Trusting Your Reader: The Appropriate Use of Dialogue Tags

First, an update: I’m loving my new writing schedule! I’ve been able to make loads of headway on my revision, and I’ve even been able to write some new material. It’s amazing what some consistent time with a story can do! And now, my thought on the importance of showing trust in your reader (or potential reader) through the appropriate use of dialogue tags: I’m a huge fan of the podcast, “The Narrative Breakdown.” Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein and screenwriter James Monohan co-host the podcast, and they often have guests on the show both from the fiction-writing world and the screenwriting world. If you’re a writer, and you’re looking for ways to improve your craft, I highly recommend this podcast as a resource. It’s fascinating! The only drawback is that they don’t produce enough podcasts for a person like me, who likes to listen to them every morning while she goes for a run. Ms. Klein and Mr. Monohan must be busy doing other things, I guess (and wouldn’t I love it if Ms. Klein were busy reading my new manuscript! Soon, I hope, hope, hope!). Ha ha. So rather than listen to a new podcast each day, I listen to each one multiple times. And I learn something new every time I listen! I also laugh out loud a lot. I wear earbuds, so I’m sure there are a few people in my neighborhood who think I’m absolutely off my rocker or that my love of running leans toward the masochistic. Either way, I must come across as pretty crazy. But back to the podcast!

I was listening to a particularly awesome one the other day, where the hosts took questions from their fans. One question was about dialogue tags. For anyone who isn’t sure of what a dialogue tag is, it’s basically a couple of words–or even a phrase–that’s attached (like a tag) to dialogue that signals the identity of the speaker. Sometimes it also signals the manner in which a bit of dialogue was delivered. Here’s an example:

“Pipe down, kids!” Mom shouted loudly. “I can’t focus on this blog post when you’re yelling like banshees!”

In this instance, the words “Mom shouted loudly” is the dialogue tag. It tells us Mom was the person who spoke and that she didn’t just speak–she shouted, loudly. “Loudly” isn’t necessary. It’s redundant, seeing as how Mom “shouted.” Also, “shouted,” is probably unnecessary, too. After all, the exclamation mark speaks for itself, and so does the fact that Mom needs to speak over the yelling banshee children. So in this case, “Mom shouted loudly,” is entirely unnecessary. The writer (moi) would have been better served by writing, “Mom said.” The word, “said,” is, as Ms. Klein put it on the podcast I was listening to, basically invisible to the reader. So why would I write, “Mom shouted loudly?” Why would anyone write an overly-explicit or unnecessary dialogue tag? To answer that, let’s first spend a minute talking about the Harry Potter books.

On the podcast I’ve been talking about, Ms. Klein mentioned that many people who criticize the literary merit of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books do so because of what they see as Ms. Rowling’s unnecessary/overindulgent use of dialogue tags. Here’s the very first one from HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (the first of the HP books), which shows Vernon Dursley’s reaction to his spoiled baby son’s temper tantrum:

“Little tyke,” chortled Mr. Dursley as he left the house.

To “chortle” is to laugh in a particular, chuckly kind of way (at least, that’s the definition to me). It’s not a blasting guffaw, nor is it a laugh that goes on and on. It’s…a chortle. It’s onomatopoeic! Also, a man who “chortles” and calls his son “little tyke” seems like a pretentious kind of fellow, to me. So “chortle,” in and of itself, is a great word to describe the kind of laugh Mr. Dursley might give. That said…can a person chortle a word? Not really. So maybe that’s the problem that some people find with this dialogue tag. I can understand that, for sure. But I’m not going to be one of those people, because whether or not “chortling” a couple of words is humanly possible, I think the use of “chortle” really gives a sense of who Mr. Dursley is, even in its use as a dialogue tag (after all, Ms. Rowling could’ve said Mr. Dursley chortled without coupling it with the dialogue). So I can tolerate–even enjoy–this dialogue tag, because it helps me to see Mr. Dursley in my mind’s eye. But it’s this kind of thing that really irritates some readers.

