Part 1: Look it up!
Part 2: Read it out loud.
Part 3: Have someone who knows what they're doing read it.
Part 4: Consistency, consistency, consistency!
And now, introducing...
5) Dialogue tag...you're NOT it!
Have I mentioned I love puns?
A dialogue tag is a little verb that assigns speech to a character. Here's a great article on them that's definitely worth the read, but I'm going to go over them in general terms. I will also assume that whoever is reading this is reasonably skilled at writing and is now in the editing process. This is, after all, an editing tips post, and I'm assuming that we're working with a finished manuscript and it's being edited and cleaned up. I'm a big proponent of writing what comes out of your head and cleaning up your manuscript later. Sometimes it's worth it to get those beautiful words down and make them shine afterwards.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with using dialogue tags (DTs), the two most common problems I encounter with them (as en editor) are:
Let me explain what I mean by these things, and I think I'll do that best with an example. I'm going to write a short scene between two characters, and then I'll critique it for you.
"I have a confession to make," whispered Kara as she leaned closer to Mary. "I love watching cat videos on the Internet."
"Really?" asked Mary, frowning. "What kind?"
"Any kind," confessed Kara, covering her face with her hands. "Maru. Grumpy Cat. Cats with string. Cats in boxes. Cats playing with laser pointers. It's gotten out of control!" she wailed.
"Don't worry," Mary told her with a smile. "I watch them all too. So let's find some free WiFi and we can watch some together."
Okay. Let me address the issue of "overuse" first. A writer will often use DTs to help designate who is speaking, especially if there are more than two characters having a conversation. And that's fine. However, in the editing process, it's worth a look to see when (or even if) it's ever confusing for the reader to figure out who is speaking. This may be a case for my Part Three post where you get another set of eyes on it, but an author should be able to do this reasonably well on their own. Also, if paired with an action the speaking character is doing, a DT isn't really necessary. And unnecessary DTs drag down the pace of your manuscript, especially in action scenes. Don't get bogged down with them.
Redundancy. Most often, TDs are rendered redundant by the actions of the characters or other punctuation the author decides to use. The first DT I used above is "whispered", and while I'm a big fan of using specifically descriptive DTs (example: "whispered" instead of "said quietly"), this one isn't needed at all. It's clear from the scene that Kara is speaking quietly...people don't usually shout a confession. "Asked" was the second one, made redundant by the question mark at the end. It's obvious Mary is asking something, and there's no character confusion here about who is speaking. "Confessed" is the third, and again, it's obvious Kara is confessing to Mary about her cat video-watching obsession. Not needed, AND it's too specific. When you use dialogue tags, it's best to stick with the tried and true simple ones: said, asked, and similar ones. Let your characters' actions do the talking. Don't get over-flowery or you risk coming across as a writing amateur. The same thing with "wailed." It's pretty specific, and Kara's anguish comes across with her actions and the exclamation point at the end (which are fine to use sparingly). "Told" is the last one, and just not necessary. Once again, it's obvious who the speaker is when paired with the action.
Now here is the exact same scene, but with NO dialogue tags at all. See the difference?
"I have a confession to make." Kara leaned closer to Mary. "I love watching cat videos on the Internet."
"Really?" Mary frowned. "What kind?"
"Any kind." Kara covered her face with her hands. "Maru. Grumpy Cat. Cats with string. Cats in boxes. Cats playing with laser pointers. It's gotten out of control!"
"Don't worry." Mary smiled at Kara. "I watch them all too. So let's find some free WiFi and we can watch some together."
The message of the scene is clear, and the actions speak loudly for themselves. There is no confusion about who is speaking. Could a writer use dialogue tags here? Sure. But sparingly. Sprinkle them in your manuscript, don't shovel them.
Here are pictures of Maru and Grumpy Cat for good measure. Because cats.
|Maru in a box, like usual.|
I hope you all are finding these editing tips and things to watch out for to be helpful!