Are dialogue tags really that bad?

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JustineDell
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by JustineDell » February 28th, 2010, 8:46 pm

LGS wrote:
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. :-)
HAHAHAHAHAHA

Personally, I'm like Jaime - I like them. *ducks head from Ink* However, because of everything I've been told about them, I try to use them in moderation. "Trust your reader to know from the dialogue how they are talking/feeling/reacting etc" Bummer...but I try to obey. I'm pretty dramatic at times, so that tends to come out in my writing. When I first write, they are like everywhere. It's only through the re-write and such that they are found and removed. (And the wonderful beta reader can point them out too)

Just like all good things...use in moderation ;-)

~JD

http://www.justine-dell.blogspot.com/

"Three things in life that, once gone, never return; Time, Words, & Opportunity"

BlancheKing
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by BlancheKing » February 28th, 2010, 8:50 pm

I'd actually disagree with the stifling of the creative mind and totalitarian grammar-school restrictions. Given a spectrum of development, all minds are creative , so that's not the issue here.

As for the grammar-school restrictions... while some are overly restrictive (book-saidisms), passive voice is annoying when action is involved, and spliced sentences do lead to atrociously long sentences. I think sometimes people are forgetting that many of these rules were established not to hinder creativity, but to prevent chaos. Unless of course, "creativity" is now an euphemism for "I don't want to work hard to learn the rules but I should be recognized anyway because my high school teacher told me that I matter".
One manuscript, One dream, One stack of stamps that needs to be bought...
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Leila
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Leila » March 1st, 2010, 12:13 am

Ink wrote:You are all killing me. KILLING me. If you weren't all so charming I'd be very depressed.
Sorry to make you feel that way. Can you please help me understand why this issue makes you feel so desperately unhappy? Lol - on the seriously unhappy bit. I'm sure the world is just not that tragic for you.

Seriously though, do the use of tags kill you because of your educational background? Or because you just don't think they have a place in the universe?

Does that mean you've never read a book where you think they were used to good effect?

I'm not asking to be annoying, I'm truly curious. Whenever I read about this issue, it always draws such strong reactions, and yet I see such high profile authors using them, again, and again, and again.....

Thanks

PaulWoodlin
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by PaulWoodlin » March 1st, 2010, 4:16 am

It is so weird when I read about nit-picky rules like this. I feel like books are being judged by the things I care the least about, mostly by editors and critics rather than the general audience. Give me a good character in an interesting story and I won't even notice if if the writer uses the occasional saidism. So again, it's back to precision of meaning and importance of the event when you decide how many words and which words you choose to describe something.

I think it is a good point that the Internet shows how easy it is for people to look at a sentence and wonder, was that character being snide or serious? Flippent or insulting? I really hate it when someone types an interest post that I find incredibly insulting and they follow it with a ;) as if a jokey face makes it okay.

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charlotte49ers
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by charlotte49ers » March 1st, 2010, 9:44 am

I teach elementary school, too, and we teach adverbs, dialogue tags (aside from said), and adjective usage when they write. But the reasoning is that they have to start somewhere. Description and detail is a really hard concept for a lot of them, so it gets them thinking in the right direction. Describing how those emotions look is difficult for a nine year old. Heck, it's hard enough to get them to say someone is something other than happy!

I think in middle and high school is when this should really be pushed (even late elementary, like fifth), but writing is so hard for them at this age, for some reason. Scaffolding the instruction helps with the big picture, but the older grades have to be on board to push them beyond the beginning stages of writing.

Now, as for the original question, I think dialogue tags are fine if used sparingly, but it needs to be in the right context. Like, if you have someone say something simply and you don't want to clog up the flow with a ton of description, then it's all right.

But most of the time, you can get across the tone through description.

"Stop right there," she yelled.

"Stop right there!" Her voice ricocheted off of the ceiling causing everyone in the room to stare.

Crappy example, but you get the point.
Last edited by charlotte49ers on March 2nd, 2010, 11:14 am, edited 1 time in total.

