Continuing what’s turning out to be a mini-series of self-editing tips, I thought talking dialogue tags would be a good topic for today’s blog. Dialogue tags are tricky beasts, and in submissions and client manuscripts I find the same errors come up again and again. Can you spot these errors in the examples?
“I saw a shark!” the woman screamed.
“Don’t talk rubbish,” the Captain dismissed, “there are no sharks in these waters.”
“I did,” she insisted.
“I think I did also,” the young boy added.
“You’ve both gone sea-crazy,” the Captain snapped, looking over the bow of the old boat and into the water.
Like all my posts, I’m not going to claim these are beautifully written passages, but it should be obvious what the main problem is with them. The crazy dialogue tags! You trip over them, they are hard to read, and worst of all, they tell you how to read the dialogue, rather than the dialogue being strong enough to stand on its own. There is nothing wrong with “he said” – it’s a practically invisible phrase that readers scan over. English teachers all over the world can be blamed for teaching us not to use “said” and to use something more flowery. But we must stop!
Of course, you can use other dialogue tags – asked, shouted, screamed, added – but in moderation. Too many and your reader will struggle to hear your dialogue as natural conversation.
Just as the Captain peered into the water, a great white shark jumped up, snapping his powerful jaws just inches from the old sea dog.
“Oh my God!” the Captain said loudly.
“So there are no sharks, then?” the woman said sarcastically.
“Well, I—I’ve never seen. Just, wow!” the Captain said in a shocked tone, backing further away from the edge.
“Can we go back to shore now?” the boy asked hopefully.
As with the earlier example, these adverbs after the dialogue tags are telling the reader how to read the sentence. Again, dialogue should be strong enough to convey the tone without it being spelt out. It’s basically the ‘show not tell’ that we agents are always going on about!
The Captain grabbed his harpoon gun. “No way am I going back. I’m going to catch that bad boy,” he said, knowing that this catch could clear all the debts he had on the boat, which hadn’t exactly been paying for itself with undersubscribed tourist fishing trips.
“Oh, no! Please, sir, please can we go back,” sobbed the boy, who’d always been afraid of water after nearly drowning at his very first swimming lesson.
“Yes, please. I’ll pay you extra,” the terrified woman said, hoping that her bank account wasn’t overdrawn again after her gambling ex-husband got hold of her new bank card.
I’m sure it’s obvious, but this is very expositional. It’s telling the reader something about a character in a really awkward and unnatural way. This should be a high-tension scene, so would the woman really be thinking about her ex-husband?
“Pay me extra, eh?” The Captain stepped towards the woman, wondering if that was a better offer than risking his neck trying to catch a big shark. “Now that I might be interested in.”
“I can get some cash when we get ashore.” The woman fumbled with her wallet, seeing nothing but a one-dollar bill.
“Okay, then.” He put down the gun. “I suppose I’m too old to be hunting sharks.”
The boy jumped from his seat and hugged the old man. “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t fuss, now!” The Captain shrugged the boy off and turned the ship back to shore.
It’s fine to not use dialogue tags at all, and to show who is talking by interspersing the dialogue with beats or movement. But add too many beats and the dialogue doesn’t flow, leading to all the pace being sucked out of a dramatic scene (not that this is a very dramatic piece of writing, considering a shark just appeared!).
As with all ‘rules,’ these are just guidelines for polishing your work. If you know the rules, then you’ll know when it’s okay to break them. Maybe you want to use a beat, or perhaps giving a little bit of exposition is right for your plot at that stage of your story. Use in moderation and the reader will barely notice. What you don’t want to do is pull the reader out of the story,” said the slightly excitable literary agent who was wondering what editing tips she would blog about next time.