Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guest Post: Linore Rose Burkard

was intending to write about grieving and the writing process today, however, a few Diet Pepsis and a fabulous letter from Linore Rose Burkard changed my mood.  I would like to share Linore's thoughts on dialogue.

He Said, She Said: 
Using Too Many Tags in Dialogue

by Linore Rose Burkard

When I look at portions of work by newer writers, it is common to find them doing one of two things when it comes to dialogue tags: they either use too many tags or  not enough. Both tendencies adversely affect writing, make readers cringe, or tell an editor or agent to stop reading. Since we want people to KEEP reading, how we do avoid both pitfalls? 

First, let's look at the problem with using too many tags (A dialogue tag is when you follow dialogue with something like "he said," "she laughed," etc.)  The first rule of thumb when adding a tag is to ask yourself,

Is it Necessary? 
A tag is only necessary when you need to clarify who is speaking, or to show a reaction that might otherwise be missed. If you insert tags when they are not needed, you risk using too many and this makes the writing awkward. 

To tell if you are using too many tags, backtrack a paragraph or two when you're editing your work, and try the dialogue WITHOUT the tags in question. Does it still work? Still make sense? Can you easily tell who is talking? IF the answer is 'yes' to these questions, then you don't need the tag. Cut it out.

Using many tags when they're not necessary makes a work stilted; the dialogue will suffer; and the reader will groan. Don't make your reader groan! 

Is Something Missing?

On the other hand, however, if you fail to give enough clues about who is speaking, this too, will make for unhappy readers. They will feel as though they're missing something, and this is frustrating. They will have to go back and try to figure out who is saying what. Ideally, when your characters are really strong, there will be occasions when you can omit a tag simply because the spoken words are so distinctly characteristic of that person, that it becomes redundant to use one. But be sure about this; use a critique partner or two to make sure. If it turns out that readers are confused, then you need a tag. Keep it in. 

Is it Character-Driven?

There are occasions when it's right and good to use a tag even though the reader knows who is speaking.  This may sound counter to what I said earlier, but the key here are the words,character-driven.  This means that it is important for the reader, not only to know who is speaking, but to know HOW the character is saying or thinking a thing.  In other words, you want to clarify an emotion that isn't perhaps altogether clear from the words alone. In some cases you may need to specify the tone of voice; or an accompanying gesture the character makes while talking. 

I would caution you not to do this often, and again, use critique readers or beta readers, or an editor to take a second look when there is any question about this.
Also, be sure not to overdo it.  Having a heroine who sighs heavily once or twice a chapter is probably fine; any more than that and the reader will be sighing heavily.  

To emphasize the point of using too many tags,  I leave you with an old poem by the humorist Franklin P. Adams. (Read it and learn!) 

    Monotonous Variety
(All of them from two stories in a single magazine.)

She "greeted" and he "volunteered";
    She "giggled": he "asserted";
She "queried" and he "lightly veered";
    She "drawled" and he "averted";
She "scoffed," she "laughed" and he "averred";
He "mumbled," "parried," and "demurred."

She "languidly responded"; he
    "Incautiously assented"; 
Doretta "proffered lazily";
    Will "speedily invented"; 
She "parried," "whispered," "bade," and "mused"; 
He "urged," "acknowledged," and "refused."

She "softly added"; "she alleged";
    He "consciously invited";
She "then corrected"; William "hedged";
She "prettily recited";
She "nodded" "stormed," and "acquiesced"; 
He "promised," "hastened," and "confessed."

Doretta "chided"; "cautioned" Will;
    She "voiced" and he "defended";
She "vouchsafed"; he "continued still"; 
    She "sneered" and he "amended";
She "smiled," she "twitted," and she "dared"
He "scorned," "exclaimed," "pronounced," and "flared."

He "waived," "believed," "explained," and "tried"; 
    "Commented" she; he "muttered";
She "blushed," she "dimpled," and she "sighed";
    He 'ventured" and he "stuttered"; 
She "spoke," "suggested," and "pursued";
He "pleaded," "pouted," "called," and "viewed."

O syonymble writers, ye
    Whose work is so high-pricey.
Think ye not that variety
    May haply be too spicy?
Meseems that in an elder day
They had a thing or two to--say.

by Franklin P. Adams

PS: Did you notice that he used the word "twitted"? Nowadays, we can use that one with a completely different meaning. But no matter what words you use, strike a balance so that you don't use too many tags, or too few. Happy writing. 

