Nancy: Who said that?

In the past couple of months, I have been out in the writing wilds, reviewing multiple manuscripts. I return to you now with disturbing news: someone has absconded with all the dialogue tags.

Or so I thought, when three of the last four manuscripts I reviewed had long passages of dialogue with no attributions. None of those innocuous “he said” “she said” phrases. No bodies in motion in the same paragraph to show who must have said it. Not even the slightly more annoying scene blocking some of us (ahem, are those three fingers pointing back at me?) tend to use, at least in early drafts, for variation. This lack of tags occurred in scenes with two people talking. And three characters. And even five! Yes, I read a scene with five people in a conversation, with no way to discern, from the words on the page, who was saying what.

I got a sinking feeling.

When a trend appears across manuscripts of writers who do not know each other (and therefore probably haven’t come up with a new technique themselves), I smell “advice” emanating from “professionals”. When I asked one of the writers about the lack of tags, she confirmed my fear. She had cut most of the dialogue tags from her manuscript after her writing group (that’s a whole other blog post, isn’t it?) told her she should stop using them. WHAT?!!! I wondered out loud where they had learned this…ok, I’m struggling not to use profanity, so imagine some nicer word for BS. According to my writer, they got the advice from agents. More precisely, from agents ranting on Twitter.

That loud thwack heard ’round the world was my head hitting my desk.

Once again, well-meaning advice, or more likely, I’m-sick-of-seeing-this-done-badly venting, rears its ugly head to confuse writers. Those of us who have been around the block a time or ten thousand know that specific feedback on our own work from trusted reviewers is the best kind of advice to follow. And even if we do hear fad “advice” or worry about “trends”, we consider the source and context, and remember that when an expert says “don’t do that” they often mean “don’t do that badly or as often as you’re doing it or on every damn page.”

Take the advice to avoid backstory. As Lisa Cron says, this really means “avoid doing backstory badly.” Thou shalt not info-dump in the name of backstory. But just because there is a phrase or sentence or paragraph that the character is remembering does not make it info-dump. What is important is that the touchpoint or memory is relevant to what is happening in the now of the story. The character must use that bit of backstory to make sense of what is going on in front of her in the current story moment. And there have to be good markers to show the reader when the character is processing story past and when she returns to story present. Unless you are writing about a character with amnesia who has to make every decision based on what she has learned in this moment and this moment only, you are going to touch on backstory.

(To see what it looks like to write without any backstory, watch the first scene of the movie Memento. It is a story told backwards, and you will note that you don’t know what the hell is happening in the now of the story UNTIL you go all the way back to the beginning, in an intentional manipulation of backstory.)

Then there is the great -ly debate. I usually hear this attributed to Stephen King’s book On Writing, wherein he posits that using -ly words, aka adverbs, is a lazy way to prop up weak verbs. There’s truth in that observation. Why write he walked quickly when you could write he trotted, he hurried, he hustled…you get the idea. Why, indeed, unless a verb phrase containing -ly paints a better picture, gives the sentence a particular rhythm the writer wants to achieve, or provides meaning that a stand-alone verb might not convey. This is particularly true in intentionally paradoxical statements, e.g., she smiled wistfully. Another reason not to abandon adverbs is shown in my previous sentence: they also modify adjectives. So the advice really means pick the strongest verbs you can, determine whether your adverbs earn their keep, and don’t overuse them. It does not mean summarily jettison one of the basic elements of the English language. (See what I did there? I used an evocative verb PLUS an adverb, almost like they can live in peace and harmony.)

Which brings us to what might be the beginning of the latest writing fad: searching manuscripts for the words “said”, “asked”, and “answered” and crossing through them with red ink. What will result will be muddled conversations that make readers stop, ponder, check lines above, and assign the tags for themselves. And when a writer makes it that difficult for a reader to follow dialogue, she runs the risk of throwing the reader out of the story for good.

So what’s a writer to do with the well-meaning advice to skip dialogue tags? If past is prologue, as Faulkner declared, stop using dialogue tags badly. Even more frankly, stop using dialogue badly. Cutting the tags won’t make monotonous dialogue better or snappier. And it won’t imbue meaningless dialogue with story meaning, which needs to appear in every line of story.

All of the naked-dialogue manuscripts I read were adult fiction, but at least two of the three writers had written in the YA genre, and the one I quizzed had received her advice from a SCBWI writers’ group. I can imagine dialogue attributed to teenagers, who are notorious for communicating through monosyllables and grunts, being overwhelmed by tags. So here’s a rather lame example of what might be setting those agents’ hair on fire. (A caveat: I have no idea whether skate parks still exist, as I am old and out of touch. It’s one of hundreds of reasons I do not write YA. But roll with me here.)

The next day, Jenna caught up with Logan at the skate park.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey,” he said.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Not much,” he answered.

Have you run screaming into the void yet? Those are four pretty boring lines of dialogue, and that’s a shame, because this imaginary book I’ll never write includes an explosion in the high-school chem lab, an English teacher with a dark secret, and shapeshifters of some kind. Maybe caused by the explosion. Oh, and Logan and Jenna accidentally set off that explosion. But you’d never guess this book has that level of excitement based on this snippet.

