Are dialogue tags really that bad?

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Leila
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Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Leila » February 28th, 2010, 12:04 am

Hi everyone

I know this issue has been discussed in different places across the forums and it certainly came up again in Nathan's Friday post, so forgive me for going over it again, but...

This subject to me feels a bit like the use of adverbs. There are rules, and then there's what works for your story. I get the point of keeping them to a minimum, about them interrupting the flow of the dialogue, distracting the reader etc. So the theory makes sense. No problem.

My question is, in all the well written (uh oh, subjective term I realize) novels you've read, has the use of dialogue tags lessened your reading experience in any way? If so, how? What annoyed you?

I know some of you will probably say that well written novels don't have any (or many) but I'd like to ask the question anyway. I'm sure we can all name a few high profile authors who have indeed used them, apparently to good effect, in terms of reaching readers at least.

If used in moderation, like everything else in life, can they enhance rather than detract from the overall feel of a story?

Also, I'd like to use a very basic example to test with the group.

Which of the following appeals to you more: (not from a craft perspective but from a reader's perspective)

"Stand up," the officer said.

"Stand up," the officer ordered.

I suspect the split will not be even on this one but let me test it anyway.

Thanks

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E McD
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by E McD » February 28th, 2010, 12:47 am

This is one of those rules I think is subjective. I like the variety of word choice. I know people are going to say that the dialogue should explain everything, but it's a lot like chewing someone out in an email - where is the inflection? You get no tone, you know? I look at adverbs and speech/dialogue tags almost like stage directions or emotions in parentheses. Of course you should amp up your dialogue, of course you should try at all costs to SHOW not tell, but damn it, what's wrong with a little flair?! I can honest to God promise you I've never read a novel and thought to myself, "How dare Author X use the word panted instead of said," you know?

"The key with this, as any good thing in life, is moderation - and don't use it as a cop-out for ineffectual dialogue," Emily warned.

-xo
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tameson
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by tameson » February 28th, 2010, 12:52 am

I read through some of my fav books and looked at dialogue tags. Lots of muttering, whispering, shouting, ordering, growling, etc. I think it worked, because I didn't notice it until I was actively looking for it. I thought it was all part of building the scene. However, none of the books I looked at were first novels within the past two years (first novels within the past ten, but not two). Ultimately, I am not so attached to the tags that I wouldn't drop them to get published, but right now, if it is the best word, it is what I use. One thing I found ridiculous was people trying to avoid whisper when volume mattered but was not obvious from the scene. You can't say said softly, because that is an adverb and so you end with said in a soft voice. At that point, whispered seems so clearly preferable. There are different feels to each one but said in a soft voice is pretty wordy considering whispered would sum it up in one.

Leila
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Leila » February 28th, 2010, 1:14 am

I agree that moderation is one key element, and maybe fit for purpose is another. If the tag fits the tone or mood, won't it be invisible anyway?

Maybe it also depends on what kind of writing style you have? Or if, for example, the story has a strong emotional bend to it, perhaps then the use of (some) more expressive tags are not so much out of place?

Maybe it depends on your background too?

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Jaime
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Jaime » February 28th, 2010, 2:49 am

Tag away, baby!

I'm with you, Emily! "I like my reading to have some emotion, damn it!" she yelled, thumping her fist on the table. Maybe I don't want to imagine how they're saying things. He said, she said, blah, blah, blah - I feel like I'm watching a Miffy episode (for those not in the know, it's a cartoon about a bunny, narrated in the most passive voice I've ever heard).

I did see Nathan's post about dialogue tags (with the Top Gun example), and I have to admit, I liked the option that wasn't "he said". If I read a novel like that, I might as well imagine Ferris Bueller's teacher as the narrator.

Kniki
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Kniki » February 28th, 2010, 7:30 am

I think they are okay to use, and I also like adverbs occasionally! To me, the only place it leaps out is when there are several short lines of dialogue, each with a different dialogue tag. As long as they are peppered through the text judiciously, I don't find it a problem. What I find more difficult is when certain authors neglect to include any dialogue tags for pages at a time, so you have to follow the thread of the conversation back to the last time a name was mentioned to work out who is saying what! (and there are some very respected literary authors guilty of this!)
Last edited by Kniki on February 28th, 2010, 8:19 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Bryan Russell/Ink
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » February 28th, 2010, 7:38 am

You are all killing me. KILLING me. If you weren't all so charming I'd be very depressed.
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by LGS » February 28th, 2010, 10:24 am

Ink wrote:You are all killing me. KILLING me. If you weren't all so charming I'd be very depressed.
Ink uttered dismally before scurrying off to stuff his head under a pillow. :-)

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polymath
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by polymath » February 28th, 2010, 10:58 am

Written-word narratives require readily accessible, seamlessly invisible dialogue attribution so readers know who's speaking without an overly intrusive narrator telling who's speaking. That's the balance at issue.

