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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-07-30 05:44
Subject: [process] Dialog tags
Security: Public
Tags:conferences, conventions, process, writing
Another thing that came up in discussion over the weekend at Cascade Writers was dialog tags. If you're not familiar with the term, that's the "said Maryam" that comes at the end of a snippet of quoted dialog. So:
"This is a dialog tag," said Maryam.

Thanks to the Turkey City Lexicon and several generations of Milford-Clarion style workshopping, we've all had ourselves beaten half to death over "said-bookisms". Speaking verbs, basically. "Said" and "asked" are conditionally invisible. "Replied", "stated" and so forth are marginal. But words such as "interjected", "erupted" and of course that old favorite, "ejaculated", are intrusively strange except in instances of specific stylistic applicability. So:
"This is a said-bookism", intoned Maryam.

Writers resort to said-bookisms because the two conditionally invisible dialog tags lose their invisibility through overuse. Especially structurally invariant overuse. In other words, tennis match dialog. So:
"Hello," said Maryam.
"Hi, there," said João.
"How are you doing?" said Maryam.
"I am fine," said João.
"May I press you to a candied starfish?" said Maryam.
"No, I am fasting for cultural reasons," said João.

We don't like that. Bad style, no biscuit.

Getting around that problem, which is fundamental to the early writings of people educated in English at least (I can't comment on other languages) is part of the education of a writer. There are several basic techniques.

One is the judicious use of said-bookisms. There's nothing wrong with the occasional "interjected" or "queried" or something, so long as the word also carries some story weight, and does not draw undue attention to itself. (Note that you get to use the speaking verb "ejaculated" precisely once in your entire professional career, otherwise we will all come to your home and mock you.) So:
"Hello," said Maryam.
"Hi, there," replied João.
"How are you doing?" asked Maryam.
"I am fine," said João.
"May I press you to a candied starfish?" offered Maryam.
"No, I am fasting for cultural reasons," exclaimed João.

Still pretty stilted, but not quite so irksome as before.

We can also employ variant structure to break up the flow of the text and provide a little more rhythm to the dialog. Varying the structure can also shift the emphasis on individual lines. So:
Maryam said, "Hello."
"Hi, there," replied João.
"How are you doing?" asked Maryam.
"I am fine," João said.
Maryam offered, "May I press you to a candied starfish?".
"No, I am fasting for cultural reasons," João exclaimed.

Also pretty stilted, but again, not quite so irksome.

Now we can introduce blocking or action to indicate dialog, further easing the style crunch. So:
Maryam waved. "Hello."
"Hi, there," replied João.
"How are you doing?" asked Maryam.
"I am fine." João smiled.
Maryam held out a small crystal dish. "May I press you to a candied starfish?".
Hands flying up in apparent panic, João replied, "No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!"

Once we have a flow of dialog established, we can start omitting speaker referents and trust the reader to follow along. So:
Maryam waved. "Hello."
"Hi, there," replied João.
"How are you doing?"
"I am fine."
She held out a small crystal dish. "May I press you to a candied starfish?".
João's hands flew up in apparent panic. "No, I am fasting for cultural reasons!"

Even better is dialog where each character's voice is sufficiently distinctive that the tags aren't needed except to keep the reader occasionally reminded of who's got the ball in the serve-and-volley of the dialog. So:
Maryam waved. "Greetings."
"Yo, dawg," replied João.
"And how do you find yourself today?"
"Chillin', not illin'."
She proffered a small crystal dish. "Might I press you to a candied starfish?".
"Hell, no! I ain't eating that shit."

One of the suggestions I made to my student group at the conference was to write a scene between a crusty, retired professor of classics from some major university in New York City riding in a taxi with a youthful recent Somali immigrant cab driver. After some basic blocking and character setting, you really shouldn't have to tag that dialog at all. The differences in generations, cultural perspective and speech register should provide ample distinction.

For a bonus, write that scene twice, once from the cab driver's perspective, and once from the professor's perspective. What kinds of things does the cab driver notice and look for? What kinds of things does the professor notice and look for? How can you work those into dialog?

Your thoughts?