So why did Ms. Rowling choose to write so many tiny details in her books, even in her dialogue tags? Some people say that rather than allowing her readers freedom or flexibility in imagining how certain people behave when they speak (trusting them to imagine a fully-realized character, like the one she imagined), Ms. Rowling dictated too much information to the reader. That’s a valid argument. I, however, think she’s a genius who knew her imagination was better than anything I or a whole lot of other people could come up with. I also think her books continue to be the best thing since coconut shrimp.

So does this mean we should all trust that our imaginations are better than other people’s, and then write lots and lots of detailed and adverb-ridden dialogue tags in our manuscripts? Nope. But if you are an absolute genius whose books make billions of dollars and change the lives of billions of people, creating life-long readers, you have my full leave to do so. Otherwise, you might try following the advice of people like Ms. Klein and Mr. Monohan, which is to eschew overly-explicit or redundant dialogue tags. Try to fill your prose with the action you would have conveyed through your wordy dialogue tag, had you written it. Remember the yelling banshee bit at the start of this post? If I were really worried that my reader just wouldn’t get the fact that Mom shouts as she tells her kids to pipe down, I could’ve written it this way, instead:

Mom slammed her fist on the kitchen table. Her laptop jumped, and the screen flickered. “Pipe down! I can’t focus on this blog post when you’re yelling like banshees!”

The action, particularly the word, “slammed,” helps to convey the fact that Mom’s pretty annoyed and that she speaks in a way that shows her annoyance. I didn’t even put a dialogue tag down at all, did you notice? Now, in that example, what was once 18 words turned into 29 words. So you have to be careful how you put your action into your narration rather than your dialogue tags, or you’re going to have a loooooong book.

To wrap it all up, I should say that I love it when I feel like an author allows me the freedom to imagine the world of his or her book in my own way. I love it when I can create the character and their mannerisms in my mind’s eye. I think Ms. Rowling gets away with much of the “control” she exerts over her story by the very fact that she has such a fabulous imagination and has imagined such a real, incredible world. I certainly know that I’m not as forgiving of other authors who overuse dialogue tags, because I want to be absorbed by the story, not jarred by clunky and overly-dramatic writing. Maybe it’s a little bit like the phenomenon of loving a book and disliking the movie adaptation because it isn’t how I imagined it….

Food for thought.

Now go and listen to “The Narrative Breakdown,” she intoned forcefully, her eyes glimmering with the passion she felt toward the podcast and toward writing in general. “You won’t regret it.”

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Much Ado About WRITING

My husband and I watched an amazing filmed production of Hamlet the other night (David Tennant and Patrick Stewart = ART), and I’ve had Shakespeare on the brain ever since. Wasn’t he an incredible writer?

And speaking of incredible writers…I’m not one. But I hope that someday I’ll be the best writer I know how to be. In order to develop my writing skills, I need to read and read and read, and write and write and write. And guess what? I’m going to do just that, starting…NOW!

My girls are both in school, and while that makes me a bit sad and lonely, it also allows me much more time to work on writing. In particular, I’ll be able to work on my young adult fantasy novel, in which I get to write about folklore, birds, magic, love, hidden codes, political rebellion, religious reformation, and cave bacon.

IMG_3396

I’m really looking forward to it! I’ll also continue to take in editing projects, but for the most part, my days will consist of creative writing.

Here’s the plan:

  • 9 a.m.: Start writing (UPDATE, dated 9/20/14: Start writing at 9:30 to allow for more time to exercise, do the home chores, and make cookies!)
  • 12 p.m.: Stop for lunch
  • 12:30 p.m.: Continue writing (UPDATE, dated 9/20/14: Continue writing at 1 p.m. to allow time to make supper!)
  • 2 p.m.: Stop for the day (UPDATE, dated 9/20/14: Stop for the day at 3 p.m.)

