Friday, May 17, 2013

You Say Spice, I Say Side Dish

Dialog tags are for clarity. They're a spice, not a side dish. Not that you'd know that by reading *my* latest draft. But, hey. That's what revisions are for, right?

Jeffe brought up the point about voice. It's a good one. Because not only should the author have a distinct voice, so should each of the characters. If those voices are specific and unique to each major character in a story, What someone says should tell you who said it. This is over and above using action to bracket dialog.

Random example. Sam's a good ole boy getting by on charm. Sarah's a former girly girl who's had to break a few fingernails in order to go on eating.(Facts that would have been established by you in the early course of your story about this pair.)

"I loathe this town and everyone in it."
"Careful, darlin'. I'm in this town, So're you."
"You consider vermin stew to be the height of culinary art. And I'm slogging through the mud and devil's club to find the fluffy little bastards I have to murder to make it. My hate is universal. Where are you going?"
"To haul up a mess of water. Seems to me ain't nothing wrong with you that a soak in a hot bath wouldn't cure. I got to change your mind about hate me, don't I?"
"You just want me naked."
"How else am I going to turn that hate around, darlin'?"

Sure, silly, over the top stuff. But it's to prove the point that the above dialog needed no 'he said', 'she said' tags because the character spoke with different voices. Those should be identifiable anywhere in the story. Not that you won't ever tag someone's dialog. Subtle reminders of who's in a scene are always useful. Especially for me. I'm totally guilty of having several people in a scene, a couple of them start talking and I lose track of the rest of the characters - they vanish into the woodwork.

Whenever you have more than two or three people in a scene, dialog tags are unavoidable. Even if all those people have distinct voices, you'll have to tag or attach someone's dialog to their action.

If someone has something to say aloud in a scene, that someone has a stake in the scene. Otherwise, why say anything? It's easy to see in my random two person snippet above. Sarah's complaining, and maybe longing for a manicure. Her stake is a desire for change. Sam's stake maintaining the status quo - fixing it. In scenes with multiple characters - three or more - every person who speaks must be invested in whatever is going on in that scene. And when people are invested, they care. They lean in. They speak quickly. There's precious little dead air. Tags are going to speed up the verbal battle. Action, unless it's super short and adding to the conflict, will slow it down slightly.

You can control the pace of conflict. Did you ever watch any TV Sitcoms? Especially the ones with several people in the cast - once in a while, they'd gather everyone in the cast together in one scene. Usually one with ultra-high stakes (well, you know, for a sitcom). The dialog flies back and forth. There's barely time for a breath between speakers. The characters interrupt one another and rarely actually deal with whatever problem brought them together in the first place. Tags with little to no action come closest to that pace.

Break a high conflict, fast paced patch of dialog with action in response to something someone says and you can ratchet tension way up (or down - whatever your preference).

In a scene where five friends are arguing over whether Greg should marry his pregnant girlfriend, everyone's talking so fast that Greg can't get a word in edgewise.
"He has to," Larry said.
"Says who?" Marge said.
"Come on, maybe they don't want to . . ." Tony said.
"This isn't about what's best for them anymore! There's a kid," Amy said.
"Stop it!" Greg snapped. "I already asked her to get an abortion."
They froze as if waiting for someone to throw themselves on the verbal grenade Greg had lobbed into the center of the table.

How many names did you actually see when you skimmed through the dialog? No. Really. Don't go back and look. In the initial pass through, I'm betting you saw only Greg's. Because the interesting stuff was what was being said, not who said it, much less how it was said.

See, here's the ultimate secret that three years of acting conservatory and WAY too much money spent on tuition taught me.

What people say is action and conflict and emotion. Tags are directions attempting to dictate how the reader should hear or say the words.

In the end, for me, it doesn't matter whether my characters say, whine, hiss, groan, grumble or moan something. I prefer for those directions to be inherent in the words that came out of my characters' mouths. And it is still very much a work in progress.

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