Writing Wretched Dialog Tags

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Writing Wretched Dialog Tags

If you really want to write wretched dialog, you should consider working on your dialog tags. Here are a few options that you might not have considered.

I love a story that starts out with tags like this:

Elena: “Did you buy the soup?”
Jacob: “What soup?”
Elena: “The split pea soup that I begged you to pick up from the store. . . .”

And on it goes. Now, I think that sometimes writers who are new to writing dialog do this by accident. They don’t really know how to punctuate dialog, so they put the tags all on the very front, or the very end. If you load the tags on the front, then your characters become nothing more than talking heads. They can be seen as existing outside of space and time, with no facial features or movements. But it’s not always an accident. I’ve seen accomplished writes get lazy and write talking-head dialog—even some very good writers.

Then of course, there is the “describe your character through character tags” dialog. For example:

The wizard peered into the crystal ball. “Finally,” the king muttered, “the dark ships have set sail!” The old man strode across the room and looked out the window of the tower. . . .

So when you read this, you have to wonder, how many people are in this room?  I once read a long passage like this and after two pages asked the author that question. I told her, “I think there may be as many as thirteen people in this room, but possibly as few as three.” Her answer astonished me. “There’s only one.” The king, the wizard, the general, the old man, the loving father, Jaspar, the Thief of Aldor—all were one person. If you want to reduce your dialog to pure dreck, try giving us dozens of character tags for one person.

One of my favorite forms of wretched dialog is the late attribution. For example, you have several people in a room, and suddenly you have someone begin a page-long diatribe. It’s always fun to surprise the reader by putting the speaker’s name at the end, so that whomever the reader thought was talking, isn’t. Then the reader gets to stop and think about it and re-cast the story from an unexpected speaker’s voice.

This works especially well if the speaker comes as a surprise. For example, let’s say that you have Lana and Kyle sitting at a restaurant engaging in conversation for six pages. Then, a speaker butts in and after a long paragraph, we find out that it was Lana’s ex-husband Ray who was speaking. What a surprise! The reader is left to wonder, so was Ray sitting there the whole time? And why in the world would he be there? Why didn’t the author tell me?

But there is one more type of attribution that really takes the cake: I’ll call it the non-attribution. Here’s a sample of it:

“I still care about you, and always will.” The words were spoken lovingly, longingly, as the stiletto was driven into his heart.

In this particular case, we don’t know who is speaking, whether it is male or female. And we don’t know what’s going on at all, really. Apparently, greater minds than mine had discovered that if you leave out a lot of information at the opening of a story—such as the identities of the speakers—it apparently excites the reader into a frenzy as they try to figure out the mystery of who is speaking, and who is doing what to whom and why.

There are a thousand ways to write wretched dialog, but if you want to take it to new heights, try tagging your excremental dialog in novel new ways!

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5 Comments

  1. rich February 18, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    the problem with these examples of dialogue is mainly because they are taken out of context. The part about the wizard in the crystal ball could have been preceded by enough information regarding who was in the room. And I have never seen any dialogue tag with simply a name and a colon. not sure where you got that from.

    • Profile photo of September C. Fawkes
      September C. Fawkes February 19, 2016 at 8:35 am

      The name and the colon is something you see more in unpublished fiction. In fact, a lot of these (when handled poorly) are the sort of thing you see in unpublished fiction. But they will crop up from time to time in published fiction. John Green used the name and colon approach a few times in his novel The Fault in Our Stars–but to me, that was one of the rare times where it really worked stylistically. I mean, it’s John Green. He knows how to create a killer style and voice. Those are my thoughts.

  2. Marion G. Harmon February 18, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    The Stiletto sentence is a double crime, being horribly passive. Better: “I still care about you, and always will.” She whispered as her stiletto pierced his heart.

    • Av April 7, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      That defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? It’s set up to be ambiguous with regards to the speaker. Passive voice isn’t illegal, just not recommended. If it serves a function, it’s more than allowed.

  3. Adam February 19, 2016 at 12:22 am

    It would be amazing if you could come to Adelaide.

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