Something happens when you suddenly admit you’re a writer. Actually two things.
(1) Some people are overly impressed to hear you are a writer and will say, “Wow! I’ve never met a writer!” and then gaze at you as if expecting you to compose a witty haiku on the spot. (Usually I say, “Yes, it means I spend a lot of time by myself staring at my computer, writing about people only I can see and hear!” By the way, this is not witty and only makes people think you are a socially awkward introvert.)
(2) You become a very discerning reader. Possibly discerning is a euphemism. Other people might label it snobby or judgmental. But no matter what you call it, you are suddenly reading (and critiquing) on a different level. And something you will probably notice is that there are some really, really bad dialogue tags out there. I’m talking painful, cringe-worthy ones that make you interrupt reading Harry Potter aloud to ask, “Are these dialogue tags making anyone else crazy?”
(No, it turns out, they are not. Could you please just keep reading, Mom?)
There was a really great lecture on dialogue given by Phil Deaver when he was teaching in the MFA program at Spalding University, and the lecture was called “Dialogue,” he said. This is the heart of the lecture: all you need in a dialogue tag is said. That’s it. Your characters should not be shrieking, stuttering, screaming, conceding, apologizing, breathing, choking, demanding, concurring, agreeing, guffawing, squeaking, yelling, etc. They should say, or ask. Period.
“But, but,” she stammered. “Are you sure?” she inquired anxiously. “How will the reader know how my characters are feeling?”
Dialogue tags are there for attribution. They are not there to tell us how a character is feeling. That’s what the words and the tone and the language of your prose need to do. If you are depending on a dialogue tag to convey emotion, your dialogue isn’t strong enough to stand on its own. If your dialogue tags are doing the heavy lifting for you, then you are (gasp, dreaded word approaching) telling your reader how a character feels instead of showing.
Examples (Courtesy of Phil Deaver)
“I’m so sorry,” Jan apologized.
We’re all smart people here. Clearly someone who is saying “I’m sorry” is apologizing. Have faith in your reader that he will know this without being explicitly told.
“I’m so sorry,” Jan said.
Remember, dialogue attributions are simply there to let us know who is speaking. They are not there to convey emotion.
“I’m so sorry.” Jan stood up and hugged her son.
Notice how the meaning becomes richer when the writer has quote + action in a dialogue paragraph? You don’t even need “She said” because we already know Jan is the one speaking since she is the one doing the action.
Also, adding action into the dialogue paragraph makes the scene pop out more. It gives it a cinematic quality, it helps us arrange the characters in our mind. The reader also gets to make his own inferences about the action and words. Does Jan’s apology seem more sincere since it’s accompanied by a hug? Does the fact that Jan apologizes with both words and a hug say anything about the kind of mother she is?
More examples from Phil’s lecture “Dialogue,” he said.
“I’ve completely had it with you,” Edith stated firmly.
“I’ve completely had it with you,” Edith stated as she stomped across the room with the kind of look she’d get on her face when she’d completely had it with him.
“I’ve completely had it with you,” Edith said.
“Now you listen to me,” Edith said. She stomped across the room. “I want you out of here, and I want you out fast.”
In other words, get out of the way of your dialogue. By throwing in unnecessary attribution, you muddle the flow.
Along the same lines, if you are going to use adverbs in your dialogue tags, be careful. Be judicious. Read your sentence aloud to see if it’s necessary. As with all things adverb-related, less is more.
Here’s an example of dialogue with an adverb from James Salter’s short story “Comet” in his short story collection Last Night.
“Come on, you can look at it tomorrow,” she said, almost consolingly, though she came no closer to him. (Salter 11)
Here the adverb feels necessary because almost consolingly is juxtaposed with the action of not coming any closer to him. What she is saying and what she is doing aren’t aligning, which highlights the tension between the couple.
Here’s an example of effective dialogue without an adverb in the attribution from one of Raymond Carver’s short stories “Put Yourself in My Shoes” from his collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
“That’s the real story, Mr. Meyers,” Morgan said. He tried to fill his pipe. His hands trembled and tobacco spilled onto the carpet. “That’s the real story that is waiting to be written.” (Carver 150-151)
Imagine if Carver had written it as “That’s the real story, Mr. Meyers,” Morgan said nervously. We would have lost all the nuances of the quote + action and would simply have been told how Morgan felt.
Bad dialogue tags are out there. You will be tempted to rail against them at dinner parties and during book club meetings. (Don’t do this, by the way. People will become considerably less enamored with the very interesting fact that you are a writer.) Instead find them in your own writing and banish them for good.
To quote one of my all-time favorite Facebook posts from Rick: “Keep at those revisions,” he urged encouragingly.