Wednesday, May 15, 2013

dialogue tags

by Linda Robertson

Dialogue tags.

I agree with my blogmates that a descriptive action is the best way to identify who is speaking while giving something more to the scene. The action can make the words mean more--especially if they are contrary to the words. A calm voice, reserved tone of voice, and a distracting gesture meant to hide the fact that under the table a character is reaching toward a concealed gun shows us that someone (Han Solo in the cantina with Greedo comes to mind...) is about to take action. For that moment before it happens, we tense up-- 

That all built the character and advanced the story, right? 

But sometimes tags are necessary.

In one of my WIPs, I just had a scene where one character is in a doorway, listening unseen to a conversation three others are having. The POV character wasn't observing them, so actions were out and there were three older males talking. The three were new to the reader, but well known to the listening character. How to make them distinct? I considered an accent to make one of the speakers obvious, but theres no accent in prior use in this not-of-earth tale, so that seemed a disingenuous solution. I considered an impediment. I considered nicknames. It all boiled down to identifiying to the reader who was speaking.

In the end I did use "NAME said" a lot. There was no other way around it. It simply had to be that way.

Sometimes that's the way it is.

But its not an excuse to get lazy. It's a call to action, a challenge. How to make the means of identifying them less necessary, and make it blend in when it is used?  

I gave each character a distinct opinion, a personal motive that could shine through in the words they chose, building their personality for the reader before they get a 'look' at them,

{Asiel} stood in the chapel doorway, listening. It was a two-story room, and he always met with them in the oratory, a small room off from the upper chapel. Though their voices were hushed, they were not quite whispering and their words carried. He paused to listen.
   "Bad timing, this arrival of our formerly heroic king," Nestor said.
   "Indeed," Ysal agreed. His voice was muffled slightly as if he was eating something.
   "You believe it?" Chandlen sounded incredulous.
   "Of course not."
   "I don’t believe it either," Ysal chimed in. "A man simply does not grow younger. Not even a legend like him."
   "Good," Chandlen said. "At least we agree on that."
   "But I do believe," Nestor added, "that it cannot be a coincidence."
   There was silence for a heartbeat, then Chandlen said, "Go on."
   "The priests of Delea used magic until they were all struck dead. But there is a man in the dungeon that we are told is a living, breathing priest of Delea. How? Why? Why now?" He paused. "Aside from a few who can by will light a candle or chill a pitcher of wine, the only magic left in our kingdom resides in the Cenotaph, in the virgins who keep their monumental sepulcher to honor a dead goddess who mothered their revered Iarratana."
   "You’re drawing a connection to the nursemaid?" Chandlen asked.
   "There is that," Nestor said. "We have long suspected that Rivanen’s matrons want to lay claim to Edgewall to have a foothold here in the capitol. Maybe they have grown impatient. But the use of magic means there is another possibility."
   "What?" Ysal asked. "Elves?"
   "Magic renews our hero-king shortly after the boy returns? It is beyond credulity."
   Chandlen pressed, "What are you saying?"
   "I’m saying we must be cautious. We already know the prince is cunning and eager to rule. The sorceress-priestesses could be about to attempt a take-over. Or the elves could be making peace simply to get closer in order to cover their plan of attack."
   "You weary me, Nestor. You see conflict to fear in every deed."
   "And you hand out your trust like a child, Chandlen. Moments ago you were relieved that we agreed this Ghelvok was a fraud."
   "Whether he is a ruse or not is irrelevant. Rumors are spreading even now. If our first king has come back to us, who will oppose him? Will you? Will the people?"
   Asiel was pleased to hear his advisors remained loyal to him, but he kept still, listening.
   Nestor spoke next. "The people will be, and should be, angry that someone tried to take the name of their hero and sully it. We should simply imprison him."
   "We should use him to give the people hope," Chandlen argued.

So, if I did my job in this draft, the dialogue itself means much more to you as a reader, and you came away with a sense of the characters of these old men, as well as having the plot advanced by what they are revealing. 

I think the dialogue itself should be so interesting and revealing that the tags are /almost/ unnecessary.

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