Why would writers do such things to their stories? Often it’s because they think they are responsible for accounting for every minute of their character’s day, or tracking every interaction from beginning to end, instead of starting every scene with the next bit of good stuff and then sticking to the good stuff, avoiding the monotonous details. Quite often, boring lines of dialogue (and the tags the agents claim to hate) can be cut right out of the story.

There are exceptions to the ‘rule’ that dialogue should never be boring or awkward. Sometimes that’s the point of a piece of dialogue, and that could be true in our imaginary YA story. Let’s build the backstory (oh no!). Jenna and Luke have been next-door neighbors and best friends since kindergarten. Yesterday, while up to their usual hijinks, they accidentally set off an explosion in chem lab. Fearing for their lives, they shared a passionate goodbye kiss. Then the worst thing possible happened: they lived. And now that stupid kiss, which was actually pretty good but still totally stupid, is screwing up their amazing friendship. In context, we understand the boring dialogue, and can even kick it up with Jenna’s internal processing of it.

The next day, Jenna caught up with Logan at the skate park. When he didn’t meet her at the park entrance like he normally did, she tracked him down at the other side of the concrete obstacle course.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey.” Logan said. He stared down at his bright blue board that he flipped around in his hands.

“What’s up?”

“Not much.” He stared past her, suddenly mesmerized by the little kids taking a lesson on the other side of the park.

Great. First I let him talk me into mixing combustible chemicals. Then I kiss him, thinking it’s our last moment on earth, so why not. Now I have to watch my best friend, who will never look me in the eye again, turn into one of those Neanderthal boys who only speaks in one- and two-word sentences.

By mixing up the rhythm and providing story context, I’ve cut most of the tags without losing the thread of who is speaking, and have made this boring exchange part of the story. No, this snippet will not move YA agents to beat down my door with contracts for this imaginary book, but it probably won’t send them into a Twitter rant advising writers to eliminate all dialogue tags, either.

Please, writers, proceed cautiously with all writing advice. Consider the source, the context, and whether it is even applicable to your own writing. Develop your own voice and learn which parts of it you, as the god of your own stories and writing style, are willing to change at the behest of readers, writers, and even industry experts. Because writing is an art, not a science. Nothing is one size fits all. YMMV. And for the love of all that is good in the world, PLEASE do not make me guess which of your five (or three or two) characters is speaking. It leads to headaches and desk dents.

*Climbs off soap box and opens a Word file to start outlining a totally rad YA book about skater kids who blow up a chem lab and inadvertently start a shapeshifter epidemic.*

9 thoughts on “Nancy: Who said that?

  1. It’s funny that you mention dialogue tags. I have been thinking about them lately in the context of audio books, a place where it can be extra challenging to know who is speaking sometimes.

    What I’ve noticed is that “he said / she said” bits stand out far more to me in audio than they do when I’m reading a story myself. They are almost invisible when I read, but in the last story I listened to they were really obvious.

    Your second example is a great way of how to get around using so many tags, and, I’m guessing, what the initial “advice” was probably aiming for. I”m wondering though,how that would translate to audio. Unless the narrator used different voices for different characters (do they all do that?), it might be hard to tell who that “what’s up” belongs to – him or her.

    • That’s really interesting, Elizabeth, because when I am listening to a well read audiobook, I don’t hear the dialogue tags at all. I only hear the character voices.

    • I would think that different character voices would be essential. And correct accents when appropriate (our British-based historicals, for example). That’s why I cringe when I hear authors talk about recording their books on audio themselves. Voice acting is a real skill, and I’ve heard so many readers complain that they won’t listen to books with bad narration, I wouldn’t risk it.

      As for the dialogue tags in audio, I must say I haven’t listed to enough audio books to have thought about it. Editing them out, as Kay suggested, might be the right balance.

  2. My least favorite piece of “advice” is “Only one exclamation point per book.” My CP rips on me all the time for them, and sometimes I temper it, but when someone is yelling or screaming, I think they’re warranted.

    • No! But I love exclamation points!!

      I hadn’t heard that one, and honestly probably don’t use them that often, but I haven’t paid that much attention, I suppose. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine (who is an editor) breaks up with a guy who was one of her writers over her hatred of his overuse of exclamation points. Or the story might have been that they broke up, and then she told him how he overused them, one of the many things about him that annoyed her.

  3. I’ve read this advice about dialogue tags myself, and I think it’s nuts. In audiobooks, though, which I don’t listen to myself, I can see how they might stand out more. If the readers can do different voices, it would make sense to edit the dialogue tags, assuming the author is OK with that.

    • I really need to look for this ‘advice’ out in the wild, to see it in its exact context. It seems like such a ridiculous thing to suggest for any reason other than poor usage.

  4. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If someone complains about my dialog tags, it might be the dialog tags. But it’s probably poor dialog on my part. Two best friends are going to have similar speech patterns and vocabulary, a lot of the time anyway, so you need those tags to tell who is who. OTOH, if you have a raging diva and her snivelly accountant, you might be able to ditch the dialog tags after the first few. But then you need to work really hard to make sure the diva always sounds like a diva, and the snivelly person always sounds snivelly.

    And when characters are at a loss for words, we need to know what their bodies are saying, which can help the reader stay in the story.

    • I think if you’re writing really distinctive voices, you can get away with fewer tags. But as you said, that’s difficult and rare.Our characters are often members of the same family or peer group, and their language just isn’t likely to be so contrasting that we know with each line who is speaking.

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