I’ll need to rebuild my writing stamina, because I haven’t had a writing schedule like this in a very long time, but I hope to work the above hours at least three days per week. Since I’ll be helping in my kids’ school the other two days of the week, I’ll need to adjust things a bit. More than likely, I’ll start writing at 12:30 and stop at 2 (UPDATE, dated 9/20/14: Stop at 3!) on those days. When the editing jobs come in, I’ll adjust my schedule as needed.

Is anyone else out there in my situation, where you’re going to be able to do a bit more writing now that kids are in school? Or perhaps you’re not a writer but are going to do a bit more of something else. If that’s the case, what is it that you’ll be spending your time on this year?

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Re-post of Interview with Author Teri Harman

Bookshop Talk is gearing up for a guest post by Teri Harman, author of the “Moonlight” trilogy novels BLOOD MOON and BLACK MOON, by posting an interview that I conducted with Teri last year. Come on over to Bookshop Talk and get to know this terrific writer and her bewitching books!

Teri Harman pic

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Bookshop Talk Review of DRIFT, by M.K. Hutchins

I’m over on Bookshop Talk today, sharing my review of M.K. Hutchins’ debut young adult novel, DRIFT. Check it out! And a special thanks to Tu Books for sending me an ARC of this fabulous book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Finding Great Books | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Night Reader

I read at night. I used to be a daytime reader, but then I had kids. I guess I’m still a daytime reader, if you count the books I read to my children, which I generally don’t, because they’re not for my own, personal pleasure (though I couldn’t wait to read more of THE FROG PRINCESS, by E.D. Baker, and WE ARE IN A BOOK, by Mo Willems, to my girls).

Reasons for Night Reading:

1)   Focus: I tend to shut out the world when I read, and I just can’t do that when I’m on mommy-duty. Reading at night allows me to totally relax and become absorbed by the story…until a little person in the next room wakes up, at which time I might mutter, “Curses! A pox on me for a bungling fool! Shall a mam, at the witching hour, yield to the wiles of a delightsome tome whilst her toddlings drowse? Nay!” I like historical fantasy novels, by the way.

2)   Relaxation: I love falling asleep to a good book! Notice I said “good” book. I’ll fall asleep to anything, when I’m tired. So nobody take offence, okay? The only drawback to falling asleep with a book is having it hit you in the face at that moment when the tiger in your dream jumps out of the bushes at you. Experience has taught me to read paperbacks in bed: less screaming involved. Worst book to read in bed? WAR AND PEACE, for sure. Not only does it pack a wallop, but it’s so thick, your hands will go to sleep with the effort of keeping the book upright and open on your chest. I once read a book in the bathtub at night. Once.

3)   Quiet: This goes with “Focus,” I suppose. But I love peace and quiet when I’m reading—because I read aloud, in my head. Does that make sense? I don’t read aloud aloud, but I do read in my head. Aloud. Um…who said that? Is anyone there? Don’t you dare jump out at me! Hello…?

4)   Munching: I like to eat when I read. If I really love a book, then I’ll eat something really special at the same time, in order to make it a more thoroughly pleasurable experience. I can’t do that during the daylight hours, because my kids will want a piece of my chocolate bar. And I don’t share (Okay, I do, but I’m reluctant about it.).

How about you? Are you a daytime reader, a nighttime reader, or an all-the-time reader? Or a doctor’s office reader? Or a drive-through-at-the-bank reader? Or a waiting-for-the-kiddos-at-ballet-lessons reader? Or…well, you get the idea. When do you read?

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A Little Inspiration…

“Being a writer is kind of being a curator of your own life and experiences–and being very aware of when you’re in the midst of something special.”

~ Alan Heathcock, in an interview with Brad Reed on Episode 6 of the “Inside Creative Writing” podcast…about nine minutes in.

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Short Story: Fresh Catch

The first time I saw Chase Thorne, he was shirtless, with little shimmering drops of sweat glistening on his skin. Not a bad first impression, if you haven’t seen the like before, which I have. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I noticed the ropy muscles in his forearms as he twisted the rod holding the globe of molten glass at its end. It’s just that the sight of him didn’t affect me as it might have one hundred and eighty years ago, when I met his great-great-great-great grandfather on my uncle’s schooner.

