[process] Dialog tags

Another thing that came up in discussion over the weekend at Cascade Writers was dialog tags. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s the “said Maryam” that comes at the end of a snippet of quoted dialog. So:

“This is a dialog tag,” said Maryam.

Thanks to the Turkey City Lexicon and several generations of Milford-Clarion style workshopping, we’ve all had ourselves beaten half to death over “said-bookisms“. Speaking verbs, basically. “Said” and “asked” are conditionally invisible. “Replied”, “stated” and so forth are marginal. But words such as “interjected”, “erupted” and of course that old favorite, “ejaculated”, are intrusively strange except in instances of specific stylistic applicability. So:

“This is a said-bookism”, intoned Maryam.

Writers resort to said-bookisms because the two conditionally invisible dialog tags lose their invisibility through overuse. Especially structurally invariant overuse. In other words, tennis match dialog. So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” said João.
“How are you doing?” said Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” said Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” said João.

We don’t like that. Bad style, no biscuit.

Getting around that problem, which is fundamental to the early writings of people educated in English at least (I can’t comment on other languages) is part of the education of a writer. There are several basic techniques.

One is the judicious use of said-bookisms. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional “interjected” or “queried” or something, so long as the word also carries some story weight, and does not draw undue attention to itself. (Note that you get to use the speaking verb “ejaculated” precisely once in your entire professional career, otherwise we will all come to your home and mock you.) So:

“Hello,” said Maryam.
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” said João.
“May I press you to a candied starfish?” offered Maryam.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” exclaimed João.

Still pretty stilted, but not quite so irksome as before.

We can also employ variant structure to break up the flow of the text and provide a little more rhythm to the dialog. Varying the structure can also shift the emphasis on individual lines. So:

Maryam said, “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine,” João said.
Maryam offered, “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“No, I am fasting for cultural reasons,” João exclaimed.

Also pretty stilted, but again, not quite so irksome.

Now we can introduce blocking or action to indicate dialog, further easing the style crunch. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?” asked Maryam.
“I am fine.” João smiled.
Maryam held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
Hands flying up in apparent panic, João replied, “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Once we have a flow of dialog established, we can start omitting speaker referents and trust the reader to follow along. So:

Maryam waved. “Hello.”
“Hi, there,” replied João.
“How are you doing?”
“I am fine.”
She held out a small crystal dish. “May I press you to a candied starfish?”.
João’s hands flew up in apparent panic. “No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!”

Even better is dialog where each character’s voice is sufficiently distinctive that the tags aren’t needed except to keep the reader occasionally reminded of who’s got the ball in the serve-and-volley of the dialog. So:

Maryam waved. “Greetings.”
“Yo, dawg,” replied João.
“And how do you find yourself today?”
“Chillin’, not illin’.”
She proffered a small crystal dish. “Might I press you to a candied starfish?”.
“Hell, no! I ain’t eating that shit.”

One of the suggestions I made to my student group at the conference was to write a scene between a crusty, retired professor of classics from some major university in New York City riding in a taxi with a youthful recent Somali immigrant cab driver. After some basic blocking and character setting, you really shouldn’t have to tag that dialog at all. The differences in generations, cultural perspective and speech register should provide ample distinction.

For a bonus, write that scene twice, once from the cab driver’s perspective, and once from the professor’s perspective. What kinds of things does the cab driver notice and look for? What kinds of things does the professor notice and look for? How can you work those into dialog?

Your thoughts?

7 thoughts on “[process] Dialog tags

  1. CT Piatt says:

    A man after my own heart.

    I believe (and I practice what I believe) that tags are unnecessary. Good writing, individual characters (both the narrating voice and the speech) and good use of beats (description and/action) should be sufficient to distiguish who says what, even if there are four or five characcters in the conversation.

    ‘Said’ and ‘asked’ are invisible and who wants to waste time on invisible words when writing a short story, particularly when the word does no more than indetify the speaker. in writing a short story (and longer lengths) every word must contribute to the story, the mood and emotion and to connecting the reader to the characters. Dialogue tags just don’t do that well enough, if at all.

  2. This is a great primer on the subject. I’ve been at least partially aware of most of these techniques, and in some cases I’ve internalized the those techniques sufficiently to put them into practice without conscious thought. But I daresay my dialog attribution style is still in need of improvement. Seeing it laid out clearly like this, I think, helps to think about it and I’m sure can only lead to an improvement in my craft.

  3. deshipley says:

    Nicely presented.

    “Writers resort to said-bookisms because the two conditionally invisible dialog tags lose their invisibility through overuse.” — I was actually put off from “said” for quite some while after seeing it overused. That and, I must admit, I was inclined to be a little free with “ejaculated” and its ilk.

    Nowadays, my rule of thumb is to prevent my own distraction. If I’m getting overwhelmed with a string of “said”s, some need to be moved around and/or deleted. If that’s the second time I’ve seen “exclaimed” on a single page, that’s too much exclamation going one; have somebody throw up their hands and go tagless instead.

    The way I figure it, if I can’t see the forest for the trees, I shouldn’t expect my readers to be able to. Words are there to tell the story, not steal attention from it like pesky little thunder thieves. (Sorry, Ejaculated, that goes for you, too.)

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