Dialogue Tags: Rethinking Rules

Now that I’ve apparently got that venting out of the way, let’s have a look at dialogue tags.

I’d like to start with the conventional wisdom, not from schools this time, but from writers.
Don’t use adverbs, ever.
Don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.
To steal a joke from Elmore Leonard, “they admonish gravely”.

Like all mediocre advice, there’s a lot of truth behind this, in specific areas. I’m still a little torn on whether it’s good “newbie” advice – after all, if we teach newbies that these are the rules, then expect them to know how and when to break them when they get more experienced, aren’t we doing exactly the thing I ranted about for so long last time?
Let’s back up and explore these a bit. I’m going to do them in reverse order, because I’m annoying like that. So – “don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.”

What’s good about this advice? Why would you tell this to a newbie? One very simple reason, really: Being able to put a fancy verb in a dialogue tag absolves the writer of having to work as hard in the dialogue to convey meaning.

“You won’t be able to do it,” she asserted.

Asserted conveys a lot there, in terms of tone. In many situations, that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence – in many contexts, it’s the best, most concise way of conveying the information.
But what about:

“It’s true!” she asserted.

How much do you really need ‘asserted’ there? The exclamation mark conveys much of the emphasis, and the simple declaration is short and forceful in and of itself. You could definitely read tone from the context (if you can’t read tone into “It’s true!” from context, the writer probably has more issues than just dialogue tags). “She asserted” just isn’t necessary.
Here’s the other issue:

“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the shops, with friends,” his friend replied.

What extra information does “replied” carry here? Absolutely nothing. If it had been ‘retorted’, then the extra venom might have justified the fancy verb, but here you’re just distracting the reader for no purpose.
This is the argument for “no verbs other than ‘said’”: A new writer is better off avoiding these mistakes to encourage them to develop better dialogue writing skills than relying on the crutch of fancy verbs.

Here’s the bad: Some verbs are just better than said in their appropriate context. These are the verbs describing voice and nothing else.
If you need to convey that a character is modifying their volume or pitch, there is no better way than to use a verb meaning exactly that volume or pitch of voice, and leave it at that. Forcing a writer, especially a new writer, to convey those things through dialogue alone is likely to just end up with clumsy workarounds – extra exclamation marks, overuse of italics, ellipses all over the place, too much description of character action to provide context for the speech to convey tone.

The rule about adverbs comes from much the same place, though it’s a little more clear-cut. Reducing the new writer’s reliance on things outside dialogue forces development of dialogue writing. However, it’s much harder to talk about where the exceptions are, because adverbs are much more nebulous. If you’ve got an ear for writing, you’ll hear where they’re necessary, and where they add to the writing rather than taking away from it.
If you don’t, well … it’s not the sort of thing you can be taught. It’s a combination of sentence flow plus overall meaning divided by conciseness of sentence viewed through the lens of personal voice and writing style. Unfortunately, this is really useless to try and tell someone who’s new, so it just gets boiled down to “don’t” and we kind of hope that the new people learn how to use them right on their own eventually.

So, to talk about proper use of dialogue tags, I’m going to try taking an opposite approach: Define good dialogue tag use in terms of what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

Let’s stop and break down what the dialogue tag actually does. I would posit that a good dialogue tag has three purposes, in this order of importance:
– To identify to the reader who is speaking so that dialogue does not become confusing;
– To provide extra information on how to read the dialogue when context is insufficient; and
– To inform the flow of the sentence.

The first is fairly self-explanatory. The reader needs to know who is speaking. Adding “name/pronoun said” occasionally into the text keeps the speakers clear and makes reading easier. For this purpose, just ‘said’ is fine; no need for frills.

But, if you’re like me, you don’t like things that have only one purpose in the writing, and your dialogue does need some tone context to help it along, even if you’re amazing at character writing.
Still, fancy verbs all the time has a main problem: no matter how excellent your vocabulary is, you’re going to run out of verbs referring to speech that don’t sound just plain clunky (when you’re resorting to ‘pontificated’, you’ve officially run out of words), or you’re going to have some issues with repetition. Suddenly, nobody says things, everybody “hisses” – or more realistically, everyone who is angry “hisses” and everybody who is shocked “gasps”, and your individual characterisation kind of goes down the toilet.
Instead, action is your friend.

He rolled his eyes. “Are you quite done?”

“I didn’t mean it.” She scratched the back of her head.

Double-whammy! Characterisation and a shorthand for who’s speaking at any given time! It’s not lazy, it’s just efficient.

The third one, and the one you’re going to want to use really carefully, is dialogue tag to indicate flow.
Here’s a sentence with a fancy verb.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he ventured.

Here’s a sentence with a judiciously-placed dialogue tag.

“I think,” he said, “we need to go to the house again.”

