Some new writers get confused about how to use dialog tags. Here are some common problems:
1) The author doesn’t use any dialog tags. This happens often with people who just don’t know how to use them, or where to place the dialog tags, so they try to let it slide. If you want help improving your dialog first, look here.
2) The author places them all in the same place in the paragraph—either after a dialog tag, or before one. This can leave the reader confused if the attribution comes too late. If the dialog tag is always placed before the dialog, it can sound mechanical.
3) The author uses pronouns to indicate the speaker or listener when a proper name should be used, thus confusing the reader.
So let’s tackle the problems one by one.
The author doesn’t use dialog tags. I’ve seen this happen in a few instances. In one case, a screenwriter said, “I just didn’t know how to do it in a short story format.” I’ll show you how to do it in a moment.
And in another case, the author simply pleaded ignorance: “I don’t know how to punctuate them, so I left them out.”
Then in a third case, the author was following the advice of a creative writing instructor who had told her that in a well written story, you shouldn’t need dialog tags.
While it’s true that you can often let them slide, it’s also true that at times it is critical to use them. For example, if you have three or more people in a conversation the reader really needs to know which character is speaking and to whom. Very often that information can be conveyed indirectly, but doing so requires more trouble than it is worth. The truth is that dialog tags—whether for internal dialog or spoken dialog—are sort of invisible. The reader hardly notices when they appear, but will definitely get confused if he or she doesn’t ever see them at all!
When you do use dialog tags, the tags can almost serve as punctuation. Different punctuation marks give readers time to take a breath. The common marks include the comma, period, em-dash, colon, semi-colon, and ellipses. But adding a dialog tag can draw out a pause. In fact, you can add description along with the tag in order to really draw out that dialog, create long pauses between conversation.
Pacing this way is called paying attention to the natural “beats” in your dialog.
There are four ways to tag who is speaking in your manuscript, and to manage your beats.
1) Front loading. This occurs when the dialog tag is used before someone opens his mouth. It’s best used when the dialog is long and spoken breathlessly, without pauses. Notice how I punctuate the following, giving the dialog tag, followed by a comma, followed by the quote:
Delmar said dangerously, “Robert, I don’t care how you get the money to me or where it comes from, but I want it now! Kill your wife and pay me with the insurance. Rip out one of your own greasy kidneys and put it up for auction. Sell that hot daughter of yours to slavers in Malaysia—I don’t really give a damn which—but get the money now, or I’ll dump all of you in the same grave!”
Do you see how the rapid-fire dialog doesn’t really invite a pause? That’s why I put my tag up first.
2) Middle loading. This method can be used when you have a character that is responding to questions or has a natural pause in the dialog, where the dialog tag can act as something of an extended punctuation. Notice how the attribution here has quotation marks both before it and afterward:
“The money’s coming,” Robert offered. He sobbed for half a second, like the big baby he was, then blubbered, “Please don’t hurt my family. They’re not involved in this!”
3) End loading. You can place a dialog tag at the end of the dialog, but only when the sentence is short—normally under six or seven words. If you let the dialog go on longer than that, the reader is likely to get confused as to who is speaking. Notice how the dialog tag is preceded by the end-quote marks:
“Oh, your family is involved!” Delmar breathed, then glared into Robert’s eyes and fell silent, until the only sound that Robert could hear was the hammering of his own heart and the air rattling roughly through his lungs.
4) Implied tags. An implied tag is often a bit of description or narration that comes somewhere in a paragraph but doesn’t actually use the word said or anything like it. Often, it will provide a long silence in the discussion, allowing time for tensions to rise. The dialog then follows the tag within the same paragraph, implying the identity of the speaker. Normally, the name of the speaker is easily understood within the context. Here’s a sample of how it is handled:
Robert fingered the screwdriver in his pocket. He judged the distance between himself and Delmar: six feet. Could he lunge that far before the .45 went off? He teetered in indecision for a long moment as noise from the street outside thrust into consciousness—an ambulance siren screaming in the distance, the pounding of a street-cleaner out front. There was enough noise to cover the report of a gun or a death cry. No one outside would be any the wiser. “I’ll get the money, for God’s sake!”
So there are the four ways that you use tags. Try to use them artfully. Pay attention to the natural pauses in your story, the beats. Those will help you figure out where to place the tags.
If you need more help, go and read a story from one of your favorite writers and study how they do it.
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
For our Apex Writing Group, we will have Forrest Wolverton talking on Saturday on “Meeting Your Objectives” as a writer.
Forrest is also starting a new “Apex Writers Accelerator Program,” where he will help you set goals and work toward them at an fast-but-comfortable pace. You can sign up for that here: https://www.apex-writers.com/apex-accelerator-program
In the coming weeks, I’m looking forward to hear hearing from such fine bestselling writers as Dakota Kroat, Craig Martelle, Eric Flint, and Michael J. Sullivan, along with the past vide-president of Atari, Roger Arias, who will talk about the connection between videogames and books. To join Apex visit us at www.Apex-writers.com
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