Monday, August 11, 2008

Tag Me Brilliantly, Baby!

Last week, we looked at how to get Tone from Emotion and Action in a simple exchange of dialog:
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across his teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

There are a lot of “identifiers” is the above exchange. There’s at least one sentence of description with each line of dialog. The good part of that is we always know who’s speaking, as well as the tone being used. The bad part is there’s a lot of it. A bit too much.

In a regular story, the history is provided gradually, so we get to know the characters along with their likes/dislikes. In a writing exercise, that’s not always possible…but I’m going attempt it now.

Story history:
Albert has just been dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Vanessa. He’s normally fun, suave, and charming, but this breakup has him moping about. Jane has had a crush on Albert since forever, but doesn’t know what to think about this new, moping Albert. She and her friend, Allison, were out for a snack, then ran into Albert. Allison slipped away to the restroom, giving a secret thumbs-up to her friend – much to Jane’s chagrin. Jane fidgets, keeping her eyes fixed on the restroom door.

“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing. Why?”
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” She shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

Since we know the character’s histories and personalities (at least somewhat), it’s easier to hear the appropriate Tone even without the Action. In this exchange, the only time Action is needed is when the characters are reacting to some part of the conversation. If they aren’t reacting, their personalities combined with the story’s history can create the appropriate Tone.

This kind of thing is easy to do if there are only two speakers. But what if there are three? Or more? It can get cumbersome to give everyone some kind of Action each time he/she speaks.

Personalities can play a huge part here, as can using the “said” tag to identify the speaker. For personalities, if the characters have been well-developed, then the reader can probably identify the speaker just from what he/she says. But what if it’s not possible in a particular scene? That’s where the “said” tag comes in useful. When a character doesn’t need to react to the conversation, using “said” is the easiest way to let the reader follow the conversation.

Let’s look at the scene where Allison comes back from the restroom:
The restroom door creaked open, and Allison strolled back to the table, arms swinging. “So, what did I miss?”
“I’m taking Jane out tomorrow night.”
Jane blushed, nodding.
“That’s awesome!” Allison clapped her hands, face tight with excitement. “Where are you taking her?”
“There’s a great seafood place on Chester Street. I was thinking we could go there.”
“I’m allergic to seafood,” said Jane.
“Oh.” Albert’s face drooped. “Okay. Well, I’ll…I’m sure I can find something you’ll like.”

In this exchange, Jane spoke up to let Albert know of her allergy to seafood. Introducing an Action could be cumbersome, and leaving off the tag could have made the declaration confusing. So, adding in the “said” clears up who’s speaking, without detracting from the exchange.

Personally, this is the only time I’m comfortable using dialog tags. And, I only use “said.” If I use them anywhere else, I feel like I’m being lazy. And if I ever use an adverb with a tag, I’m being ultra lazy! I’ve heard many editors and agents talk about how they hate seeing adverbs with dialog tags. It’s classic “telling,” and should be avoided. If you’ve got adverbs with your tags and you’re not sure how to get rid of them, look at the Emotion behind the dialog. Then, imagine the Actions that go with that Emotions. Write that down, and you’ll be on your way to showing instead of telling.

Geez Louise! I can’t believe how long this post has gone on. There is just one more thing I want to add: level of detail. Just as with Action, the reader doesn’t need to know all the silly, boring details that go into a conversation. Jennifer Hubbard has already written an excellent post on this, so I will just refer you there. Less work for me. :)


Mary Witzl said...

I learn so much reading your posts.

Last year, I sent my second novel off to a trusted beta reader for her opinion. One of her pieces of advice to me was to get rid of some of my tags -- that she found them distracting and annoying. I reread the section that particularly bothered her and could not see this myself. A few months later, I went back to it and saw what she meant immediately. It amazed me that just leaving this for a few months gave me enough distance to see what was wrong with it. I still struggle not to overdo tags, but at least now I'm aware I've got this tendency. And after reading your posting, I have a better idea of when they really get in the way!

Tabitha said...

I'm so glad you enjoy my blog. Considering how awesome your blog is, I take it as an incredible compliment. :)

Distance really enhances your vision, doesn't it? It allows you to sort of get over your attachment to the words on the page, which makes editing so much easier. :)

PJ Hoover said...

So I finished my current WIP first draft without using a single tag. It was one of my goals. Now I'm going back and adding them when needed to identify the speakers, and then I need to do another pass focusing on the actions alone. Or vice versa.
All I know is there are lots of revisions ahead! But it's kind of fun to leave every single "he said" out.
Thanks for the great post!
And I'm also a firm believer in using only said (though I'm pretty sure The Emerald Tablet has its fair share of exclaimed's in it.) That's the fun of writing. To strive to improve!

Tabitha said...

Congrats on finishing your first draft!! Break out the chocolate!! :)

I do the exact same thing now in my first drafts - I don't put "said" anywhere in the text. Instead, I'll put in action, which I can pare down on subsequent passes if necessary (and it often is necessary). :)

Writing is so much fun, isn't it? I just love learning new things and doing things better. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. :)

Unknown said...

Tags and adverb+tags are my weakness! I also have a nasty habit of adding gerund phrases (i.e., "he said, snapping his fingers under her nose")

Argh. Lemme go check my revisions and search and destroy some more :)

Angie Frazier said...

Thanks for this post! I do have a weakness for tags, tho most of them are the plain "said" instead of icky adverbs. Today, when writing some more in my WIP I made a conscious decision to write around the worked! Much harder tho...

Tabitha said...

Beth - Oh no, gerund phrases! :) However, those are the easiest to fix. You just remove the "said," and rephrase the sentence. Much easier than translating an adverb into showing. :)

Angie - It's definitely much harder, but much more effective. And more rewarding, too. Then, finding a good balance gets even harder. This writing stuff is just plain difficult. But if it was easy, where's the fun in that? :)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Thanks for the mention!

Even when we know who's speaking, I like using tags to insert a beat into a character's line.

--Jenn Hubbard

Tabitha said...

What can I say? You've got a great blog. :)

Don't you love how everyone finds different things that work for them? Tags don't work for me, but they work for you. So cool! :)

PJ Hoover said...

I have to agree that I totally get the whole "adding a beat" thing. It's why I used like a million tags in everything else I've written :)

Tabitha said...

Blogger Susan Sandmore (link is in my sidebar) recently had a great post on beats and rhythm in writing. It's really interesting how tags can add that "beat" for you. :)

Marcia said...

Great discussion! I really have to agree about getting some distance from the book to see all the glaring things (especially little stuff) that you can change. And tags and action lines, whether or not they're used and where they're placed, have so much to do with beats.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow, great stuff! Thanks for sharing. I was just looking at this with my own WIP. This post is extremely helpful. Thanks again! :)

Tabitha said...

Marcia - I agree, great discussion! :) So many interesting things to think about. I've never thought of tags introducing a beat. I get my beats from the emotion, and the words used to express them. Tags interrupt things for me, and I tend to skip over them if I already know who's speaking.

Keri - glad you enjoyed the post, and glad you stopped by! :) PJ's blog is awesome, isn't it?