Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dialogue Tags, for better or worse

Agra pondered aloud what exactly had made Milicent so effective as she tried again, in vain, to frighten Lilith into making a kill. Was it her commanding presence? Did she use physical threats?

“Maybe it was her eyes…” Lilith’s voice broke into Agra’s reverie.

‘What did you say?’ Agra checked herself, surprised.

‘I didn’t…’ Lilith ducked her head to avoid being cuffed. ‘Nothing…’

‘What about her eyes?’ Agra demanded. ‘Describe these eyes to me.’

‘Deep, fearsome, savagely wild…’ Lilith whispered. ‘So black that they suck you down into their depths and you think you’ll never escape.’ She trembled at the memory.

‘Where did you see these eyes?’ Agra demanded again.

‘Drowning…’ Lilith choked. ‘Can’t breathe! It was her! Her eyes…’ She collapsed into a heap of bitter tears on the sandy ocean floor.

Agra stared at her in stunned silence. Only one mermaid in these waters could produce that effect on others. ‘You’re lying!’ She spouted. ‘But how could you be?’ She picked up Lilith by the hair at the nape of her neck. ‘Where is she, this mermaid who turned you? Where did she go?’

‘I… I don’t know,’ Lilith stammered. ‘We… we traded places and… I don’t know where she went.’

‘You… WHAT?’ Agra shrieked.

‘We traded places,’ Lilith said, squeaking in pain as Agra’s grip tightened on her hair and neck.

‘That’s impossible!’ Agra roared. She let go of Lilith’s hair suddenly and Lilith tumbled to the ocean floor again.

‘I’m…. I’m sorry… I’m sorry…’ Lilith said as she scrambled back out of reach.

‘Don’t you dare… don’t you presume, you little worm,’ Agra snarled. ‘That you could trade places with the ancient one. Ha! Impossible!’

The passage above is from the first draft of my WIP... and is a prime example of trying to "tell" too much through dialogue tagging. My characters roar, squeak, demand, snarl, and oh so much more in an attempt to accurately describe the excitement of the scene. (Aside: I hate the name Agra... but somehow it was what came to me, and it is what I'm stuck with for now... sigh...)

I have been reading recently a book about self-editing for fiction writers. One of the main problems the authors point out with beginning novelists is the temptation to use dialogue tags to explain character emotion. I definitely have this problem. The idea is to convey enough through the actual dialogue that you don't have to explain the emotions or where the emphasis in the sentence belongs. It should come across naturally... the tension should just ... magically be there.

I can count at least 9 instances in this one little scene where I didn't have enough faith in my dialogue (or in my readers ability to infer meaning/emotion in my characters) to leave well enough alone.

I find that a lot of writers are prone to this habit, though. The more I think about it, the more I am interested to delve into some of those award winners that Margo Berendsen was talking about the other day, to see if they are able to dodge the pitfall of tagging dialogue (or explaining through adverbs... the -ly syndrome).

Does anyone else have this problem with their writing? What do you do to combat it?


  1. I try to use "said" followed by a descriptive 'tag' or a second descriptive sentence. Eg: "What?!" he said, his face ashen. OR "What?!" he said. His face was grey, ashen.
    Not great examples, I know.

  2. ahhhh dialogue tags. honestly, they didn't bother me before i became a writer and they was pointed out to me as a sign of weak writing. now, i notice them and find them terribly distracting when used in a row...

  3. I have been working through this issue myself. I didn't really realize I had it until my CP's pointed it out to me. Trying to remedy that. Just found your blog - new follower.

  4. I've been working on this issue in my WIPs~ I tend to catch a lot of unnecessary dialogue tags in revision. The funny thing is, there are so many exceptions of published works that use/abuse dialogue tags, but you love the story so much that they don't get in the way (aka, JK Rowling's Harry Potter series). Great reminder post!

  5. Oh - thanks for the mention!!! I always do a search for "ly" to see if I have too many adverbs, but the other types of dialogue tags are much harder to find!!! I have to tackle each chapter individually with no other purpose but to weed them out, and it takes a while!


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