by Amy McElroy
Certain writers possess a power to weave a story like a tapestry with the perfectly arcing plot, just the right amount of narration lacing the edges, and life-like dialogue. Readers dive in to meet the characters as if they are long-lost friends—or enemies. Every scene takes place down some familiar trail that reminds readers of the dusty path they walked to school or that coastal vacation spot with their now-grown children. So, what’s the secret?
Take a look at your dialogue tags. It sounds ridiculous, really, that from a place so innocuous could radiate such a powerful force. But sometimes that’s where the power resides. Here are four tips to help you wield that wand yourself:
(1) Avoid “drama tags”—Eliminate distracting phrases like, “he pleaded,” or “he argued,” after dialogue. Writers often use these drama tags when trying to paint a picture, but the characters begin to sound like daytime soaps, calling attention to themselves and away from your story.
When necessary, use “simple tags” like “said,” “told,” and “asked.” They read like simple punctuation instead of distracting the reader.
The content of the drama tags like “pleaded” should be shown through the dialogue itself, the punctuation, or an expanded tag, as described directly below in (2).
Of course, if the character truly whispered or shouted and this cannot be conveyed through punctuation or context, go ahead and use those tags sparingly with the awareness that it’s like someone who shouts all the time: after awhile, the reader will stop listening and the tags won’t have the same impact.
(2) Use Expanded Tags to “Show Don’t Tell” —Typically even the “simple tags,” like “said,” are best replaced with an expanded tag, made up of one or more complete sentences, which indicates something more about what’s going on in the story, either plot-wise or furthering character development.
(a) A plot example (sometimes called “action tags”):
Todd stood next to the dining room table. “I’m heading out for a little while.” He slid the wallet off the corner of the table into his pocket.
We know that Todd is the one speaking here because of the expanded tags, even though it doesn’t say, “Todd said.” But we don’t need a whole paragraph of narration to describe Todd taking the wallet surreptitiously. Working the action into the tag around his line of dialogue helps condense and clarify the scene, keeping it moving for the reader.
(b) Character examples:
“I’m heading out for a little while.” Todd ran one hand through his bristly brown crew cut and shoved his other hand deep in his front pocket.
Again, clearly Todd is speaking here without explicitly saying so, and the reader may infer from his actions—depending on his other gestures, expressions, dialogue, and movements in the story—that he is a normal teenager, anxious, robbed a bank, etc.
Along with gestures, characters can convey facial expressions or tics, simple movements, feelings, internal dialogue, and tone of voice in expanded dialogue tags by using sensory descriptions and metaphorical language.
Here are a few other character examples of expanded tags:
“I’m so sorry about your mother.” Gary reached out and tucked Jan’s hair behind her ear. (gesture/movement)
Aunt Margaret choked on her words, her voice like gravel. “Uncle Henry is no longer with us.” (tone/feelings)
“I don’t want a divorce.” After the words tumbled out, Joan poked around her heart while biting on her thumbnail. (feelings/internal dialogue)
Of course, sometimes it’s still necessary to use “said,” or another simple tag to indicate who’s speaking, but try to replace with more pertinent information when possible.
(3) No Characters MIA—Use expanded tags to create and maintain a vivid setting for your characters, along with their physical and emotional characteristics.
Be sure to convey enough information about when and where your characters move throughout the story. Transition scenes become particularly important, but keep track of your characters’ physical whereabouts even during dialogue. Many writers forget to inform readers how characters move about the room or another environment during a scene. This lack of information leaves readers disconnected from the story.
Transition Scene Example:
“Where do you think we should start looking today?” Marie rolled over to look out the window from the queen antique bed at the De Nada hotel, where she and David were staying during the investigation.
If the previous scene had ended somewhere other than the hotel room, and this were the first line of dialogue in a new scene merely followed by the simple tag, “Marie asked,” the reader would likely be at least temporarily disoriented.
(4) No Floating Dialogue—When dialogue takes place between two characters for too long without expanded dialogue tags, it takes on a quality of “floating in space.”
Readers lose a level of connection with the story and the characters during “floating dialogue” because they can no longer see what’s happening, where it’s happening, or what the characters look like or are feeling. Ground your dialogue with tags throughout exchanges to avoid this problem.
How long is too long without a tag? It’s a judgment call. An occasional line or two without a tag sometimes works. On the other hand, even a monologue or a soliloquy with no tags can create problems, and expanded tags should keep the reader in touch with what’s happening during a character’s long speech.
Take a look at your story for places where there’s an absence of expanded tags. Ask yourself the following:
(a) How long between expanded tags?
(b) Will my reader likely feel disconnected from the characters (physically or emotionally), the setting, or movement in the story without tags here? If so, add what’s necessary.
Tiny, but crucial details about character, setting, and even plot, can be conveyed quickly and painlessly to the reader through expanded tags, without interrupting the flow of the action. Weaving the storytelling in this manner avoids pockets of excessive narration that tend to pull the reader away from experiencing the present moment right along with your characters. Rather than letting your story be held captive to the traps of “drama tags” and floating dialogue, find new ways to make expanded dialogue tags work magic for you and your readers.