Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Dialog Tags

Nathan Bransford is an agent turned author that runs a pretty helpful little blog that I have linked over there on the left. He touches on a lot of things, and his weekly roundups of the popular topics in the writing/publishing world are great. Just about a month ago he weighed in on the issue of dialog tags. 

The debate strikes home for me and my mantra of "learning on the job."  My admittedly limited training revolved around the well known advice to avoid mirroring.  That is, try not to repeat the same word because when you repeat a word often it looks funky to the reader because you repeated it.  Also, repeated usage can cause a word to lose a bit of its pizzazz.  Repetition is both annoying and snore-inducing.  Just to repeat, mirroring is bad juju.  (I know, I'm being a bit silly here).

Point being, I always simply thought that dialog tags followed this same rule.  That is, I don't really want to be repeating the basics such as "said" or "asked" over and over and over again.  It's boring.  It's uninventive.  Or so I thought.

Nathan brought up something interesting that I'd not considered.  Having studied a bit of psychology, I already know that the human brain can do some really crazy things when it comes to words and reading.  If you've ever seen that chain email where the mdidle of wrods are miexd up and yet you can sitll read the story easily, you know what I'm talking about.  (Boy, that's cumbersome to type.  And if you didn't notice I just jumbled those words... well, point proven.).  It seems that the brain does something similar when confronted with "bland" dialog tags.  Namely, we skip over them.  We note the speaker, but we focus more on the dialog and ignore the tag.

The argument, then, can be divided into two basic camps.  The first camp (we'll call them Camp A) believes that you should basically only use simple tags like "said" and "asked." Exclusively. This means you could get something like:

"Where are we going?" Bill asked.
"I know not," said Ted.
"Perhaps we shall have an excellent adventure," Bill said.
"But how will we know if it is truly excellent?" Bill asked.
Ted said, "We'll know when we know."

The theory of Camp A is that since said and asked are basically "invisible," it forces the reader to focus on the dialog instead of a variety of tags which can be distracting. The argument is also made that if you have to say someone "shouted" or "whispered," that you haven't written the dialog well enough, since this should be readily apparent.

Camp B believes in the use of a variety of tags, believing that solely relying on basics bores the reader. Thus you would get the above more like:

"Where are we going?" Bill queried.
"I know not," answered Ted.
"Perhaps we shall have an excellent adventure," Bill suggested.
"Quite," replied Ted noncommittally.
"But how will we know if it is truly excellent?" Bill inquired.
Ted responded calmly, "We'll know when we know."

Dear readers, I ask you: which camp do you fall in?

As a reader, I think I prefer what I shall call Camp AB+.  That is, a hybridization of the two that adds flavor to the dialog but is not overly constrictive.  I like being able to vary it up a bit, but I feel like I should certainly endeavor to keep the tags from being cumbersome.  Very simply: try not to use awkward tags, but otherwise spice it up a bit.  That's a personal opinion though and something I'm still learning to do in my writing.  I think I tend to be a bit too heavy on the Camp B end of things, but hopefully not to the extent that it ruins the story.  I suppose we shall see once I get this book out there.


Elkagorasa said...

Camp A. When reading through a dialogue of two characters, I want to focus on what is being said, leaving some to my own interpretation. When the author tries to define every moment of the storyline to me, I get the feeling of being force-fed the story.

Now on the other hand, I recently read a book, where three characters where interacting and the author used no tags. Personally, at that point, style impacted readability.

Matt said...

Hey Elk! Thanks for the input and nice to see you over here.

In my books, I'm trying to dance the tricky line of not force-feeding, but not going completely bland either. I suspect the better I get at writing dialog, the less I'll feel reliant on tags. That's the goal at least.

I'm trying to err more on the side of Camp A, but I fear I naturally trend more toward B.

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