Monday, September 12, 2005

Knowing When To Shut Up

Have you ever had characters, like friends, who never knew when to shut up? Their dialogue goes on and on, and you find yourself just wishing a giant bird turd would land in their mouths. You don't wish them any real harm, just that they'd get a taste of what they're dishing out.

A friend's WIP prompted this one. For whatever her reasons, she feels that dialogue is her strong suit, so that's where she focuses her energies. As a result, her narrative leaves a bit to be desired. As an editor pointed out to me a few months ago, when all a character does is talk, the reader is left having to imagine what's going on behind the scenes of the monologue. There's no need for boring details, just enough to keep the reader into the video playing in their heads as they read. Since having this editor help me whip a manuscript into shape, I've also become acquainted with a thing called an action tag, of which I was clueless up until that point. For those also new to the term, examine the following sentences written two ways:

"Easy," he said, rising to meet her, "don't believe everything you hear."

"Easy." He rose to meet her. "Don't believe everything you hear."

Not sure how everyone else's editor handles that sort of thing, but this is what's being drilled into my skull. The less "he said/she said" the better.

It's been ages since I was so in love with my own words that I couldn't take a crit, but I was amazed at the number of times I used a dialogue tag when I could have used an equally impacting action tag, and most of the time to my advantage. The main reason is that with an action tag comes the opportunity to stretch a bit, to include more of what's going on in tandem with the conversation. Dialogue tags get messy, because the reader has to wade through two or sometimes three gerunds or infinitives to get to the meat of what's happening. Another bad example:

"Easy," he said, rising to meet her, shoving his hands into his pockets defiantly. -- blah, blah...

"Easy." He rose to meet her. "Don't believe everything you hear." Festus shoved his hands into his pockets defiantly.

The important thing is to place dialogue and action in the sequence in which they occur. Had Festus shoved his hands into his pockets prior to the "...don't believe..." line, the impact of his anger wouldn't be as strong. If he waits until he's delivered his line, the focus is on what he's doing, his body language and posture.

Now if I could only do flashbacks without using the word "had", I'd make one of my CPs, Miss Merry, a lot happier.

Have a nice day, everyone.



At 6:20 PM, Blogger Amie Stuart said...

YES YES YES!!!!!!!! Action tags with dialogue tags annoy the HELL out of me!!!! LOL
I love dialogue. I hate narrative. It's evil but I have mastered it!!!!!

*insert evil laugh here*

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Merry said...

WHAT? What'd I do?

So a circled a few little "hads."

Okay. Maybe more than a little. A lot. A WHOLE lot.

And I'll do it again, too.


At 1:56 PM, Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Good point, well worth emphasizing. Of course, this assumes the manuscript is already free of adverb-modified tags & crap like "Not now," he hissed, or, worse still, folks 'smirking', 'averring' or 'growling' their dialog.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Dee said...

LOL, Lyn, doll, you have just given me something to beat into my ms edits! I have small cows about sentence structure and so on and I was hating my dialogue tags that had action but...well, you know. I wanted more impact.

Now that's something else to add to my list of stuff!

Big smooches & thanks!

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Mechele Armstrong said...

Oh my goodness. LOL yes that "no using said!" is being drilled into me too.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Dee said...

Eeegads,not removing saids entirely, I hope. Said is the best if you're using the dialogue tag at all. I think she's saying use less dialogue tags as a whole.

Lyn, do we need a ruling? :)

At 2:59 AM, Blogger Lyn Cash said...

a ruling? from MOI? - hell, no - lol. i may have taught english, but nothing ever prepared me for writing commerical fiction.

my personal view,however, is this: good communication is key, whether we're writing smut, literary fiction, confessions, or a personal letter. what we say and how we deliver it depends upon the audience.

that said, the 4-letter word doesn't bother me all that much unless it's overused. and action tags WITH dialogue tags are verboten. aaack.


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