By Kay Springsteen
In today’s writing, the use of elaborate dialogue tags is discouraged, relegated to the Word Grave Yard along with adjectives and words ending in –ing. As an editor, I’m often asked why. What some writers are asking is: Why can’t an author use “she admonished,” or “he chided” or other words synonymous with “said”?
While these words were acceptable, even encouraged, not so long ago, the advent of engaging readers more fully in the story has changed things. Tools to engage readers include taking them into deep point of view for each character you show PoV, and painting scenes in such a way as to show them in the reader’s mind.
So, what do words such as chided and admonished have to do with this new movement to engage readers? Nothing, which is the point. They have nothing to do with the movement because they do not assist and advance the movement. All dialogue tags are, in effect, telling as opposed to showing. Even “said” and “asked” are telling, but simple and typical dialogue tags are apparently psychologically invisible to readers, and therefore do not get in the way of the story. However, even said should be used sparingly, as a way to orient the reader through initial patches of dialogue or long stretches.
“Blah blah,” he said.
“Blah blah,” she said.
“Blah blah blah.”
“Blah blah blah,” he said.
Another way to show a scene and keep the reader oriented at the same time is to add action beats in place of dialogue tags. Action beats support the dialogue so readers are not presented with what I have come to think of as “talking heads.” In a Hollywood movie or TV show, when two characters are having a discussion, they are not motionless. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, movements such as pacing, leaning against a wall, peeking out a window, etc. To show such actions in a work of written fiction is to keep the scene in motion and show what is going on. It also demonstrates emotions.
Consider the passage: “Don’t say that,” she pleaded.
We can glean from the word pleaded that she is asking for something and that it is important to her. But what are they doing while she’s asking it? It’s highly unlikely they’re staying still.
Now the scene has motion. It’s not stagnant. Which passage paints the picture? Which one tells a part of the story? Which one shows what is going on? Which one brings the reader to a front row center seat for the performance? Which would you rather read?
Writers must be careful not to employ action beats to support dialogue too frequently or with trite and unimaginative sentences and phrases. He grinned. She smiled. She giggled. These action dialogue tags are tired and while it’s okay to use them very infrequently, I will caution you to be very careful when you do to ensure nothing else will fit in that particular place in your story.
Readers: Do you notice unusual dialogue tags as you’re reading?
Writers: How do you support your dialogue?