Part 1: The Mechanics
Most of us have been having conversations with other human beings since we were still in diapers, so you’d think writing riveting dialogue would be a breeze. So why does the dialogue in our novels often come out sounding flat and wooden?
Because, for many writers, writing dialogue is one of the most challenging parts of writing a novel. For a fair percentage of writers, particularly the introverts among us, we are drawn to the written word precisely because we’re not as comfortable speaking. So if we have a hard time choosing the right spoken words in real life, why would choosing words for our characters be any easier?
You may think writing riveting dialogue is all about choosing the best words for your characters to say, and that’s certainly the lion’s share of it. But there’s actually more to it than that. So before we talk about the words inside the quotes, let’s talk a little about what goes on outside of them. Because, while the dialogue may be the star of the show, the supporting actors (actions and tags) are every bit as important.
Talking Heads Syndrome
Despite its comical name, the common blunder known as “talking heads syndrome” (or just “talking heads”) is nothing to laugh about. It occurs when a writer creates a conversation between characters but neglects to give the reader any clues as to who’s saying what and what they’re doing as they say it, making the characters little more than two talking heads floating in space.
If you’ve written scenes like this, don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve all done it. But the good news is that this little snafu is easily fixed.
To avoid talking heads in your book, you need to:
Show your reader what each speaker is doing as they talk.
During conversation, people often show their emotions through little actions – running a hand through their hair, picking at their nails, etc. These details may seem insignificant, but they help the reader visualize the scene and connect with the characters on an emotional level. Readers who feel that kind of connection with your characters will be invested in finding out what happens to them. And how do they do that? They keep reading.
Show what’s happening around the characters during the conversation.
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re having this conversation somewhere, with sights and sounds all around them. The interruption of a waiter. A chime from someone’s cell phone. A loud shh! from a librarian. No matter where your characters are, there’s sure to be something going on around them, so include one or two of these details to keep the reader engaged in the scene.
Let your reader know which character is speaking by using tags.
Writers denote which character is saying a line of dialogue by adding either a dialogue tag or an action tag. What’s the difference, and which one is better? In my own writing, I lean towards action tags, but let’s take a brief look at both types so you can choose for yourself.
Dialogue Tags vs. Action Tags
Some writers swear by dialogue tags and use them exclusively in their writing. Others are wed to the action tag. And some writers (including myself) use a mix of the two, choosing whichever tag works best for each line. All of these methods are appropriate for a novel of any genre, so you’re free to choose whichever one you prefer. To help you decide, here’s a rundown on the two types of tags.
A dialogue tag is a short phrase that simply states who is speaking, and it’s found in either the middle or at the end of a line of dialogue. For example:
“Hey, Jake, will you grab me a soda?” Mo asked with a wink.
“They’re all gone. But here, have mine,” she said, handing him her can.
The words in bold are the dialogue tags, one coming at the end of the dialogue and the other occurring in the middle. To avoid repetition and keep your story flowing in a nice rhythm, alternate between the two tag placements fairly regularly.
Also, when using dialogue tags, it’s best to stick with “said” and “asked” because these words disappear on the page, allowing readers to keep their full attention on the story. Dialogue tags with flowery verbiage, however, can distract readers and force them to focus on your word choice rather than your story…and that’s a big no-no. That being said, there will no doubt be a few instances in your novel where a more descriptive dialogue tag, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” is appropriate. But words like “inquired”? “Reprimanded”? “Promulgated”? Um…no.
An action tag, on the other hand, is a sentence describing the actions of the characters as they speak, and it can be found before, in the middle of, or at the end of a line of dialogue. For example:
Mo threw Jade a wink. “Hey, will you grab me a soda?”
“They’re all gone. But here, have mine.”She handed him her can with a flirty smile. “I know you don’t mind swapping spit with me.”
These action tags (in bold) show both who the speaker is and what he’s doing, banishing those “talking heads” in one fell swoop.
You may have noticed that both of these passages of dialogue have their own rhythm, and this is due to the different types of tags used. Some writers prefer the way dialogue tags ease the transition from dialogue directly into action (if they’re paired with an action, that is). Others appreciate the efficiency of action tags and their ability to kill two birds with one stone.
To help you choose which type of tag you prefer, I recommend you choose a lengthy conversation between two of your characters and rewrite it three times: once with only dialogue tags, once with all action tags, and once with a combination of the two. Then read each scene aloud and listen to the rhythm of the writing. You’ll quickly decide which suits your novel and your personal writing style best.
Blah, blah, blah-blah, blah…
Whichever type of tag you use, it’s a good idea to throw one into the conversation before it drags on for very long. The last thing you want is for your reader to get confused and have to scan up the page to the last tag just to figure out who’s saying what.
“I told you I was fine,” I say.
“So sue me.”
“What about the test?”
Theo’s mouth tightens.
“If your grades slip, you could lose your spot at Cornell.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t care about Cornell anymore.”
“Relax. I aced it, so Ms. Ransom let me leave early.”
“So…I have great timing, huh?”
The lack of tags in this passage makes it difficult to keep track of who’s saying each line. Yes, if you think about it, you might be able to figure it out. But in your writing, you don’t want to force your reader to think about something as simple as which character is speaking. If reading your book feels like work…your readers are going to close the book.
While using enough tags is important for your reader’s comprehension, you also need to be careful not to use too many tags. Including a tag with every line of dialogue will bog your story down with too much information. So only include details that add something to the scene.
Put on the brakes
The use (or absence) of tags can also help set the tone and pace of your scene. Here’s the same passage as above (mostly) but with tags this time.
My brother slides into the booth across from me, and I tip my head at him. “I told you I was fine,” I say, one brow cocked.
He shrugs, but his eyes are haunted. “So sue me.”
“What about the test?”
Theo coils my straw wrapper around one finger, his mouth tight.
I sigh. “If your grades slip, you could lose your spot at Cornell.” His eyes remain fixed on the wrapper, and my own eyes narrow. “Don’t tell me you don’t care about Cornell anymore.”
He shoots me an all’s-right-in-the-world-of-Theo smile. “Relax. I aced it, so Ms. Ransom let me leave early.”
Can you see how the action tags slow down the conversation, giving the scene a more leisurely tone? You might have also noted that, while I used mostly action tags, there is one dialogue tag slipped into the conversation. I chose a dialogue tag here because a period followed by an action tag disrupted the flow of the writing and sounded awkward when read aloud. This is why reading your dialogue out loud is so important…but that’s something we’ll cover in next week’s post.
Hit the gas
Now let’s take a look at a different passage in which the sparing use of tags speeds things up.
“Get your hands off her!”
As AJ stumbles toward us, Kyle’s lips pull into a smirk. “No fair calling dibs, man,” he says. “This one’s fair game.”
“Not for you.”
“Not for me? You sayin’ I’m not good enough for her?”
“Damn right I am,” AJ says.
Kyle winces. “And I thought we were friends.”
“Not even close.”
The dialogue in this passage is clipped and to-the-point, with just enough tags to let the reader know who’s talking. This speeds up the pace, giving the reader a sense of urgency.
Whichever type you choose, your tags are valuable tools in your writer’s toolbox, so use them wisely. Too few and your reader will be confused; too many and your reader will be annoyed.
Which type of tag do you like best? And what’s your favorite piece of dialogue from your work in progress? Let me know in the comments below.
In next week’s post, we’ll talk about the words inside the quotes – the dialogue itself – and how to make them shine. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: Last week, I shared my thoughts on adding diversity to your novel. Do you have to? And, more importantly, should you?