A Few Small Notes Regarding Dialogue Tags which like all Writing Advice you are of course Free to Disregard

Variety

Chances are that by now you’ve heard that the quickest way to lose a reader’s respect is to overuse unconventional and flowery dialogue tags such as: spouted, sneered, bellowed, erupted, declared, intoned, etc. And while I think this is for the most part good advice, the opposite extreme of writing “said” exclusively for tags can be similarly off-putting. The trick, like most things, lies in finding the sweet spot. And the tried-and-true principle of If a character does a thing only once, it’s probably important also still applies — if normally soft-spoken Jake suddenly roars something, I’m going to pay attention.

Conveying Emotion

Generally speaking, it’s best to let a character’s emotion come through their words, rather than the tags. Say, for example, Jake gets a new haircut and Carol wants to make a snarky comment. Here are two (of the many) ways she could go about that:

“I really like your haircut,” Carol said sarcastically.

or

“Nice haircut,” Carol quipped.

or

“I hope they didn’t charge you for that,” said Carol.

While the first two are fine, only the dialogue in the third doesn’t rely on the tag for its meaning. Just keep in mind that readers won’t always hear a character’s tone of voice the same way you do, so the more you can narrow things through the actual words, the clearer things will be, and the less readers will have to reread.

Small Changes

Consider how the subtext of this line changes:

“You don’t love me, do you?” asked Carol.

vs.

“You don’t love me, do you?” said Carol.

The difference between “asked” and “said” is in whether we get the sense that Carol wants an answer or simply to be heard. In the first example, a reader might put emphasis on the second half of Carol’s question, the “do you?” i.e. she doesn’t know whether Jake loves her, or perhaps she just wants to hear it again–either way, she wants an answer. In the second, the reader might hear an emphasis on the first half, the “You don’t love me,” i.e. Carol has long-thought that Jake has been falling out of love with her, or never did love her, and is finally ready to say it, to him, aloud.

Pace

Dialogue tags, whether you intend them to or not, slow down the pace of conversation. Listen:

“I don’t know,” said Jake. “I guess I always sort of felt this way.”

alternatively:

“I don’t know. I guess I always sort of felt this way,” said Jake.

In the first example, the tag creates a pause, in which Jake stops to think about what to say next. What he says about his feelings feels genuine, in-the-moment, heartfelt.

In the second, however, the two sentences flow without interruption, from the same thought. And since the two sentences technically contradict, the result is that he sounds somewhat more distant, decided—manipulative, even. In other words, he didn’t have time to change his mind.

 

Eliminating Confusion

Readers sometimes get confused. If you have a long, quick conversation, even though you might not want to slow it down with tags—the characters aren’t slowing down, after all—it sometimes can be good to remind us every now and again who’s speaking. A simple tag here and there can do the trick. After all, getting lost and having to backtrack to the last tag will slow a scene down (un-)dramatically.

Paragraph Breaks

A new paragraph almost always means a new speaker. Sometimes, though, a character just keeps on talking, and at some point it comes down to either accepting the wall of text or breaking the monologue into paragraphs. If you go with the latter, the question becomes, How to do this elegantly. Leaving off end-quotes and picking them up again in the next paragraph works fine, but quotation marks are small and a missing one can go unnoticed. A simple dialogue tag can reinforce this:

     “You never defend yourself,” said Carol. “You didn’t on our honeymoon and you’re not doing it now. You never fight for what you want. You never fight for me. I understand, though. I know–about your mother, and growing up, and everything. Believe me, I know.

“But I have to think about what I want, too,” she continued. “I’m sorry, Jake. I wish I knew how to help you, but I don’t. I’m sorry.”

Ordering

There’s really no hard-and-fast rule regarding how to order the words in a tag, e.g. “Carol said” vs. “said Carol.” What you go with is going to depend a lot on pace, characterization, genre, and so on. Ultimately it’s not a bad idea, as is true with most things in writing, to read it aloud and see what sounds better. Personally, I like to put “said” as close to the actual dialogue as I can, which also usually has the benefit of putting a character’s name as the first or last word in a sentence, where it is more prominent. For example:

Jake said, “I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.”

also:

“I guess there’s nothing I can do about that,” said Jake.

However, when it comes to other tags, ones that are important to the meaning of the dialogue, it can be better to put them on the ends, where, again, they are more prominent. Again, for example:

“I don’t believe this,” Carol whispered.