As invisible as said is, over-repetition makes it tediously visible. Providentially, attributions of the said varieties are only one of many, many methods for dialogue attribution.

Action tags, as they are widely known, are an alternative method for attributing dialogue through depicting a speaking character in action while speaking. Action tags obviate a need for said attributions altogether. Beats is a loan word from playwriting that is similar in meaning to action tag. A "beat" from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: "[Enter Romeo.]"

Other varieties of dialogue attribution include the assortment of narrative-writing modes: depiction, introspection, action, narration, emotion, sensation, summarization, exposition, conversation, recollection, explanation, transition; mnemonic: DIANE'S SECRET. Note the words' noun suffixes resonate with attribution's -ion.

Any given dialogue attribution can serve one or more distinguishable purposes, but not necessarily be isolated as one sole method.

"He said," for example, is a depiction of a speaking action attribution, a narration, a summarization, an exposition, an explanation, at least. "She thought," for example, is an introspection action attribution instead of a speaking action attribution.

When only two characters are engaged in a heated conversation, attribution might be unnecessary due to a rapid-fire exchange. However, who's speaking and in what order need to be established up front.

The rhetorical concept of method of delivery and message harmony is a useful tool for gauging, how much, when, and what type of attribution best suits any given dialogue line.
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Lorelei Armstrong
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Lorelei Armstrong » February 28th, 2010, 11:41 am

I find them hideous, but carry on. I have plenty of great books to read from award-winning writers that don't use them.

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Bryan Russell/Ink
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » February 28th, 2010, 12:02 pm

Lol, Lgs. I feel slightly dirty now.
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Whirlochre
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Whirlochre » February 28th, 2010, 1:56 pm

I get very confused by long passages of dialogue without tags.

Plus, if I want to witness people just speaking, I'll go and watch a play.

It's true that tags used badly are annoyingly visible, and elaborate variations on the theme of 'said' moreso, but my take is that since these words exist, we may use them.
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Kniki
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Kniki » February 28th, 2010, 5:10 pm

I teach ten year olds and I have to teach them to use as many different dialogue tags and adverbs as possible! At a meeting I did try to explain that this is not such a good idea but no one would listen to me!

tameson
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by tameson » February 28th, 2010, 5:19 pm

Kniki, for standardized testing, I cringe when I have to tell the kids to replace said and use more adverbs, which is why I usually stick to the math side. :) But that is what the test grades on and the company I tutor for wants the students to do well so we teach to the test. While I think in general, there is a place for everything, the fact that we teach people to replace indiscriminately is why it has become such a big no- no. Too many bad examples makes it hard to remember that good examples exist. Kinda like the whole never start a story with a character waking up. Sanderson does it in Elantris and that is a great opening, but the thousands of others who try it do so badly, making it easier to just say don't do it.

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polymath
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by polymath » February 28th, 2010, 7:08 pm

In my grammar school days, the nuns had ironclad rules and steel rulers to beat the points of grammar into students' heads. Don't do this, don't do that. No opening a sentence with a conjunction word. No conjunction spliced sentences. No passive voice. No variant syntax. No. No. No. I got over it when I wrote creatively.

There are several disturbing characteristics of standardized testing requiring rigid dialogue attribution standards and indiscriminate adverb usage. Someone somewhere is applying a totalitarian and regressive standard for personal preference reasons.

Text with rigid dialogue attribution and adverb usage is machine readable and gradeable, making managing test grading easier. However, machines don't have feelings, can't respond emotionally to artfully written texts. Pea green emotionless soup will be all the students of today will be equipped to write in the future.

An entire twelve years of education learning how to conform to arbitrary grammar rules doesn't teach students how to learn on their own and think critically and creatively for themselves.

I'm saddened creative minds are being stifled, saddened for any who choose to break away from the pack who will suffer the slings and arrows of groupthink discord, saddened they will have to reinvent the creative writing wheel as best they can, when they can.
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