LGS
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by LGS » March 1st, 2010, 10:24 am

Adverbs and obtrusive dialogue tags are like twinkies. Sure, they taste good and it's fine to have one or two once in awhile. But don't think you can sit down and eat a box of them and not pay the consequences. They'll make you fat, and they will not sustain you.

Said is like water. You can't live without it.

Of course you can use uttered, or yelled, or called out, but don't give me decried, or bellowed, or sighed. It just looks amateurish.

matildamcc
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by matildamcc » March 1st, 2010, 10:53 am

I think dialogue tags ARE really bad--if possible don't use them. You should probably write "Stand up." Then include a "beat"--something about what the character is doing. "Stand up," he ordered sounds redundant. If you want to be convinced about this, read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. Just use "said"--it blends in and the reader doesn't notice it--or use beats--or write a string of dialogue without tags if it's two people talking.

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Lorelei Armstrong
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Lorelei Armstrong » March 1st, 2010, 10:56 am

Run an experiment: take a chapter of your writing and remove all dialogue tags and adverbs. Re-read that chapter. I promise you'll never go back.

Kniki
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Kniki » March 1st, 2010, 12:31 pm

I'll take you up on that experiment! Will report back on my findings later.

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

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » March 1st, 2010, 12:39 pm

Lol, Leila.

Okay, I admit I don't lose sleep over the problem at night. :) Nor will I be likely to actually die if you all continue to use these techniques (well, maybe just a little...). But since you've actually invited a rant from me...

Yes, everything has it's place. There are times when it may not be possible for the dialogue to carry all the weight, or it might be innapropriate to insert an action beat. And there's more leeway, let's say, with kids and YA writing. Less experienced readers might gain some benefit from further authorial guidance.

But for adult readers, beyond the rare and specific instance, I think there's craft problems with the technique. Yes, some big-selling authors do it. But they're not big-selling because they do it, but in spite of the fact that they do it. If you do lots of other things well, you can be forgiven that certain elements lack in subtlety. The better you are at some things the more leeway you have with others. And, of course, some readers will never notice one way or the other. But some will. So, to me, it comes down to the difference between "good enough" writing and "good" writing.

So, yes, there are specific instances where it will be effective. Use with discretion. But in general I think it's often a little awkward and some people will notice. Not all. Maybe not even most. It depends on how much you care about that other percent of readers, whatever it might be. Do you want it as smooth and effective as possible? Or good enough for the general reader? Some writers will care greatly about that difference, while others will care very little.

The first problem with the technique is that it's a bit of a band-aid technique. You write a bit of dialogue. You select a dialogue tag to clarify emotional tone. That's not terrible. It works, in a sense. It's functional. But what you're doing is missing an opportunity to interrogate that dialogue. Does it work? Could it work better? It's a lazy solution. Instead of pushing that dialogue, the writing, to be the best it can be, you put on a band-aid to cover up the problem. As a reader you don't want the narrator to explain what's happening. You want to hear and see it. You want to be inside the story, not hearing about it. You want to be inside the dream vision, and such dialogue tags are authorial intrusions. Very, very minor ones, yes, but they can break that dream vision, even if only momentarily. They're little stutters in the flow of the narrative.

In a sense, it's a technique with a particular side effect of distancing the reader. It's less immediate, less visceral. It's a little aside by the author: "oh, by the way, he's angry..."

But what if you already know he's angry? For my last point I'm gonna use Jaime's funny line as my guinea pig (sorry Jaime! Figured you wouldn't mind since it was just a jokey line)

"I like my reading to have some emotion, damn it!" she yelled, thumping her fist on the table.

This made me laugh, but if we look at it from the point of view of actual dialogue you'll see something interesting. That is, the dialogue tag isn't really doing anything. We have a thumping fist, an obvious marker for emotion. And then we have the line itself. It's sharp, strong. Decisive hook at the end with the invective. Pop! And then we have the punctuation, in this case an exclamation mark, which indicates someone is loudly exclaiming something (in other words, shouting or yelling, etc.). So what is the dialogue tag doing? Nothing that hasn't already been accomplished more effectively. What we have here is not weak dialogue that needs to be propped up by a dialogue tag... but rather a perfectly fine bit of dialogue that doesn't need anything at all. It's already there.

