Amazing Dialogue Tags and Life

24 Jan
cactus antlers

cactus antlers

Written Jan. 17, one week ago:  Our freezing snap is over at last.  Temps have risen back to where we like them.  My daughter Rebecca snapped this goofy pic of us on one of the Catalina trails.  (She’s the one with the hair.)

Three weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I worked on an essay about foods that have lived in my mind over all these years: dog biscuits, fancy Jello salads, the first cherry pie I made, the Christmas chili con carne, one particular green pepper.

The parts I added to the essay that sleepless night were about my cancer.  My Tucson writer’s group liked the new section, suggested I put a bit of it at the beginning and make the rest the new ending.  My Corvallis group also liked the new writing and suggested I reduce the middle by a thousand words.  (A good idea, darn it.)

How could I write an essay about what I put into my body over 70 years and leave out carboplatin and taxol?

Tomorrow (January 18) I go again to the U of A Cancer Center, a building surrounded by gardens planted with prickly pears, barrel cactus, cholla, and palo verde trees, plus benches where you sit in the sun and build up courage to go inside.

After meeting with my gynecological oncologist, I’ll proceed to the infusion center upstairs, get settled in a comfy recliner and get hooked up for saline, more steroids, anti-nausea drugs, an hour or so of carbo, and then antihistamines followed a few hours of taxol.  As you can see, half the infusions are to protect me from the toxic chemo.  Jerry and I will talk and play cribbage.  I’ll knit, read, sleep, think.  We’ll talk with people who have much worse cancers than I.  They help us keep things in perspective.

Important note from today.  On the 18th, we discovered that the chemo is really working for me.  My numbers once again decreased by more than half.  Good news.

I’d rather be chatting here about writing, so let’s get to it.

The Power of Dialogue

In memoir or fiction, once you get your people talking, your story will come to life.  When readers sit in on actual discussions, arguments, or repartee, they are transported out of their own worlds into the world you have created.

Writing good dialogue is not easy.  (Is ANY part of good writing easy?)

In my workshops, we cover three areas:

1) The technical rules of how to place quotation marks, periods and commas.

2) How to sculpt the spoken words – making them sound natural, making them “say” more than is on the surface.   Elmore Leonard is my guru for this.

3) The craft of writing dialogue tags – those words that tell us who is doing the talking.

Let’s save everything else for another day.  For now, let’s look only at tags.

What’s The Point of Tags? 

They identify who is speaking.  Well yes, we already knew that.  But there’s more.
They characterize the speaker through gestures, posture, actions, tone of voice, and thoughts.
They add tension.  Mood.
They move the plot forward.
They give information.

When Must We Use a Tag?

Whenever the reader might get confused about who is speaking.  In a story for adults, we can write many dialogue exchanges without using tags.  In a story for children who read more slowly and with more effort, we need to give more cues.  Simple tags let us know when Cassandra is speaking, and when it is her twin sister Cleo.

Does it Always Have to be “He Said”?

“Said” gets the job done.  Believe me, the reader will hardly notice it.  On the other hand, if we get inventive and use synonyms for “said” such as “exhorted,” “exclaimed,” “enunciated,” “articulated,” “cajoled,” the reader immediately starts noticing the fancy synonyms more than WHAT is being said.  Stick to simple tags of “said,” “replied,” “answered,” “asked,” or an occasional “whispered” or “called.”  They work just fine.

It’s a temptation to write lines of dialogue with few tags.  But if we do, we often end up with the “white room” syndrome of voices nattering on in a place that has no weather, no sense of what year it is, no furniture or props, and worst of all, the characters wear NO CLOTHES!

Get Creative; Have Fun! Use Descriptive Tags

Descriptive tags identify the speaker,  and add a gesture or action.


“You have crossed the line,” Jack said, leaping off his horse and drawing  his antique sword.  [If we’d stopped after the word “said” we wouldn’t know about the horse or the sword.]

“Let’s play,” Noah said as he tugged on my sleeve, pulling me toward the broken train set. [Same for the train – a broken one, poor kid.]

“I will never forget your kindness,” Celia said as she tucked the tattered lace handkerchief into her cleavage.

“Thanks for nothing,” Dana said, brandishing a bunch of celery and forcing  her cart in front of mine in the Trader Joe’s checkout line.

We need to avoid stupid action that doesn’t characterize.  (I do this all the time and have to fix it later.)  My character nods, smiles, stands, sits (gestures any hack writer could come up with).  My stories start out with a cast of bobble heads!  Later, I turn those nods into something more interesting.  Nodding, smiling, etc. do little work for us.  They are a waste of paper.  Besides that, they indicate agreement — always boring.

From my examples, we see props and gestures and clothing show something about the character.  Take a look at the descriptive tags and see what you can deduce about age, agility, poverty, attitude, culture, and setting.  All this is a good start, but as we continue to layer, we’ll also try to incorporate clues about mood, tension, and plot direction.

Each tag should be worth the space it’s taking on the page.

Go Further!

Gestural tags are complete sentences — descriptive tags without the “said.”  You will recognize them whenever you see a complete sentence – one that identifies the speaker just as all good tags should do.  These give the reader a break from those descriptive tags that tend to have the same rhythm of using the word “said” and the comma.

