Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Post: Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse

Today, we have a guest post from the fantastically awesome Angela Ackerman.  She writes the blog The Bookshelf Muse, which is chock full of useful information.  If you haven't visited her blog yet, you should.  You'll be glad you did. 

Anyway, I asked Angela to do a guest post here on Writer Musings, and I had a great topic for her...unfortunately, I didn't write it down and it got lost in the shuffle that is my brain (these days).  So I asked her to pick a topic, and she came up with something fabulous.  So, here's Angela!

Naked Dialogue: When (and When Not to) Go Tagless

Dialogue is one of the trickiest elements of writing to master. Not only do we have to juggle the flow and realism, we also need to make sure it creates tension and pushes the story forward. With novels containing as much as 40% dialogue, its a skill writers must hone at all costs.

There's also a technical side to writing dialogue. Tags help identify speakers. Beats of action interspersed throughout the dialogue can show both our character's emotions and the setting. Sometimes neither of these are utilized and instead the dialogue is tagless. This technique is something rarely talked about and often misused, so what better topic to tackle in a guest post?

Like anything else, Tagless Dialogue (TD) follows rules.

Rule#1: Back Off Buddy--Three's a Crowd
Dating two different people at once never ends well. The same can be said for tagless dialogue, because unless the reader understands who's speaking and when, the conversation can quickly become meaningless. TD only works if it's easy to follow, and that means there should be no more than two speakers involved in the exchange.

Rule #2: Kissing with Grandma in the Room
When Granny’s plunked down on the sofa, it doesn’t matter how old you are—when it’s time to say goodbye to your beau, there’s no long matches of tongue hockey involved. You give him a quick peck on the lips and say "See you later." Tagless dialogue should be the same way--a rapid exchange with short, light sentences, not paragraphs.

“Want to hit Boston Pizza after the game?”
“Depends. You buying?”
“Of course. Unless you decide to eat two larges like last time. Then you’re on your own.”

Rule #3: The Song That Never Ends Must Die
You know those long car trips when one of your kids starts singing 99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall and you want to jam a nail file into your temple? Apply that to TD. One of the biggest usage mistakes is when a tagless exchange goes on...and on. No, no and no. If tagless dialogue runs unchecked, it will exhaust the reader and the breakneck pace prevents them from absorbing information. Too, you risk hurting the scene by not showing the character's reaction to key points in the conversation. Tagless exchanges must always be BRIEF, like the above example.

Tagless Techniques to Make Your Writing More Savvy

Tagless Dialogue can be used for more than just creating a quick pace and adding variety to tags. Here are a few examples of ways to create a strong impact by getting naked.

Punch Line Knock Out
When you set up a great joke, impart knowledge or spin out a story, you create suspense not only by what you say, but by what you do. In writing dialogue, these bits of action (beats) work to provide ‘emotional tells’ which show the reader exactly what your MC is feeling. Tension builds and when they finally get to the crux of the matter, tagless dialogue can help deliver a punch line knock out for extra impact.

Alex cleared his throat. “So, you know how I was late for work this morning, right?”
“Terry told me about it.” I reached over and squeezed his hand. “Something about you running over an animal on the road. I’m sorry. That must have been terrible for you.”
Alex nodded, his throat bobbing.
“The thing is…well, it was your cat.”

Lie, Lie and Lie Some More
Sometimes the best dialogue isn’t what is said, it’s what isn’t. There are times when the scene is dependent on a character telling lie or deliberately misdirecting another character. Often if you use tagless dialogue to state something that the reader knows not to be true, you can pull the lie off more effectively than if you have to explain the lie through thoughts or a dialogue tag. The strongest lies are ones that need no explanation.

Mary hurried down to meet me, each stair groaning with the effort of holding her large frame. This was the same curvy blond from the matchmaking site?
“Rick, it’s great to finally meet you!” She gave me a quick smile and then crossed her arms over her stomach, self conscious. “I’ve...gained a bit of weight since I posted my picture online at Two Hearts. I hope you’re not too disappointed."
“You did? I hadn’t noticed.”

Nakedness is Next to Godliness...or Something
TD can also be used to characterize or to provide a much needed release. For instance, tagless banter between characters can shed light on their relationship (playful, light sarcasm, biting hate) or create levity at the tail end of a difficult exchange or tense situation. This offers a breathing point to not only the characters involved, but the reader as well.

"Wow, dodged that one."
"No kidding. I can't believe Dad went for it."
"Hey, his Playboy was in the pile. I could have accidentally taken it when grabbing my issues of Soccer Maniac, right?"
"Plus you're the good son."
"That's why if Dad sees the centerfold is missing, he'll think you did it."
(This is about as long as you should ever go tagless. Shorter is better.)

So, that's my take on Naked Dialogue. Can you think of other ways to incorporate tagless dialogue to achieve a specific effect?

Edited To Add: There is another great post on dialog at the Fiction Groupie blog.  Check it out!


kah said...

Great advice. Loved the examples too. :)

Bish Denham said...

Thanks Angela! Another informative post. And here's to Tabitha for bringing her over to your blog.

Marcia said...

Super post. And I love the title!

Mary Witzl said...

Your examples are all really helpful. The run-over cat bit is incredibly effective!

A few years ago, a writing friend and I submitted our short stories to a voice actor who put them in audio form and posted them on his site. The one thing we noticed right away was where we'd used too many tags. It completely interrupted the flow of our stories and, in spoken form, was VERY annoying. Which is why it's good to always read dialogue aloud before submitting something.

What I like about tagless dialogue is that it pulls you right into a story. You feel more like you're there, witnessing conversations than reading about them in a book.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

As always, I printed this and added it to my writing file, Angela. I think you have a book waiting to be put together of all your posts!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Excellent advice and examples. What I like about the samples is they not only were effective in making your point they are good enough to stick in memory. Thanks to both of you for this guest post.

Kirsten Lesko said...

You always take an interesting approach, Angela. I love your analogies.

And I like this blog, btw. The design is really unique.

Ann Finkelstein said...

Angela: Great information. I'll tell some writing friends about this.
Tabitha: I'm glad I found your blog through Angela.

Danyelle L. said...

I love this post! Very good insights on when and where to go tagless. And why. :D

Elisa Dane said...

Great post! Very informative!!

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks everyone--glad it helps! And thanks to Tabitha for having me on her blog. :)

Tabitha said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by!!

And HUGE thanks to Angela for visiting, especially with such a fabulous guest post. :)

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Great post, and extremely helpful advice! Thanks!

PJ Hoover said...

Love this!
And I think Angela deserves a trophy for The Bookshelf Muse!

Unknown said...

Thanks Tabitha for having such a great blogger stop by your blog!!! I love the advice and examples! Something I can use!

Angela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great post and examples. I've always struggled with how long to go before they start 'floating'. The cat example made me snort.

Anonymous said...

Such a great post! Thanks for outlining TD so clearly.