Here’s another.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he said. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

Even better:

“I think we need to go to the house again.” He glanced around the room. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

The dialogue tag splits the sentence up and indicates hesitation or a significant pause without needing to use ellipses or saying “he hesitated” or any of those things. Flow is pretty much the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox – the first sentence with the fancy verb isn’t bad, exactly, but the ones after it just sound right as you read them. Combining appropriate use of flow with a well-placed action gives the best picture of what’s going on, and the most subtle.

Instead of talking about “said is dead” or not to use verbs or adverbs, I’d rather be pointing new writers to a checklist.
Does it need to be there to indicate who’s speaking?
Does it provide information that ‘said’ or the dialogue alone does not?
Is it used to indicate sentence flow?

After you’ve satisfied those criteria, you can start adding adverbs. I promise, they’re not going to bite you.

Dialogue Tags and Education

Well, we’ve had a few ranty blog posts recently, and I’m a little over them, so let’s get down to business with something a little more on the ‘craft’ side of things.

Let’s talk about dialogue tags.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from tutoring, it’s that primary and high school teachers don’t always see eye to eye with writers on the Internet about dialogue tags. For a while, I was on Pinterest being subtly horrified at it every time it told me that it had picked a “Said is Dead” chart for my viewing pleasure because WHO USES THOSE ANYMORE? I had one in my Year 1 classroom; surely things have changed since then!
Of course, two of my tutoring students promptly brought those charts to their next lessons with me, and that’s when I realised how big a foot I was potentially shoving into my mouth with all my rambling about ‘efficient language’ and ‘don’t use a long word, use the right word”.

To be fair, at a primary school level, and to some level at a high school level, there is an excellent reason to enforce rules like this: Vocabulary. Primary school is a place where it’s important to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible, because the more time you have to get acclimated to words, the more you’ll be able to use them effectively later. It takes a while of usage and misusage to really understand connotation, after all.

That being said, there is a huge problem with this, and that is the necessity of un-teaching it later, which just seems a really unintuitive way to go about things. It’s one thing to present a simplified version of the truth to get students to come to grips with a concept before you start bombarding them with caveats and exceptions, but it’s entirely another to have to do a complete one-eighty halfway through their schooling life. They do this with essays as well (or, at least, they did at my school) – they give you a very strict structure for how you write an essay or text response (introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion, TEEL paragraph structure etc.), and then suddenly in Year 10, they tell you to write an essay without that structure because that structure is so last year.
As a result, a significant number of people in year 10 suddenly have their essay grades plummet, because there’s been no lead-up to this change, no indication that their paragraph structure will ever fail them, and thus no reason to look at important things like the reason behind that structure, or the ways in which it works and doesn’t work. Unless you’re an English nerd – in fact, the only people who survived that transition unscathed were the ones who were experimenting with the structure before this change was announced.

Vocabulary is much the same – somewhere between high school and university, the metric changes on you, but nobody will ever tell you why. It’s actually really simple: the world goes from measuring how many words you know to measuring how efficiently and precisely you can use those words. That’s all it is. But because it’s such a change from how schools teach language use, people are blindsided by it. Some never even realise the change has taken place, because it’s so easy to conflate large vocabulary with intelligence (if someone uses an uncommon word because it’s the precise one that’s needed, it’s simple to just take away that they sounded intelligent because they used an uncommon word, especially if you’ve had it pounded into your head for upwards of ten years that good English students use uncommon words).

The other problem with the approach is that teaching and then de-teaching something is unnecessarily complicated. If you teach someone something, going back and then saying “that’s untrue” results only in confusion. You’ve taught a frame of reference and then you have to remove it and replace it with an unfamiliar one years down the track.
This is the intellectual equivalent of building a house on a concrete foundation, then getting partway through the building process, realising you’d like a reinforced concrete foundation instead, then having to somehow tear up the concrete, either reinforce the concrete you have or replace the concrete with reinforced concrete without actually damaging the house. It’s ludicrous.

Dialogue tags suffer most from this in fiction writing, I think, because they’re such tricksy goblins to begin with. They’re delicate things that perform a few very specific functions, but they do happen to be able to be loaded down with a plethora of self-important verbs, delicious adverbs and oooo, a nice selection of subclauses for after! And it’s very difficult to tell someone how and where they’ve used a dialogue tag badly because chances are you can use that exact construction well.

But … well, I said I wouldn’t rant, but here we are, a good thousand words or so into the piece and I’ve not said a thing about writing craft.
I’ll split this into two, then – first, the rant on the state of schooling (can’t promise that topic won’t come up again, by the way), and then the explanation of how dialogue tags ought to work.
Hopefully I can make the dry grammar stuff as interesting as working myself into a frothing rage over the education system.