Examples of gestural tags:

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s trembling hands thrust out the dirty bowl.

“Believe me, Madam, I will never forget your kindness.”  She wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief that had seen better days.

“You dumb jerk.  You crossed the line.”  Nathan brandished his antique sword and leaned close.

Placement of Tags

Clever things you can do with tags go on and on.  Choose the kind of tag you want to use (simple, descriptive, gestural) and then play around with where in the speech to place it.

Really?  Really!  This makes a huge difference!

Let’s play with the gestural tags above, bearing in mind that you can do this placement thing with all three kinds of tags.

“My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl. [Tag placed last]

The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.   “My baby’s starving.  Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed first.  Does one sound better than the other? Maybe.]

“My baby’s starving.”  The beggar’s hands trembled as he held out his bowl.  “Help me, for God’s sake.”  [Tag placed in the middle.  Did something happen to the emphasis of his speech?  Definitely, better.]

Try this again, placing the tag after “Help me”  and before “For God’s sake.”

Is this trial and error worth doing?  Yes, it is.  Separating speech by tags tends to add strength or emphasis to certain lines especially to the one at the end.  Take a look at your own writing.  Circle each tag.  Can you make the tags more interesting, more “telling, ” can you  make them do more work?  Can you change their placement to add emphasis to certain words?

Writing Exercises For You

TO DO:  In your writing, find simple tags and rewrite them into descriptive tags or gestural tags.  Try giving your characters a task to perform as they speak.

TO DO:  Break up speeches that seem too long by placing significant gestures and actions – ones that do work – into the middle of them.

TO DO:  Comb through your writing to find “nodding and smiling” actions that are lazy.  Replace them with powerful tags.

TO DO:  Add layers of significant, specific details in your tags.  They help you show the reader, by allowing him or her to participate in your story.  The more your reader can fill in the significance of the grimy lace handkerchief, the broken-down toy train, the hostile shopper, the more alive your writing has become

Writing Prompt

Loosely taken from Bernays & Painter’s “What If?”

Write a scene of two people having a tense discussion – one worth eavesdropping on — one with five or six exchanges.  Perhaps one person is disclosing a secret, betraying a confidence, trying to smooth something over, or lying.  Important:  Give at least one of the speakers a task, chopping onions, cutting the other person’s hair, trying on swim suits, or whatever you think of.

Use all three kinds of tags if you can or use no tag at all, wherever it’s best.

Maybe Mark’s fingers can tighten around that knife; maybe the chopping will grow in intensity as the conversation escalates; maybe tears will fall that have nothing to do with the onions.

Let us see Maria’s scissors clip the air near her daughter’s ear as she makes a point.  Let us see her stop to kiss the blonde ringlet she’s just removed.

Let us see Irene tug at the bottom of the swim suit or fling one that’s too small over the dressing room door.  Who’s she talking with?  Are they friends, or enemies?  The undercurrents of their dialogue will make this clear.

If your exercise is no more than 300 words, I’d like to see it.  Want to send something to me?


8 Responses to “Amazing Dialogue Tags and Life”

  1. mfrances stilwell January 24, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    I’ll study this more, later but mostly am glad to her form yu. I was ready to write and say, “What’s up?”

    Have you discovered teh author, Peter Bowen? He writes wonderful dialogue (and thoughts) typifying the Metis (voyageurs, indian-Fench-Scottish) who live in Montana. My present editor Be herrera and iIkeep books by him moving on and off the shelves in the Corvallis Library.

    I’m gld you are better off than some others in the chemo lab 🙂 and that Becca can be there with you some of the time.Liz Frankle just read Bessie, said it was charming, and Dr Urkila’s wife told me today she hadn’t known Bessie was “into” plants until reading the book. I met Mrs. Urk8ila today at Timb erhill for the first time. apparently the book mde a dent on her from 2000 as she came up with her recollection unsolicited.

    Bessie had a great=great-grandchild last week.

    Keep up your good spirit. It keeps ours up.


    • annewarrensmith January 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      I’m sorry you were worried. The reason I’ve been silent lately is due to chemo fatigue. I should have sent this to post BEFORE chemo. I tend to wait, thinking I can make it better. It’s that old perfection thing.

  2. Mike Kinch January 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm #

    Fun photo of you and Rebecca! I envy the blue skies–something we haven’t seen in weeks. So glad the cancer news is better. 🙂

    • annewarrensmith January 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Hey Mike, How’s your book coming? Off to the editor?

  3. Ann Marie Etheridge January 25, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    This could not have been more timely!!!! 3:41 AM and I will likely be up most of the night revising a very sensitive chapter of my memoir where the dialogue is quite critical!!! Shall I share a before-and after example????

    • annewarrensmith January 25, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      Yes, do share the before and after. I’d love to see some of your writing.

  4. Mar February 13, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    So that you know the power of your blog, I have to let you know that this post got me writing again! I am nearly ready to submit my short story titled “Patchwork” that you helped me with a long time ago. While looking it over and analyzing dialog, i found several other simple little ways to make it better. Nice to know that you can always get back to your writing if it gets away from you for a while. My best to you, Anne. Always!

    • annewarrensmith February 13, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

      Mar, I’m so glad you’re writing again. It’s good to hear from you.

Comments? Yes, please.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: