Monday, July 1, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #20: Let's Stop the Abuse of Dialog Tags



What's wrong with this passage:

John and Katie tip-toed into the kitchen.
"Where are the cookies?" Katie whispered.
"Up on the shelf," John purred.
Mom sauntered in and flicked on the light.
"What are you two doing?" she sighed.
"Nothing!" they screamed.

You probably already know, but the answer is someone had too much fun with dialog tags.  They were reckless, careless, and people died.  Well, nothing died except, maybe, you're writing career. ;)

I like to think of dialog tags like sprinkles on a cupcake.  Only use a few.  But if you're one of those people who goes crazy with sprinkles on a cupcake, then find another analogy.

I think it's fine to use the occasional whispered or ordered, but most of the time you're good with said.

Said is like an all purpose tool that gets the job done.  The only reason to have a dialog tag is to keep things clear anyway.  Who's talking to whom?  In a conversation between Bill, Mary, and Edith, it can get pretty confusing.  You need those tags to stop the reader from going, Who said what now?

If you find you are using the dialog tag to relay emotion or tell the reader something, it means you probably didn't write the dialog well enough.  (Or at least you might want to take another stab at it.)

Have you ever read anything like this:

Ted looked at Martha in her prom dress.
"You look beautiful,"  he smiled.

Guess what?  You can't smile words.  You can't grimace them, chuckled them, or sigh them. 

And you know what else?  I see this all the time.  Well, maybe not all the time.  But I do see it and it drives me BONKERS!

But Julie, I want to show that Mom is sighing.  Can I not do that?

Sure you can.  It just can't be a dialog tag.

How about setting the scene for Mom's emotion with a bit of physicality.

Mom walked into the kitchen and flicked on the light.  She put her hands on her hips and sighed.
"What are you two doing?"

Or, if Katie and John are constantly up to hijinx, Mom might say, "What now?" or "What are you up to this time?"  That just gives us a little more information about the characters.

Then, Katie and John have to react.  Are they trying to be cute?

Katie and John jumped up, batted their eyelashes, and smiled.  "Nothing," they said.

Are they busted and they know it?

"Nothing," they said.  They hung their heads and stumbled out of the room.

So if we put the scene back together we might get something more like:

John and Katie tip-toed into the kitchen.
"Where are the cookies?" Katie whispered.
"Up on the shelf," John said. 
Mom walked into the kitchen and flicked on the light.  She put her hands on her hips and sighed.
"What are you two up to this time?"
Katie and John jumped up, batted their eyelashes, and smiled.  "Nothing," they said.

Isn't that better?

[No dialog tags were hurt in the course of this blog post.]




2 comments:

Mirka Breen said...

I agree with the common writing teachers' admonition to only use "said" in dialogue tags, but don't feel you must carry it to the absolute. When I started, I recoiled at even an occasional "asked," which is seamless enough.

KatieC said...

"I like to think of dialog tags like sprinkles on a cupcake. Only use a few. But if you're one of those people who goes crazy with sprinkles on a cupcake, then find another analogy."

This was great! LOL