. It became a game as we all shouted ‘said!’ every 30 seconds as the book progressed.

wordle 2I was thinking of this today as I judged a contest entry. After nearly every line of dialogue, there was a dialogue tag–those words used to convey information about the speaker. But because this author had probably heard somewhere that using ‘said’ is boring, she used other words too, including: remarked, explained, asked, instructed, huffed, purred, challenged, inquired, sniffed, whispered, concurred, warned, murmured, intoned, and added. And all of those were in the first few pages. An occasional asked, explained, or whispered is fine, but one doesn’t speak and sniff at the same time–go ahead, try it. In addition, many of the tags were peppered with adverbs–softly whispered, quickly explained. I should add that this entry was otherwise quite well written, but the ridiculous dialogue tags and excessive adverbs may have ruined the author’s chance to final in the category.

So, how to fix this problem? I am not saying a writer should never use dialogue tags. They are essential to clarify who is speaking, especially if there are more than two people in a scene. But you don’t need them all the time. Try a line of dialogue followed, or preceded, by a character’s action or expression. For example:

“You must be joking.” Robert laughed at the thought.
Evelyn sneered. “You’ll see.”

When you do use a dialogue tag, keep it simple. As I noted above, I hadn’t realized the children’s book author used ‘said’ so often, because when I read her stories, ‘said’ faded into the background. It conveys the identity of the speaker without beating the reader over the head. If you want to show a speaker’s emotion, or expression, try it another way:

His smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care, my lord.” She shrugged and turned away.

Pick up a book by your favorite author. How do they use dialogue tags? You may be surprised when you look more closely. The following exchange is from Julia’s Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding. The characters are discussing what it must feel like to know you’re in love:

She lifted her eyes to his, made breathless by the gravity of of her own revelations.”It’s too much,” she heard herself say. “It would be too much. I wouldn’t. . . I wouldn’t. . .”
Slowly, he shook his head. “You would have no choice. It would be beyond your control. It just . . . happens.”
Her mouth parted with surprise. “That’s what she said.”
“Who?”
And when she answered, her voice was strangely detached, as if the words were being drawn straight from her memory. “Hermione,” she said. “That’s what Hermione said about Mr. Edmonds.”
Gregory’s lips tightened at the corners. “Did she?”
Lucy slowly nodded. “Almost precisely. She said it just happens. In an instant.”

There are plenty of other posts out there that go into more detail, and even a few books. Some of the better blog posts are these:
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/said.shtml
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/06/using-dialogue-tags-and-punctuation.html
http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/12/04/another-take-on-dialogue-tags/

How do you feel about dialogue tags, as a reader or a writer?

 

 

 

The Middle Muddle

The Beginning

The Beginning

Every writer has his or her way of doing things.  Some writers write only one book at a time, beginning at the beginning and writing in an orderly fashion until the end. Other writers write one book at a time, but in pieces, writing a scene here and scene there and then weaving them all together.

Not me. I write several books at a time. I love, absolutely love, starting a book. The blank page is so full of possibility. Every book might be fabulous, might be a best seller. Every book has the potential to be written in an orderly fashion until I’m done.

Alas, every single book I write fails to meet that potential. Every. Single. One.

When I get to the middle–known by many writers as The Dreaded Middle–I come to a screeching halt. I have no idea where to go next. I am consumed by doubts:  This book is boring. This book is TERRIBLE. I suck at this. I’ll never write another book. 

So I fret. I try to plot a bit more, to think of situations to toss my characters into so they can get out of the mess they’re in. I re-read the outline, the synopsis, or the beat sheet I’ve prepared to get myself back on track. I stare at the last sentence I’ve written and type nothing else. I read writing books.

Then I get another idea for a book, so I plot that. I write a synopsis. I tell myself–and my writer friends, who are probably tired of hearing it–that THIS time, I will avoid the Middle Muddle. I will storm right through and take no prisoners. It will be AWESOME.

But of course it’s not. I get stuck in the middle, and the cycle starts again.

The EndWith every book, though, there comes a moment when the words flow again, where I get past the middle in a flurry of activity that sometimes causes me physical injury. I pound out the last 20 or 30 thousand words in half the time it takes to write the first 30,000.

Yesterday was such a moment. I went to a NEORWA meeting in the morning, learned about a great new writing center in the Cuyahoga County Public Library, then went to lunch with some of my chapter sisters. I bitched about the middle muddle, and when I got home, I pulled out the manuscript that’s been idle for 5 or 6 months, and started typing. I wrote 1400 words before dinner, and another 300 words before bed. I got past the middle. It felt amazing.

I have no idea why this happens. I don’t have any epiphanies, or sudden realizations about the characters or the plot that take me past it. I just start writing again.

Last night I realized that this is okay. It’s simply the way I write. Although I will continue to read writing books and talk to writer friends and plot and try to avoid the Middle Muddle, I have made my peace with it. I’m never going to write fast, never going to be like this prolific writer or that super organized one. I am my own writer, and I do things my way, even if that way is weird and confusing and occasionally demoralizing. Anyone who knows me is probably not at all surprised.

So, writer friends. How do you write? Orderly, piecemeal? One book at a time or several? Middle muddle or not?

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