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User: mevennen
Date: 2012-07-30 13:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have given several groups the episode in Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals in which Larry finds that a matchbox contains a scorpion, subsequently released onto the dining table with all her babies. There are initial dialog tags, but then the tags all drop out and I got the students to tell me who was speaking (there are 5 characters and the dog). 10 out of 10 every time, because Durrell's ability to reproduce voice is so strong.
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Kate Schaefer: First Icon
User: kate_schaefer
Date: 2012-07-30 15:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:First Icon
Because I am perverse and because Ray Lafferty used to write that way all the time and make it work somehow, I liked the first iteration of that dialog the best. Lafferty was a twisted genius; most people can't turn "stilted" into "cue the brain to expect utterly weird alternate reality."

Good on you for reminding me of Lafferty.
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Jay Lake: funny-buddahomer
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-07-30 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
:: laughing ::
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User: mcjulie
Date: 2012-07-30 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Editors and writing groups, in my experience, hate said bookisms with the burning passion of a thousand suns. One of the jarring things about the prose in Twilight is an abundance of these, as demonstrated here: http://reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.com/tagged/dialogue_tags

It makes me wonder. Editors and people in writing groups read a lot, and very attentively -- does that make them supremely intolerant of things that the average reader doesn't give a hoot about?

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Jay Lake: writing-bookmobile
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-07-30 15:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
does that make them supremely intolerant of things that the average reader doesn't give a hoot about?

Absolutely. Readers only care about two things, character and plot. It's the rest of fiction professionals who care about all that other crap. ;)
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jere7my: Glasses
User: jere7my
Date: 2012-07-30 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's also an easy rule to internalize, like "Avoid the passive voice" and "Don't split infinitives," which means it's got a convenient and prominent handle for when someone in a writing group is casting about for the fourth of five criticisms they've been asked to provide.
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User: tillyjane
Date: 2012-07-30 19:49 (UTC)
Subject: hold it there buddy, there are discerning readers...
Ill abort a book faster for clunky writing than for poor plotting...Character is of course everything.
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houseboatonstyx: smaller-healing-buddha
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2012-07-30 19:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Didn't Rowling use a lot of them too? And adverbs.
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Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2012-07-30 17:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
LOVE this exercise! And LOVE that series of examples :>
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2012-07-30 17:51 (UTC)
Subject: Jay Lake on Dialog Tags and Said-Bookisms
User deborahjross referenced to your post from Jay Lake on Dialog Tags and Said-Bookisms saying: [...] Originally posted by at [process] Dialog tags [...]
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User: deborahjross
Date: 2012-07-30 17:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great explanation!

I should add that editors vary in their own tolerance for different types of dialog tags. I like using blocking action, especially when it's not busyness but actually does something like advancing the plot, providing a necessary clue to a mystery, or revealing character.
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User: cissa
Date: 2012-07-30 20:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm a reader, not a writer.

That being said, I HATEhatehate dialog that has too few tags and lacks distinctive enough voices so that i literally have to go back to the last tag and COUNT in order to figure out who's saying what!
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houseboatonstyx: smaller-healing-buddha
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2012-07-31 02:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes. Better too many tags than too few.
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User: saveswhat
Date: 2012-07-31 04:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm curious how one gets pressed to a candied starfish.
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User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-07-31 07:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
First, one is a starfish. Then one gets dried. Then pressed between the pages of a heavy book to become a dried pressed starfish. Lastly one is suspended in a sugar solution to become a pressed candied starfish. Simple.
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Gary Emenitove
User: garyomaha
Date: 2012-07-31 13:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not so simple. That's the old recipe from _Betty Crocker's Book of Home Starfish Dishes_ in the late 60s. The latest copy of "Starfish World" magazine outlined the many ways this has evolved, including lo-cal candied starfish, gluten-free starfish, and my favorite, vegetarian starfish (where startofu is substituted).
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User: thecoughlin
Date: 2012-07-31 11:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Mostly a reader - not dedicated/driven enough to be a writer but this was an explanation made of pure win. If the voice is distinct enough, that is the type of dialogue that builds the characters and plot that we the masses care about....
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Reynardo the Red
User: reynardo
Date: 2012-08-01 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm a student teacher, assisting in a Year 1 class (5, 6 and 7 year olds). And what class have we just had in writing?

"Don't used SAID!"

They're right at the beginning of this article, and being taken to step 2. I hope that, one day, I'll see them at the "untagged" stage.
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