Linore Rose Burkard creates Inspirational Romance for the Jane Austen Soul. Her characters take you back in time to experience life and love during the Regency England era (circa 1800 - 1830). Ms. Burkard's novels include Before the Seasons Ends, The House in Grosvenor Square and, The Country House Courtship. Her stories blend Christian faith and romance with well-researched details from the Regency. Readers experience a romantic age, where England from the past comes alive and happy endings are possible for everyone!


Sidney W. Frost said...

As a new writier, I've stuggled with tags. This helps. I especially like the suggestion of using critique partners to look specifically at tags. BTW, it is twitter or tweeted.

Great Lakes Romances said...

Great post! I like to read my work aloud to catch dialog tag problems. I highly endorse soliciting other opinions to keep tags in check and or to avoid attribution confusion.
Donna Winters

Keli Gwyn said...

My early manuscripts were fraught with dialogue tags. I fell into two traps common to newbies.

I'd learned that said and asked were the tags to use, so I did limit myself to them most of the time. However, to liven them up I added adverbs. My characters said things emphatically, loudly, sweetly, sarcastically . . . The first craft book I read, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, broke me of the habit.

My characters addressed others in the scenes by name repeatedly. When a workshop leader explained that we rarely use the other person's name when we speak in real life, I broke the habit of using proper names in dialogue unless it's a place where a real life counterpart would do so.

What helped most was learning about beats, or action tags. When I began to get a handle on them, I was able to eliminate many of the dialogue tags. Of course, I kinda overdid them at first. OK, I probably still do, but my CPs let me know when I've gone overboard. Love those ladies.

Casey said...

What a great post! I loved the flow it it and thank Julia for plugging this in, even last minute. :)

When I first started writing I only used "said" or "asked" though I used them in abundance, way too often than I should. Then I had someone read my work. And found out I needed to use a stronger word in place of "said" or "asked". I painstakingly cut all those little four letter words (not the dirty ones I PROMISE I don't have those. :) and added words like "shouted" or "whispered" etc.

Low and behold, I was wrong AGAIN. That was certainly a fun lesson to learn. :) But a good one, because I inevitably learned that in a way it is a form of telling. Why not show it with an action tag?

Thanks Linore! I enjoyed being reminded of that and hopefully have gotten better because of that lesson. :)

Angie Dicken said...

Oh my!Just what I needed! I have always wondered about that after being in a crit group and being told again and again to use/not to use tags. Thanks for the wisdom.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Oh my, what a funny poem! I twittered incautiously. :) And thanks for the great pointers. It's always tough to see some of these things in our own work, so these reminders are helpful.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Sidney, Yes, I think looking to critique partners is an excellent suggestion I plan to use myself.

@Donna, I've definitely noticed a difference in my work since I've started reading out loud. Certainly helps to hear how plausible the dialogue is, too.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Keli, That is a great tip about addressing by name. I never thought of that much either until listening to an audio tape where an author mentioned it.

@ Casey, Isn't it great when you can recognize a progression in your journey? I love those moments.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Angie, Isn't it amazing how much we learn from critiquing? I certainly have a lot to learn about how to improve my dialogue.

@ Sarah, I hadn't heard that poem before, but I love it...it makes the point so well.

Casey said...

Yes it is nice to know I learned SOMETHING! Ha. :)

Pepper said...

Great post, Linore.
Thanks for posting it, Julia.
Linore is a fabulous source of info. Did I tell you guys that she published my short story in her ezine :-)

Taqiyyah Shakirah Dawud said...

Wonderful post, Linore, it's one thing I'm constantly urging writers to take notice of in their dialogue sequences when I'm ms editing. Sometimes I find myself reading backward to find out who said what last when there's an entire page of short dialogue exchange. Or I find myself getting impatient with adverbs, often repetitive ones. I'm going to find a place to post that poem, soon, too (my wall, probably). Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This has been a recent concern of mine. Thank you for the advice.

Jill W said...

Thanks for the great advice! I've printed your post and added it to my notebook I've created to help me become a better writer. Thanks! :)

Linore Rose Burkard said...

What great reader comments, Julia. Thanks, everyone. Even veteran writers can always use reminders, so when I write a post like this, I'm reminding MYSELF too! And it's great to read tips that others think of. Here's another one I've not tried yet, but is useful for some writers: Use a read-aloud device, such as by letting your Kindle read your work back to you. Helps you catch those unnecessary tags and other errors.
For some of my other posts for writers, check out my media page where I TRY to keep updated links: http://www.LinoreBurkard.com/media.html

God bless and happy writing!

Inspirational Romance to Warm the Soul

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Helpful points about tags. Especially loved the poem and the twitted!

~ Wendy