Dialogue: A Soliloquy

If that title hasn’t convinced you that I have absolutely no life, nothing will.

So, here again we have a collision of two topics that have been on my mind recently.  One is dialogue – I’ve been chatting to people both online and in real life a bit about dialogue recently, just because the topic happened to come up by happenstance.  Then, I’ve been reading Grapes of Wrath (yes, the Steinbeck one), and synapses decided to go ahead and collide and therefore blog post.  Because I like unleashing my ramblings on the world.
Keep in mind that I have never been to Depression-era California, Depression-era Arkansas, Depression-era anywhere, or, for that matter, American anywhere.  

For me, the dialogue in Grapes of Wrath really stood out, and it’s been taking me a little while to figure out why.  At first, when I was reading Of Mice and Men for year 10 English, I was impressed by how ‘real’ the dialogue was, and how true he stuck to the accents of the characters.
Being 16 at the time, it was also somewhat of a revelation to my sheltered, private-school-girl mind that “literary classics” (here having the sole meaning of “books we study in school”) actually admitted that people swore when talking, and that it wasn’t always an indicator of anger.

Looking back on those books with a little more writing experience, and a lot more reading experience, under my belt, I think that was an … inaccurate assessment *ducks rotten tomatoes*

For me to explain what I mean, let’s have a look at common advice I’ve seen given to writers about good dialogue.

  1. It must ‘feel real’ to a reader.
  2. It must not contain any of the stops, pauses, ums and ahs of ‘real’ speech, because they are distracting.
  3. Every character should have their own speaking style, which in turn, helps to convey their own character.

Generally, what makes newbie writers tear their hair out (at least, the ones I’ve talked to about this) is the first two.  “How do you make a character speak like a real person if you’re not allowed to use the things that real people do?”
I find the problem here is actually one of defining terms.  The second one, I find, is fine as is.  Dialogue should, in most cases be an idealised version of real speech.  Ums, ahs, and hesitations work best as indicators of other things, like that a character is embarrassed, or hiding something, rather than something everyone does.  It does get very difficult for a reader to read through, and after a while, they’re liable to skim something important.
(Remind me to write a post about writing “rules” and the hodgepodge mess surrounding them someday)
That said, I’m betting pretty much everyone who reads this has read, at some point in their lives, dialogue that just doesn’t sound like something normal people would say.  It’s stilted, it’s clunky, it contracts where it shouldn’t and doesn’t contract where it should, and you get absolutely no sense of the characters from it.  Sometimes you can’t even put your finger on why it feels so bad, but you just know real people don’t talk like that. So, we generally put the label “oh, you have to write like real people speak” on it and leave it at that.  After all, we know what we mean, right?
But what do we actually mean?  Chances are, we probably mean the “flow” of the work.

I, personally, would put dialogue as tied with action in the places where flow is the most critical in a work, and requires the most attention.  For action, it’s to make sure the reader is pulled along at the pace you need them to be pulled along at, using sentence length to vary how the reader experiences each moment, and especially to convey the tone of the fighting (is this a green soldier’s first battle, and there are gunshots and cannons and people and maybe a horse and WHAT IS GOING ON??, or is this a martial arts match against two highly capable masters, where each movement flows from the next to conserve energy and momentum, and they’re constantly analysing the other for slip-ups and openings?).  However, in dialogue, you want a different type of flow altogether.  People naturally speak with a sort of cadence – they do hesitate, they um and ah, but generally speech flows from thought in a way that words on a page don’t.  So speech has a little more of a feel of stream-of-consciousness about it.  Compare: “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Before you go, Sandra said she needs to see you soon.  You should probably stop there on your way home.”  with “Can you get some milk while you’re out?  Oh, which reminds me – I met Sandra at the shop, and she said she needs to see you. You should probably do that on your way home.”  If I’ve done my job right, the second feels like it has much less of a disconnect in it, and probably feels more like “real speech” than the first one.  Therefore, you get a certain type of flow in dialogue that is often very hard to put your finger on.

