Friday, October 31, 2014

A Mini Lesson about Dialogue and Action Tags

I am currenty leading a workshop called "Talent is Overrated." It is being held in the Pfau Library at CSUSB and is co-sponsored by Inlandia. At our last meeting one of the participants asked me to send out a mini lesson about dialogue in the next group email. This is a pretty basic lesson about dialogue and action tags, but I thought this would be a good place to share it.

One of my goals for NaNoWriMo, is to write a series of lessons about writing and surviving an MFA, so I will have a more expansive lesson about this later. In the mean time, here is a mini lesson about dialogue and action tags. 

(1) Most dialogue tags appear at the end of a sentence.

“Don’t say anything,” I whispered, continuing down the hallway. 

Remember to be careful about what verbs you use. The purpose of a dialogue tag is basic clarification about who is talking. You need to keep things clear for your reader, but the tag shouldn’t distract from the actual dialogue. Sometimes you can get away with he retorted, or she exclaimed. But these verbs can distract the reader. They take the attention away from the dialogue. And to be perfectly honest, the dialogue itself (or an action tag) should SHOW the reader that the character is giving an annoyed retort instead of TELLING them.

In the example above a verb like whispered is more acceptable because it is clarifying the volume. But even whispering can be overused. Once you have established that the dialogue is being whispered, you can return to the basic he said/ she said dialogue tag. 

* Remember, you do not need, nor should you use a dialogue tag at the end of every piece of dialogue. That is when “said” gets so annoying. 

(2) I hinted above that the most common dialogue tag is a simple - I said. 

“It’s fine,” I said.

Again, use them when needed to clarify who is talking. 

Such dialogue tags do not have to be delegated to the end of the paragraph. They can be placed in the middle of two pieces of dialogue as long as the dialogue is from the same person.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Don’t worry.” 

Remember, the larger the number of people talking in the scene, the more dialogue tags you need. If the conversation is between two people, you probably only need a dialogue tag every 4 lines or so. If three/four people are talking you will need them much more regularly. 

(3) Actions tags are a good way of breaking up the repetitive rhythm of too many of the basic he said/ she said/ I said dialogue tags. 

“We knew this might happen, Jenny.” Mr. Thompson’s head fell. “I told you to prepare yourself.” 

An action tag is exactly that. A short description of an action that the character is taking. 

In addition to clarifying who is talking, the action tag has the added benefit of setting the scene and/or developing a character. This is a fairly basic example, but we still learn a little something from the fact that Mr. Thompson’s head falls when he speaks. The dialogue would come across differently if he was running away, or holding someone back. 

Ok, that is my quick little mini lesson about dialogue and action tags. There are tons of articles on the subject all over the internet. Please feel free to research. I encourage it.  Just remember to take it slow. You don’t want, or need, to interrupt your process by worrying too much about the nit picky rules. Mistakes can always be corrected when you start editing. 

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