Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dialoging Back and Forth

When I was a baby writer I used lots of dialogue tags. It just seemed to be the way things worked; I've always been a voracious reader and that's the style I picked up, reading through my childhood and teenage years. Then I got online in the eighties and started hanging with other writers, both pro and working on it, and I discovered that dialogue tags were passe. Those in the know sneered at dialogue tags, so I changed my style and got out of the habit of using them. For years you could read entire stories of mine and find nary a one.

Then it changed again. I think it was some time in the nineties when... some writer whose name I can't remember right now said that the most invisible word in the English language, after articles and such, was "said." That there was no reason to avoid dialogue tags, that they were clear and simple and the reader's eye moved over them just fine. Everyone else who supposedly knew How Things Work seemed to agree. OK, fine, I started using dialogue tags again.

Now the pendulum has swung once more and we're back to sneering at dialogue tags. [headdesk] You know, I don't care anymore. I'll use them where I want to and not use them where I don't think I need them, and if my editors want any added or deleted, they can let me know. [wry smile]

Angie

11 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I personally find them largely invisible when I'm reading, although they do slow down the pace at times, which might be exactly what you want. However, I get very irritated with a writer when I can't tell who is talking because they've gone too long without a tag. I would tend to err on the side of too many than too few. I use them fairly frequently myself and I prefer reading writers who do as well.

spyscribbler said...

I agree with Charles. I hate having to "count" my way to figure out who is speaking. That irritates me to no end.

Dialogue tags don't bother me.

Angie said...

Charles and SS -- I agree with both of you. If you have to stop, back up and start counting lines, the writer definitely made a mistake.

I remember one story where the writers (it was a collaboration) left off dialogue tags for most of a conversation with three characters. [headdesk] They were sure the characters' voices were sufficiently distinct, but, umm... not so much. :/

So long as it's clear who's speaking, though, and the method isn't too obtrusive, however the writer wants to get that across is fine. I'm jumping off this bandwagon before it switches directions again. :)

Angie

Steve Malley said...

My own rule of thumb is every three or four sentences. Enough to give a little heads-up to the skimmers, (hopefully) not enough to bog down.

Also, a bit of stage business instead of an attribution works too...

Angie said...

Steve -- very true about the stage business. [nod] When I was writing completely without tags, that's how I did it. Throwing in actions and expressions and such also adds a bit more life to what'd otherwise be just a talking heads scene. (Of course, sometimes you want a talking heads scene -- depends what you're going for. :) )

Angie

Bernita said...

My feelings exactly.

writtenwyrdd said...

I hadn't heard they were sneered at now.

Confusing readers so they don't know who is speaking is not good technique, so I like tags. Said is pretty invisible, but I do prefer using a bit of variety, or using almost-tags, like actions or gestures. You can even slip in names with those.

Angie said...

Bernita -- :)

WW -- I've seen a few people make disparaging comments about them here and there, and then this morning saw a comment in passing about one of the jobs for pre-submission editing being the eradication of dialogue tags, so it looks like the pendulum has at least begun to swing. I've just decided I don't care. [wry smile]

Angie

Travis Erwin said...

I think it all depends on the style and voice of the piece. Sometimes they work read fairly obscure, sometimes they seem intrusive. I think it is up to the writer to decide what works or doesn't

writtenwyrdd said...

I must agree with travis, style probably affects the editorial attitude for tags/no tags.

Angie said...

Travis and WW -- exactly, it's going to vary with the writer's style, the tone of the story, the number of speaking characters and how distinct their voices are, etc., which comes down to style and readability. Saying dialogue tags are evil, always, is just silly.

Angie