The North Wind had been a fine ship. Uncle Weston had overseen her every detail, from the angelic—and embarrassingly buxom—figurehead at her bow to the navy blue color of the velvet bed curtains in the captain’s cabin in the stern. And he had taken me aboard her for her maiden voyage from Seal Point to Vancouver. It wasn’t a long voyage, but it was long enough that I became well acquainted with Uncle’s first mate: Tobias Thorne, whose muscles were every bit as tanned and taut as his great grandson’s would be.

But that was before the storm that Tobias survived and I didn’t. Now I spend my days wandering Sandy Port, making up life stories for the tourists and then following them around to see if the stories prove true.

Take the woman Chase assists right now. Her hair is smooth in spite of the humidity, which means her hotel lavatory holds an expensive bottle of something containing keratin, whatever that is. She’s twice Chase’s age, but that doesn’t prevent her from leaning into his chest when he puts his arms around her back to guide her hands in rolling the glass rod. She’s a recent divorcee, or I’m not a ghost. And she’ll be a big tipper.

Or how about that family, over there? The parents look frazzled, but happy. The children look…young. They’ll see the prices and leave before the elder Thorne can convince them to give glassblowing a try.

And there they go.

Oh, here’s a promising pair—but wait, Keratin Woman has finished her green-swirled bowl. It’s not half bad. And she is a big tipper. Big enough that when Papa Thorne turns away and she passes her card to Chase, he accepts it.

 ***

The lighthouse is my favorite haunt. In the old days, it was full of cats. Lighthouse keepers knew more about ghosts, back then. But now I have the run of the place. It’s quiet, and it hasn’t changed, except that a big electric light bulb has replaced the oil in the lamp. The kelp flies still keep most people away during the warm months, and the coastal wind keeps them away during the cold months. The only person who is here every day, in spite of the weather, is Elliot Price.

“Hello, Elliot,” I call from the landing of the wooden staircase that leads from the lighthouse down the cliffside to the tide pools.

He glances up, and for a moment, I imagine that he sees me, not the tourists behind me.

“Much to see down there?” a burly man wearing sandals yells.

Elliot grins. “Yes! There’s a chiton in that pool over there, and if you look carefully, you can see four sea stars clinging to the underside of that rock, and—“

“No seals, though?”

Elliot’s smile droops, slightly. “Actually, no. Not this morning. Normally, I see Bonnie and her pup down here, but I haven’t seen them since yesterday. You might try the other side of the point.”

“Thanks!” And the burly man is off, dragging his wife and daughter up the steps after him, ignoring Elliot’s shouted warnings about getting too close to seals.

Olivia, who is on her way down the stairs, moves to the side, one hand clutching the railing and the other holding her sample kit.

The historical society could trade out the lighthouse lamp for Elliot’s face, if they wanted—as long as they employed Olivia as full-time keeper. His grin widens, and he stands.

“Olivia!”

“Morning, Elliot.” She trots the rest of the way down the stairs. “Am I too late to see the chiton?”

“Nope. He’s in his pool.”

“Great!” She places her kit on the big driftwood log at the base of the cliff and opens it.

“Oh! I…uh…I took the water samples already,” Elliot says.

She pauses and glances over her shoulder. “You did?”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t have to do that. But…thank you.”

“It’s nothing. You’ve got enough to do without having to worry about water samples.”

She laughs. “I don’t mind. It gets me out of the visitor’s center for a few minutes.” Straightening, she snaps the lid shut. “Well, I guess if I don’t need to take the samples—“

“Wait! You don’t have to leave yet, do you?”

“Um…I don’t know. You’re in charge. Do I?”

Elliot stuffs his hands in his pockets. “Take your time. Check out the chiton.”