So often, I think, dialogue tags are redundant. And not only does that redundancy lead to a more cluttered and inelegant feeling, it also talks down to the reader. Unintentionally, most of the time, but it's there, a sort of subtext: the author doesn't trust the reader's ability to read properly. And this isn't a particularly good thing to subliminally suggest to your reader. Hey, I wrote a loud bit of dialogue, with loud punctuation and a loud action... but you're too much of a dunce to get it, probably, so I'll just tell you outright. It's loud!"

It's like going to a museum. The paintings are hanging on the wall. You see them, you have some sort of emotional/intellectual response to them... but what if someone is standing there and saying "Oh, this is very modernist and you should be feeling a little claustrophobic right now, a little on edge, a little out of sorts, and yet still aesthetically pleased and a little in awe..."? You wouldn't be appreciative, most likely. You can look at the painting and make an assessment yourself. It's right there.

Same goes for the writing. It's right there. It shouldn't need to be shaped after the fact by a dialogue tag, just as you shouldn't need someone to tell you that there's some interesting use of colour in a painting. You should be able to see that for yourself. In writing, the more you see for yourself the more you're drawn into the story, the more you become a part of the story. The more seamless the writing the better. And dialogue tags are usually seams. Small and tight seams, often, but seams nonetheless.

So that's my take on the craft of dialogue tags. You did ask! I know, I know, if only you could take back that suggestion the world would be a sunnier, happier and more adverbial place...

:)

Best,
Ink
The Alchemy of Writing at www.alchemyofwriting.blogspot.com

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Scott
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Scott » March 1st, 2010, 4:29 pm

Lorelei Armstrong wrote:Run an experiment: take a chapter of your writing and remove all dialogue tags and adverbs. Re-read that chapter. I promise you'll never go back.
I disagree. I'd add them back where they improve the rhythm and keep things from sounding too academic or stilted. The key, I suppose, is knowing when to use "said" at all.

My father––a writer in his own right––puts commas before every "and" in a list. His reasoning: "by rule, it's never wrong". That doesn't mean it's right, either.

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E McD
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by E McD » March 1st, 2010, 5:48 pm

Ink wrote:
So that's my take on the craft of dialogue tags. You did ask! I know, I know, if only you could take back that suggestion the world would be a sunnier, happier and more adverbial place...
That was the most succinct and helpful explanation I've ever heard regarding dialogue tags. Not only do I get it, I'm going to be more mindful about their need. Nice analogies with the artwork and seams, too. A+

Hugs, Em
-Emily McDaniel

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eringayles
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by eringayles » March 1st, 2010, 10:06 pm

polymath wrote: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.
I teach what I must, but tell my students they must take risks: "C'mon, kids, make me clutch at my heart - kill the adverbs, use dialogue breaks(my term for action tags) try a few short sentences, and yep you're allowed to start a few with 'and' or 'but'.
The improved standard is impressive - and I'm talking ten-year-olds.
I can be an all-out hypocrite, though. When testing time knocks, I revise adverbs. Sad. . .

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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Leila » March 1st, 2010, 11:52 pm

[quote="LGS"]Adverbs and obtrusive dialogue tags are like twinkies. Sure, they taste good and it's fine to have one or two once in awhile. But don't think you can sit down and eat a box of them and not pay the consequences. They'll make you fat, and they will not sustain you.

Very good!

I love the diversity of expression in this thread.

Leila
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Re: Are dialogue tags really that bad?

Post by Leila » March 1st, 2010, 11:54 pm

matildamcc wrote:I think dialogue tags ARE really bad--if possible don't use them. You should probably write "Stand up." Then include a "beat"--something about what the character is doing. "Stand up," he ordered sounds redundant. If you want to be convinced about this, read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. Just use "said"--it blends in and the reader doesn't notice it--or use beats--or write a string of dialogue without tags if it's two people talking.

Thanks for your thoughts. Much appreciated.

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