Dialogue tagging for students

Students can produce powerful and enchanting tales. However, in the same ways that artists must learn techniques and understand their palettes, writing students need to be introduced to writing elements and understand their strengths and weaknesses. It is far too easy for students to become discouraged when comparing their work to published books. Well, let's help them with some basic but deep features. This time, we are going to explore who said what.

 
 

Why are tags used?

Well, many of us are told it is because we need to know who is speaking. In the example below, how many people do you think are speaking?

"Where should I put it?"
"Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you."

Could it be four, three, two or even one? What if it isn't a person? It might be a dog talking to a goldfish. So, we want to know who is talking.

"Where should I put it?" said Sam.
Kim said, "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?" said Sam.
"Behind you." Kim said.

Now we know who has spoken, but wow, that dialogue is dull.

 

But that looks boring.

Why would someone only use said? Isn't it boring? Doesn't repeated use of said suggest a limited vocabulary? A trick many authors use is to rely on said. By using said almost exclusively, it fades into the background. However, if you want to do this, a good first step is to remove tags where it is clear who is speaking. So if there are only two people in the scene...  

"Where should I put it?" said Sam.
Kim said, "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you."

The reader assumes each new set of speech is a different speaker, and so they carry on with the pattern indicated in the first two lines. We don't need to use said anywhere near as much. Are we all done?

 

You asked?

We want our writers to show off their vocabulary. So what do we do? We tell them to use a variety of dialogue tags.

"Where should I put it?" asked Sam.
Kim demanded, "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?" enquired Sam.
"Behind the door." stated Kim.

We have a speech verb that adds variety. Are there any benefits? Well, specific verbs help create an image in the reader's mind. Are there any costs? By using many verbs, we bring attention to them and that can take the reader out of the story.

How can we fix this? 'Somewhere far away from me' is clearly a demand. Let's dump demanded. Enquired also calls attention to itself. If we wanted Sam to appear formal, it might fit.

 "Where should I put it?" asked Sam.
Kim said, "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you." shrieked Kim.

Shrieked changed the mood right away. Here, the verb choice has impact.

 

Making a Move

Our characters aren't robots. People move all the time and we can use their movements to provide details that bring the characters to life. 

 "Where should I put it?" asked Sam as she hefted the cardboard box.
Kim raised his trembling hand. "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny. Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you." shrieked Kim.

 

The white room

We have no idea about the setting. When a scene occurs, but we have no details, we call this a white room. It might as well be blank — I'm reminded of that scene in the Matrix. Let's get to work.

The office door slammed shut, silencing the late night traffic.
"Where should I put it?" asked Sam as she hefted the cardboard box.
Kim raised his trembling hand. "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny." Cardboard gave way with a wet slurp, followed by a skitter of claws on wooden boards. "Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you." shrieked Kim.

.

 

Head Case

For a finishing touch, let's get behind the eyeballs of our point of view characters. In this scene, it's Sam and we can help clarify his second line of dialogue while also explaining his state of mind.

The office door slammed shut, silencing the late night traffic.
"Where should I put it?" asked Sam as she hefted the cardboard box.
Kim raised his trembling hand. "Somewhere far away from me."
"Very funny." Wasn't he such a kidder? Cardboard gave way with a wet slurp, followed by a skitter of claws on wooden boards. "Oh, where did it go?"
"Behind you." shrieked Kim.

 

your turn

Time to give your dialogue tips a whirl. Here's a few activities to practise:

  • Take an excerpt from a book and change the tags. How different can you make the story?

  • Demonstrate a character's age without specifically saying whether they are young or old.

  • Experiment with overdoing the tags. What happens to the pace of the scene?

Challenge question:

  • Are there any implications when you have three or more characters speaking in a scene?

 

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