 ***

Olivia smells of fish. Not the smelly bay-side-fish-processing-plant type of fish; she smells of fish dipped in beer batter and fried and served with tartar sauce and a slice of lemon. I’ve never had tartar sauce, but it looks wonderful. Everything looks wonderful when you can’t eat it.

Elliot would adore Olivia whether she smelled of the food she serves at her second job or of fish guts. After she left the tide pools, he nearly collapsed against a muscle-encrusted boulder, only just stopping himself out of his love for the little sea creatures.

“Olivia…” he murmured. “Olivia, Olivia, Olivia…”

She didn’t hear him, of course. Even if she hadn’t already been plugged into her miniature music contraption, listening to the song Chase had recommended to her when he’d come to Fresh Catch on his lunch yesterday, Elliot’s words had been directed only to the ocean and the sky and the plump red chiton.

 ***

Keratin Woman doesn’t waste any time. When Chase steps out the back door of Thorne Glass at the beginning of his lunch break, there she is, all expensive perfume and dark glasses and bronze rouge. She glances at the wall of Pirate Pete’s Pastries before leaning against it and runs a manicured hand up Chase’s still-bare arm. He was wise enough to leave his muscles exposed, donning a black shirt without sleeves.

Ten minutes later, with a sunset boat ride planned and yet another tip from Keratin Woman in his pocket, Chase slips into Fresh Catch and snakes an arm around Olivia’s waist. She nearly drops her tray of dirty dishes.

“Can I order a ‘Catch of the Day’ with a side of Olivia?” he murmurs in her ear.

“You’ll get me in trouble,” she replies, but she doesn’t pull away.

“Trouble’s kind of my thing.”

“Yeah, well, it’s gonna have to wait until the bonfire tonight.”

“Yeah…about that. Looks like I’m not gonna be able to come.”

Olivia twists around to look up at him. “What? You said—“

“I know.” He kisses her on the end of the nose. “I’m sorry. I tripped over some kid in the shop and knocked over a whole shelf. Busted a ton of glass.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I got most of it cleaned up, but then a bunch of tourists came in. You know how it goes.”

“I could come help you after I get off work,” Olivia says.

“Naw. He glances over Olivia’s shoulder. “I better go. Your manager doesn’t look too happy.”

“Well…go sit outside. I can get Mike to rush an order.”

Chase waves at the manager on his way out the door, then settles into one of the wire café chairs that line the bay window on the outside. He greets the crews of several boats as they come into the restaurant, fist-bumps a few deliverymen, and eyes the waitresses, each of whom poke their head out the door to see if he needs anything. When Olivia brings him his Catch of the Day in a white carton, it is to see that he already has a drink and a complimentary bag of Shrimp Nibblers.

Olivia doesn’t mind. She knows Chase can’t help it.

 ***

Glass is breaking in Thorne Glass, but contrary to what Chase told Olivia, it’s the first time today that anything has broken. It’s almost like Chase’s father knew about his son’s lie and wanted to help Chase tell the truth for once.

The elder Thorne has the pasty features of the Glidden side of the family but also has the Thorne bulk, so when he hurls another vase against the wall of the shop, it doesn’t just shatter, it explodes.

“There were fifty people on that bus, and you only got five of them in? Five! That’s forty-five too few!”

I’m surprised Wallace Thorne can do that kind of arithmetic.

Chase scowls at his father. “I can’t force them in if it’s junky souvenirs they want.”

Crash! Another vase shatters.

I leave before it gets worse.

 ***

Elliot waves his hand at a kelp fly that buzzes around his curly brown hair and leans against the iron railing that encircles the top of the lighthouse. The sun is setting over the water, turning the lighthouse’s white stucco a creamy yellow. Elliot opens the keeper’s leather logbook and begins to write.

Monday, July 28 – Weather sunny, tides average.

The red chiton of the July 25 entry remains in the same tide pool. Internet research leads me to believe that it is nearing the end of its life cycle, and, as is the case with many of Nature’s creatures, has returned to the location where it was born.

