January 11, 2011

Dialogue Tags and Beats

This post first appeared as the December "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


Dialogue is an important part of most stories, and one that many writers have trouble with. The core of any dialogue is the lines that the characters speak, but the words outside the quotation marks also matter, and there are many ways to wield them clumsily.

This sample dialogue demonstrates some common problems. (Note that one mistake not illustrated is incorrect formatting. The passage follows standard conventions for punctuating dialogue in American English. If you aren't familiar with these rules, take the time to learn them.)

"Margot!" Wesley bellowed. "You left the milk out again."

"I didn't," she objected grimly. "It must have been one of the children."

Wesley looked at her. "Couldn't have been. I put the milk back in the fridge just after they went out."

"So?" Margot stood up and got a glass of water. "Does it feel good to think you can prove me wrong?" she queried, looking over at Wesley.

"It's not only about how you never pick up after yourself. It's a health hazard," he snapped angrily.

"But skydiving, on the other hand, is perfectly safe," she responded sarcastically. "Every weekend, no risk at all."

"That's what you're angry about?" he queried in surprise.

"I'll put this away," Margot grimaced, taking the milk carton from him. "Wouldn't want us to be in any danger."

Let's start by considering the many verbs that appear in place of "said." While an occasional expressive verb such as "bellowed" might make a scene more vivid, it's usually better to save the interesting verbs for action, not dialogue tags. Alternatives to "said" draw attention away from the characters' conversation but rarely convey any information about the scene.

There are many ways to ruin a dialogue tag with a pointlessly creative verb. For example, it's redundant to use "objected" for Margot's objection. Instead of telling readers that Wesley "snapped," a more powerful tactic is to show it with the words he speaks. And I challenge anyone to demonstrate how Margot "grimaced" out that sentence. No matter how many times it's repeated, "said" is always an appropriate choice. Like the ubiquitous "the," "said" is a purely functional word that slips by unnoticed, so don't worry about overusing it.

Adverbs in dialogue tags are another frequent cause of weakened dialogue. The problem with "he said angrily" may not be obvious, but remember "show, don't tell": the emotion should be shown by the character's words and actions, not told with dialogue mechanics. Either the line of dialogue sounds angry, in which case "angrily" isn't required, or it doesn't, and it needs a rewrite. Adverbial phrases ("in surprise") may lack an -ly, but they have the same issues. Sometimes there's a good reason to use an adverb—"quietly" is difficult to portray in written speech—but in most cases, keep tags free of adverbs and make the dialogue speak for itself.

Does this leave us with line after line of plain, boring "he said" and "she said"? Not at all! In a scene with only two characters, there's no need to identify who's speaking each time. The reader should be able to keep track of back-and-forth conversation without constant reminders. (If that's a problem, it may indicate that the characters sound too much alike or that the scene lacks a conflict to distinguish the speakers.)

Furthermore, tags aren't the only choice for attributing a line of dialogue. To give a scene context and show the non-verbal communication that's taking place, include some descriptions of what the characters are doing. These action beats set the scene and also match a character with a line of speech.

But like dialogue tags, action beats can go wrong in a variety of ways. Too many in a scene leaves the reader distracted and dizzy from all the nodding and looking and sitting and standing. Too few gives the unsettling impression that the characters are in a featureless void. In the example passage, "Margot stood up and got a glass of water" comes out of the blue, since there's no previous information about where the characters are located. The beat also fails to demonstrate anything about Margot's mindset, and something's odd about fetching a glass of water during a discussion of milk.

Ideally, action beats aren't purposeless and random, but instead complement and strengthen the dialogue. This isn't an easy goal to achieve. When a scene is clear in a writer's mind, it's natural to want to describe every movement. Avoid that clutter by focusing on the most important actions and leaving the rest to the reader's imagination. Even harder, stay away from generic actions that reveal nothing about what's going on beneath the dialogue. "Wesley looked at her" marks that line as Wesley's, and that's about all it does. Aim for beats that help bring the dialogue to life.

Here's the same conversation again, with an improved set of dialogue tags and action beats:

"Margot!" Wesley stomped to the kitchen door with a carton in his hand. "You left the milk out again."

She barely looked up from her book. "I didn't. It must have been one of the children."

"Couldn't have been. I put the milk back in the fridge just after they went out."

"So?" Margot closed the book around her finger and stared at him. "Does it feel good to think you can prove me wrong?"

"It's not only about how you never pick up after yourself. It's a health hazard."

"But skydiving, on the other hand, is perfectly safe," she said under her breath. "Every weekend, no risk at all."

"That's what you're angry about?"

Margot stood and snatched the milk carton from him. "I'll put this away. Wouldn't want us to be in any danger."

If this were part of a story, I'd expect fewer tags and beats in an excerpt of this length, but this gives you an idea of how well-chosen dialogue tags and action beats can enhance a conversation by showing what's happening physically and emotionally. Without the distracting tags of the original example, it's more apparent that this dialogue contains some good methods for approximating real speech, including unanswered questions and sentence fragments. I'll talk about these and other dialogue techniques next time. For now, go rewrite your tags and beats, and see how much better your dialogue can be!

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Paul Lamb said...

I disagree. Dialogue IS action, especially in novels of manners and ideas. Consider the difference if a character says, or whispers, or hisses, or sniffs, or barks, or chuckles "I love you." Each tag has a different nuance, which is clearly understood by the reader, and each gives the words a different meaning as well as possible insight into the character of the speaker. And when a character "grimaces" her line, the writer is using metaphor, a said-bookism. Again, the reader will understand the intent, and it shows that the writer had intent rather than just being literal. I won't say that always using "said" is lazy writing, but in many cases I think the writer is missing an opportunity to use a strong, nuanced verb.

We are creative writers. We are supposed to be inventing the language, not writing high school term papers.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Paul, thanks for offering your perspective. I agree that when a writer really knows what they're doing, a strong, nuanced speech verb can improve a dialogue. (Though I don't think said-bookisms will ever appeal to me.) The problem is that many beginning writers panic at the idea of using "said" several times in a row without understanding which alternatives add to the scene and which distract. I'd rather see less experienced writers use the nearly-invisible "said" and focus on dialogue content before moving on to more advanced techniques.

Anonymous said...

I just read one book where, when a character gave his name, he "chewed out his name." That's memorable!


Unknown said...

This is in response to Paul Lamb's comment.

Dialogue tags distract the reader from the essence of the dialogue—the dialogue itself. This may make the reader feel detached from the story, where they'll focus more on the language rather than what's happening.
And yes, you may need to use alternative tags at times (when an action needs to be expressed clearly, like a whisper). However, actions can often replace these tags, to show if someone is bellowing, laughing, etc. Not only does this allow you to show and not tell -- it also immerses the reader in your descriptive writing, inspiring your imagination.
That's my take on it, anyway. Fully eliminating tags is not always necessary, if a thought needs to be explained. And often, dialogue tags aren't needed when talking between two people, if the conversation is back and forth. Using actions, which drive the plot along and engage the reader, is usually best.

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