Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Damned Dialogue Tags

“Stop!” I shrieked, my voice echoing in the silence, jumping forward to put myself between them.
Sparkly Vampire Book

"Come with me if you want to write good dialogue tags."
Mostly, we learn by doing.  You can read about almost any activity, and you can fake expertise by relying on experts (thanks Jamie, Eric, Jan, Chuck, Michael . . . everyone else who helps me sound like I know what I’m talking about).  Then, there are some things that you simply have to be taught. 

Language, especially English, is so complicated that it’s overwhelming.  Even as a native speaker, and being taught the particulars in school, most of us still don’t have a complete handle on all the finer details.

This is where an editor steps in, takes a forward stance, pulls leather, and slaps you right upside the head with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  Then proceeds to beat you senseless with a copy of the AP Manual until you GET IT!

Take the above sentence, written by a wonderful author (personality-wise) who no longer has to care what anyone says about her writing.  She probably has six large, well-muscled men carrying her and her impressive royalty check to the bank as we speak, all of them laughing.  This leaves us free to examine the example quote and mine it for a wealth of knowledge.  In the single sentence, the voice is doing an impressive amount of work, first “echoing” then “jumping forward” to somehow pull, transport, or worm-hole the character forward into the action.

That’s some voice!

New(ish) authors make this “mistake” all the time.  You also can’t laugh a line of dialogue, sigh words, or frown witty one-liners.

“I’ll be back,” Aubrey glowered.

“Uggh, really?  That old line?” Del sighed.

“I like that line!” Aubrey frowned.

"Your dialogue can't smolder, but I can."
Glowering, like sighing, laughing and frowning are facial expressions or physical actions that occur before or after the words are spoken.  You can smile in between saying words, but it’s hard to keep your mouth curved up and your teeth exposed in the expression the entire time such that you could actually “grin” a sentence.

Most of us don’t do it unless we’re reading a blog about it, and making the attempt to prove the blogger wrong.

But sure, argue the point that a line of dialogue can be “sighed”.  First, that’s most likely not at all what the author had in mind.  This was a mistake made while the writer was in the flow of crafting the scene.  Second, these moments of vocal hilarity have the increasing potential of pulling the reader right out of the steampunk Austria-Hungary Empire circa 1868.  Maybe not for every reader, but some.  That’s a failure of the author, and thus should be avoided.

So how do we dodge this particular literary bullet?

The fix on this is incredibly simple, and in fact the editor of Sparkly Vampire Book is at least as much to blame as the author for this line.  The author can be forgiven because, in the flow of writing, this line does make sense.  She was seeing the character do all these things, and didn’t stop to consider how she was describing the voice, and accidentally assigning it actions.  No major surgery is required.

“Stop!” I shrieked, my voice echoing in the silence. I jumped forward to put myself between them.

"Dodge this!"
That’s it.  Delete three characters and add three new ones.  This is the case with most dialogue tags that go wrong.  To train yourself against this, end the sentence quickly and add any additional actions before or afterward, as they would happen in real life.

Michael sighed. “Why won’t he stop talking?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Chuck replied.  He grinned.  “Maybe he thinks we’re still listening.”

“All I hear is ‘blah-blah-I’m-so-awesome-blah’,” Michael said.  His laughter ended the conversation.

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