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.”