Simon Says, MacDonald Doesn’t

There’s a certain amount of disagreement about the use of dialogue tags. Here’s what I think about ’em. What I think about ’em today, that is.

To begin with, people speak through gestures, facial expression, body language. The non-verbal element supplies movement, injects variety into the look of the words on the page, enforces the meaning of what is being said, or contradicts the meaning of what is being said. Like verbal dialogue, these non-verbal communications should be appropriate to the character and situation.

You can also describe a character’s actions to show who’s talking: One woman is chopping onions, one is pounding steak, one is peeling apples. “I hate this!” Whack! Whack! went the mallet. “It just makes me furious!” – You don’t have to tell the reader that it’s the woman pounding steak who said that.

As for dialogue tags: Use them only when you need them. Try other ways of indicating who’s speaking: with movement, as I just said; by giving characters distinctive speech patterns; by having them call one another by name now and then; by indirect discourse (“She told him what I had done.” “He asked a lot of questions about that morning, and we answered as fully as we could.” “We continued to argue about what to do.”); by the content of what they’re saying. “I’ll be old enough to drive next year” is the teenaged girl, not her father.

When you do need taglines, use plain old “said” and, occasionally, “asked.” The way a character says something should be implied in what was said, or in the speaker’s character or in the situation, or with movement, another sentence, or a subordinate clause: Don’t write, “Send the flowers to this address,” he said, happily. Do write, “Send the flowers to this address,” he said, and smiled. Use –ly words carefully. You can start to sound like Tom Swifties, if you don’t watch out. You know: “I hurt my leg,” said Tom, lamely. “I’ll cut your heart out!” Tom exclaimed sharply.

So Mom and I have been reading Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer PI novel, THE MOVING TARGET, the target in question apparently being the back of Archer’s head. There are big chunks of dialogue with no attribution (anything to tell us who is speaking), but it’s seldom confusing. For one thing, the sentences in these chunks are usually short and always packed with information. Since we know what Archer knows and doesn’t know, it’s clear who asking a question and who’s answering it.

I once wrote a story with no dialogue tags at all, using movement, description, anything I could except he said/she said. I’m no Ross MacDonald. I had to go back and plug in some tags to keep things clear.

Conclusion: Do whatever works for you. Now isn’t that useful? Aren’t you glad you came?

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Try writing a page of story with every piece of dialogue using he said or she said. Write it again with NO dialogue tags but showing who said what through movement, description, and any other means but he said or she said. Think about which works best where.

MA

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About

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Simon Says, MacDonald Doesn’t

    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 22, 2012 at 11:36am

      I can generally overlook that when I’m reading to myself. When it gets irritating is in an audio book, or when I’m reading aloud to Mom. :/

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  1. Jane

    October 22, 2012 at 11:43am

    Hi. I really had to struggle through my book about Callie London and her three vampire girlfriends. When they kept jumping in commenting on the situation, speculating about WTF was going on, etc., I was rarely able to leave the tags off. One time I even went so far as to list some dialogue, then add, “said, respectively, Rosie, Meg, and Carol.” Desperate times.

    I agree with every word you said, though. Wussy taglines just eff up a piece of writing SOOO badly! Dashiell Hammet was a great dialogue-writer, wasn’t he?

    I like best to say: She purred, “Dialogue here.” Or: “Dialogue!” she spat out. Oh well, enough of me. Bye.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 22, 2012 at 1:45pm

      Those purreds and spats need to be used with caution and a light hand, as I know you know. I have to make sure that I don’t say something like, “Dialogue,” she hissed. The word dialogue doesn’t hiss well. You can hiss it, but it just sounds like you have a frog in your throat.

      Hammett was a master. He, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald are the unholy trio of the PI genre.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 23, 2012 at 3:48pm

      Ah, but that’s AFTER you sell it. Or if you’re writing with guidelines in hand from a publisher you’re targeting. 🙂

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  2. Betsy Ashton

    October 24, 2012 at 12:29pm

    I agree. My editor taught me to use action rather than dialog tags. It works so well that I no longer think about doing it. It’s ingrained. And those pesky -ly words only become a problem when you search for them to eliminate them. What’s the problem, you ask? Having a character named Emily. She’s now Emilie, so when I search for adverbs, I don’t get 1000 of them in a manuscript. Sigh.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 24, 2012 at 12:33pm

      LOL! Yes, search-and-replace can create some terrible monsters. Like ending up with people proud of being Ampaulans because you changed your character’s name from Eric….

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 24, 2012 at 9:22pm

      Thanks, Helen! I agree, that an action usually makes a better tag. Sometimes, when I’m revising and I replace a “said” with a tag, I start “seeing” things I didn’t think of before, and the whole scene improves!

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  3. Maryann Miller
    Twitter:

    October 24, 2012 at 5:48pm

    @Sarah Glenn – When “said” becomes a distraction it is because the author has not used it wisely. Marian was so right in advising that we use actions and movements to clarify who is speaking when that clarification is necessary. Ross McDonald and Robert Parker were both masters at dialogue, using few tags, and having the speech patterns of characters so distinct it was always clear who was speaking.
    Maryann Miller would love to share..Be My Guest, Brian LeafMy Profile

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  4. Maryann Miller
    Twitter:

    October 24, 2012 at 5:53pm

    Great post Marian. I think the key on search and replace is to just search and replace each one. I made the mistake of a total replace in the whole document ONCE. What a mess, but I always learn lessons the hard way. LOL
    Maryann Miller would love to share..Be My Guest, Brian LeafMy Profile

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 24, 2012 at 9:28pm

      Thanks, Monti! Whenever I teach creative writing, I begin by telling my students there is one rule, and one rule only, that they must ALWAYS, INVARIABLY follow. When they have their pens poised over their paper, I say, “Do whatever works.” lol!

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  5. Dani G.
    Twitter:

    October 24, 2012 at 10:55pm

    Totally agree! Feel free to chat about this at the Blood-Red Pencil maybe in conjunction with the blog book tour of your new title. I’m sure you’ll be following your own advice, right? 😉 There are many authors who could benefit from this common sense advice. You can pull examples out of the book, and then end with a little sell pitch. We’d love it!
    Dani G. would love to share..A BIG Blog Book TourMy Profile

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      October 25, 2012 at 9:06am

      Yayyyyy! I’ll work on that after the book escapes — er, I mean after the book is released. Published.

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