Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dialogue Mechanics - part two

For anyone who is just joining us, we're going through the book "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King. I advise everyone to pick it up so you can refer to it when you are writing.

I want to talk about dialogue tags and beats. A tag is the "he said/she said" after a line of dialogue. A beat is a piece of action that typically comes before the dialogue that indicates who is talking without writing a "he said/she said."

Browne and King say: "Your best bet is to use the verb "said" almost without exception." Said is invisible. It keeps the flow going. But some writers get nervous when they see a long string of "saids" all over the page. We remember what we've been taught in school and write something like:

"Give it to me," she demanded.
"Here it is," he offered.
"Is it loaded?" she inquired.

This was popular in the 70s, but it can be downright annoying today. Most editors cringe when they read these kinds of tags.

Then there's:

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.
"Come closer," she smiled.
"So, you've changed your mind," he chuckled.

To use verbs like the last three examples as dialogue tags will brand you an amateur to most editors. It's physically impossible to grimace, smile or chuckle a word. Grimace is a facial expression. So is smile. And chuckle is, well, a chuckle. You can chuckle while you talk, but words are words and laughing is laughing.

This is why beats are so important. We need to mix up tags and beats in our writing. Like this:

"It's so hot out," Sue said.
Carly fanned herself with the paper. "I know! If it gets any hotter, I'll melt."

We know Carly is talking because of the beat in front of the dialogue. And that makes it unnecessary to use a tag. There are times when you can use other tags like asked, shouted and whispered, but think of them like cayenne pepper - sprinkle sparingly. What you want to do is make it clear by the dialogue itself or by a beat.

Sam clenched his jaw. "Get out of here!"
Megan rolled her eyes. "I hate doing dishes."
Trish smiled. "We had the best time."

Can you tell how Sam, Megan and Trish are feeling? And you didn't have to say, Sam growled, Megan sighed or Trish sang out.

How are you handling diglogue tags? Do you anything you need help with? Put it in the comments and we'll take a look.


  1. I am soooo glad you are posting about dialog tags right now. It reminds me how little I need to use them. I've been cutting many more than I usually would because of the reminders here. Those tags become like little pills. You pop them in because they feel right, not because you need them.

    Anyway, thanks!

  2. I just started a lot of editing so this reminder about beats and tags came at the perfect time. Thanks!

  3. Wow. I have this book and haven't studied it. You may inspire me to get it out and follow along! Thanks, Pam!

  4. The thing we have to remember is to "show" emotions through the dialog. Adding a beat can help, but we don't want to rely solely on that. It takes a little longer and requires more thought on our part, but it's worth it in the long run.

    Just for fun, find a book from the 70s and start reading it. You'll see what I'm saying. I used to read Trixie Belden. I reread it a couple of summers ago. HA! I still enjoyed them, but the writing made me cringe. Nancy Drew is even worse! :)

  5. Oh dear. I don't even know if I need to work on this, I'd better take a look.

    I've also got to catch up on these posts. Sorry for disappearing ._.

  6. Gah, I think I use tags to an extreme when I write. Thanks for the reminder to take it easy!