Bonnie and her pup, whom the crew have christened “Clyde,” left East Point this afternoon and have not returned, though it is sunset. I will look for them by telescope and on foot tomorrow, and, if necessary, by boat. The Light Skipper needs gas, and the historical society has deemed those funds “unnecessary.” I can spare a few dollars, though.

The crew is in good spirits, for the most part. Jackie got into Yale, and her little sister, Mariah, who graduates from high school next spring, turned in her application to take Jackie’s place. I think Mariah would do well. Jackie tells me she’s got a better head for heights than her big sister, which will be helpful when October comes and it’s time to whitewash the tower. I’ll present Mariah’s name to the historical society next week. We really do need to keep a full staff, even if the society says we don’t. I’m in the process of writing up a possible set of responses to the suggestion that I anticipate the society president will make that Jackie’s position remain unfilled.

Olivia continues to be an invaluable addition to the visitor’s center staff. She’s good with people, which is a relief after that fiasco with Kevin and the tourists from New York (see June 4). Kevin has taken over pamphlet production. He wants to change the present format to a comic book style, and I can’t seem to persuade him to reconsider. I hope to add Olivia to the lighthouse tour schedule, but I haven’t yet broached the subject with her. She’s a fashionable dresser, so she may be opposed to wearing costume. The costumes are pretty hot (as in, over-warm).

 ***

Chase wears a black t-shirt, jeans, and a bruise to his sunset cruise date.

 ***

“Mom? Are you home?” Olivia opens the icebox and removes a bottle labeled Lemonito’s Sparkling Water. Her mother peers out of her office.

“Hi, Livvy. Just give me a minute.”

Olivia sinks onto a bar stool at the kitchen island and pulls a book from her purse. I can’t see the title, but it must be a good one. I saw her with the same book at Fresh Catch, yesterday, and she wasn’t nearly as far into it as she is now.

Olivia’s mother leaves her office, closes the door, and sits beside her daughter. “How was work today?”

“Good. You?”

Sighing, Olivia’s mother runs a hand through her hair. “It was okay. We found a home for that little boy I was telling you about. A cousin in Portland wants to take him.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia puts down her book. “Mom? You okay?”

“I guess I’m just worried.”

“About what? The case?”

“No. Your dad called.”

Olivia rolls her eyes. “I told him I’d let him know by this weekend. It’s like he thinks Oregon State’s the only school that’s worthwhile.”

“Livvy—”

“If he was teaching somewhere else, he’d want me to go there. He won’t even give the community college a chance. I have tons of friends who go there, and they love it. Nina at work, and—”

“Olivia, listen to me. He’s going in for another surgery.”

Olivia closes her eyes. “More cancer?”

“It looks like it.”

 ***

The old woman across the hall raps twice on the wall separating her place from Elliot’s. She has a kind of fog around her, this old woman. It appeared a month ago, when her husband died. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. It means she doesn’t have long.

Elliot rises from the couch, still clutching the letter from the U.S. Navy Research Team Northwest.

“Hi, Mrs. Banks,” he says when she answers the door.

“Hello, Elliot.”

“Did you need something?”

Mrs. Banks widens her eyes, innocently. “No, dear.”

“Oh. I thought I heard you knock.”

“No. But since you’re here, why don’t you come in? My daughter brought by some cookies, and I can’t eat them all myself.”

Elliot glances down at the letter he still holds.

We would be pleased to offer you a position aboard the USNS Pursuit.

 Then he folds the letter and tucks it into his back pocket.

“Thanks, Mrs. Banks. I’d love a cookie.”

The old woman smiles and steps aside to let Elliot in.

 

Okee-doke, folks. That’s it for this one. I had a lot of fun writing it. It feels more like the beginning of a new novel than a short story, and maybe that’s what it will be. I’ve had the idea kicking around in my brain for several years, and it felt like it was time to explore it. I would like to either eliminate the ghost character altogether, or develop her so there’s a reason that she is the narrator. We’ll see what happens. I rarely write contemporary, so this was fun and different for me!

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