On a more technical note, and something I’d need to study far more into linguistics and psychology than I actually have to really be qualified to talk about this, but I can give the basic version, and it starts with a very, very obvious statement.
When two or more people are talking, their goal is not always to convey information to each other.
I know, right?  Duh.  Any author worth their ink will use dialogue to convey things like how a character feels towards another character (even on such a basic level as “do they engage and answer questions fully, or are they answering only what they have to, in monosyllables if at all possible?”).  But that’s not the only thing that statement means.
If you go into the psychology of linguistics at all (and it’s a fascinating area), you’ll come across conversational cues.  Think about this next time you’re chatting to a friend.  How do you know when your friend has finished what they were saying and you’re now going to take your turn to speak?  Sure, they stop, but you can tell whether they’re just stopping for a breath or if they’re finished speaking, right?  When someone else is speaking, do you ever find yourself saying “yeah” and “uh-huh” at exactly the right times?  Have you ever wondered why?  Or maybe you’ve used those things to pretend like you’re interested in something someone has to say, but you’re really just waiting until it’s polite to leave.
Those things are part of the natural give-and-take of a conversation.  During speech, humans are constantly signalling to each other things like interest and when we can and cannot interrupt.  Phrases like “you know” or “am I right?” aren’t there to annoy or be dialogue tics all the time; often what they actually signal is that the speaker is checking whether the listener is still listening, that they’re following the thread of the conversation and haven’t become lost.
If dialogue feels stilted or wrong, oftentimes it’s because characters are talking at each other, not to each other.  You can’t put your finger on why, but you never feel like they’re actually interacting, that they’re just making mouth-noises at each other.  Then, what the author has failed to capture is that sense of interaction in the dialogue, the sense that the two people are really listening to each other and responding not only to the physical words said, but the manner in which they’re said, and the accompanying spoken cues.  Yes, it’s very difficult without ‘filler’ like ‘ah’ and overuse of phrases like, as previously mentioned ‘you know’, but since my screen is looking like a black block of text, I might file away “how to make dialogue sound like real people” a topic for another day.

The third point is fairly self-explanatory.

OK, now that’s out of my system, here’s the point: I would say that John Steinbeck, in his novels, only really fulfills the first point on that list.

Does that make it bad dialogue?  No, absolutely not.  But it does create an interesting dilemma – often I see it put around that following the second two rules, and improving word choice and expression, will naturally lead to the first point.  However, this is definitely not what happens in Steinbeck’s case.

So, in order:

One.  Dialogue sounds real.  Yep, check for that one.  No stilted dialogue, no feeling that characters talk at, not to each other. Definitely got the thumbs up on this one.

Two.  Dialogue is an idealised version of speech that contains none of the hesitations and idiosyncrasies of ‘real’ speech.  Nope.  Steinbeck uses that all the time.  Only it’s not phrased as “um” or “ah” – characters say “Well”, or they repeat themselves.  The obvious ones come up, like “I wanta hear it, but if I was rich, if I was rich …”, but there are the less obvious ones where a character will repeat a phrase throughout a conversation, like “Jes’ nearly faints, that’s all”.  Profanity is used like this as well, from the “Well, hell, I’d do it”, to “Goddamn it, [sentence]”.  It doesn’t sound like an um or ah, and it’s kind of not.  All of the things listed here are used for emphasis, except perhaps for ‘Well’.  In the ‘if I was rich” example, the person might well be hesitating, trying to think of an example of what they’d do if they were rich, and it could be a sort of emphasis as well – by repeating that statement absently, they reveal that is the focus of their thoughts: being rich, and being able to buy some land and a house, and not have to let their children starve.  The emphasis of the swearing is obvious.
As for “Well”, I’m not sure what the term is, but it’s a part of speech that’s not quite a word, has no inherent meaning, but in speech, indicates either (or both) that the speaker would like the opportunity to speak (sort of testing the water before accidentally cutting someone off) and that the speaker would like to introduce new information to the conversation, and therefore the people they’re speaking to should listen closely.  It’s a bit more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it.  All these things violate rule 2, but since they carry so much extra meaning – swearing indicates social class and age, ‘well’ (or absence thereof) indicates how someone is approaching a conversation, and the repetition can often show exactly what’s on a character’s mind, while everyone speaks around the big issues and nobody admits to each other what’s worrying them.
So, rule 2 is pretty soundly broken.

And three.  Steinbeck’s characters don’t actually speak that differently from each other, with some exceptions.  Women don’t swear (as much), so those constructions are out.  However, most of them use the same phrases as each other “You’ll make me crazy”, “Well, hell, I don’t know”, and “I’m jes’ so tar’d” (I’m just so tired, for those whose eyes tend to burn at transcribed dialects).  You’ll see the same sentence constructions, the same word choices, the same ways of expressing indignance or frustration across most people.
So how does he convey character?  Actually, entirely with what the characters talk about, not how they talk about it.  One character might always be talking about how he’s going to be a mechanic, one might never want to mention his time in jail, another might always be talking about how much he’s sinned.  And that’s how they get defined, as well as by their actions towards others.
So, rule three is broken – but the way it’s broken actually cements all the men in the book as part of a whole.  Instead of reading about Tom Joad and his family, you’re reading about A Family.  Yeah, it totally isn’t going to work just on its own, but as part of the whole experience of that book, it helps to convey that feeling.

And that’s why Steinbeck does not follow standard dialogue wisdom, but it works anyway.  For me, at least.  As with all books and authors, your mileage may and does vary.  And I’ve brought up about five more topics I need to write on in the future.  Dialogue is a big issue, apparently.