 

Eat your Cake

Take a look at this sentence:

“Billy threw the doll over the bridge after he had pried it from his sister’s fingers.”

Is there anything wrong with this sentence? Not really. There are no stray commas or misplaced modifiers. As an English sentence it makes total sense.

But think about what’s actually happening in the scene: Does Billy throw the doll over the bridge, and then pry it from his sister’s fingers? No–it’s the other way around. But when we read it the way it is above, we first picture him throwing the doll, and after that we see him prying it from his sister’s fingers. And after we finish reading the sentence, we have to go back, even only for a fraction of a second, and reorder the events in our minds.

Why is this important? Why would we want to order our sentences to follow the chronology of actual events?

Think about it this way: Billy throws the doll. If we stop there, something of the meaning of this action is lost. Whose doll is it? Where did he get it? Why does it matter that he threw it? It is only when we get to the second half of the sentence that we discover that he had taken forcefully from his sister, and only then do we understand why his throwing the doll is meaningful. We then have to take this meaning and retroactively apply it to the scene when Billy throws the doll, effectively having to picture it in our minds a second time.

But this time the impact of his throwing the doll is somewhat lost–we already knew what was going to happen. It feels deflated. It’s like eating the peanut butter first and then the jelly.

If we flip the sentence, if we say, “Billy pried the doll from his sister’s hands and threw it over the bridge,” then when we get to him throwing the doll we’re able to bite into it and taste the peanut butter and the jelly at the same time. We have the action and the meaning of the action together.

This doesn’t have to stop with sentences, though. Paragraphs, chapters, even whole books can benefit from this sort of writing in time. It makes things clearer, so that your reader can focus on what’s actually happening, without having to go back and rearrange everything in order to make sense of it.

Of course, depending on what you’re going for, you might not actually want to write this way. If your protagonist suffers from amnesia, then the scene where his wife is murdered, which happened a decade ago, might work best as the climax of your story, as he remembers it. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner writes Benjy’s section from three different times in his life, years and years apart, all blended together, because (a lot of critics will agree) Benjy is mentally handicapped and time as a series of events following one another doesn’t make sense to him. For Benjy, memories are just as real as what’s happening in front of him.

However you decide to write your story is up to you. If clarity is what you’re going for, then structuring your writing to follow the chronology of events might be useful.

The Merits of Journaling

Every writer should keep a journal.

Normally, I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement, and I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of great writers who have never journaled a day in their lives, but if I had to boil down all of the good writing advice I’ve ever heard into one tip, it would be exactly this:

Keep a journal.

I say this primarily because this is what works for me. I have dozens on dozens of composition notebooks–the cheaper the better, if you ask me–scattered throughout my apartment, and I write, almost daily, about anything and everything on my mind: what girl I’m dating or hope to date, relationships with friends, what I had for lunch, what the person sitting across from me in this coffee shop looks like (short, red cap, unnervingly beautiful), scenes for whatever story I’m working on, or streams of consciousness brought on by whatever book I’ve been reading.

But, of course, what you want to know is why you should keep a journal. You want to know exactly how it’s going to help you develop as a writer, and you want to know whether it’s a good use of your time and energy. And you’re right to ask. So let me offer a short and not-in-any-way-comprehensive list of reasons.

The first is the simplest: In general, you get better at what you practice. Sure, if all you write about is your bunions, you might not produce the best literary fiction (though, as with anything re: lit fic, this is of course easily debatable), but at the end of the day, the more you write, the better you’ll write.

Second, it’s low-pressure. Nothing you journal about has to be published immediately on your blog, so you’re free to experiment and fail. And as a writer, or even just as a human being, you won’t go anywhere if you don’t know how to fail.

Third, it keeps you warm. Inertia is one of your greatest allies. It’s why so many writers set a daily word minimum for themselves. If you’ve run into a brick wall in your novel and just don’t know where to go next, journaling is a great way to take a step back, regroup, and still meet that minimum.

Fourth, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps you to understand yourself. Everything you put on that page comes from, or at least filters through, that mind of yours, and the more you know about how you think, the more effectively you’ll be able to say what it is you want to say.

So give it a shot. Worst case is you’ve lost a few bucks and an hour or so; best case is you discover something that helps you grow.