Submission Autopsy – Part 3 – Dialog tags

The setting: In the operating room. A manuscript autopsy is being performed by the eminent Dr. Editor and her ever-faithful helper, Editorial Intern. Immediate cause of death has been determined to be an acute case of Dullitis – the covers of the manuscript were too far apart. Contributing causes are slowly being uncovered in this autopsy. So far, the patient suffered from massive hemorrhaging between Show vs. Tell, Fluffitis and Backstoryosis, and the latest – Dialog tagococcal.

Dr. Editor: (clucking sounds fill the operating room) Ah, such a pity. Dialog tagococal, or its more commonly recognized form, the dialog tag, is an insidious little beast because most manuscripts have no idea of their existence. They’re like little viruses that suck the life out of a story. If their numbers are kept to a minimum, they’re fairly benign. The problem with dialog tags is that they’re most virulent when put into the body of an immature manuscript. They colonize and prevent richness and flavor of the writing to propagate.

Editorial Intern: How so, Dr. Editor?

Dr. Editor: I’ll give you an example:

“What does that cloud look like to you?” asked Bobby.
“I dunno,” I said. “It looks like a kid sucking on a helium balloon.”
“You ever sucked on a helium balloon?” Bobby asked.
“Sure,” I said, “every time one of my sisters has a birthday. I stick a fork in the biggest one and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Editorial Intern: Seems okay to me. What’s wrong with it?

Dr. Editor: It’s lifeless, like they’re talking heads. Let’s see what happens when I take the dialog tags out:

Bobby looked over at me through quizzical brown eyes. “What does that cloud look like to you?”
I squinted on what looked like a giant bag cotton balls in the sky and shrugged. “I dunno.” Bending my head sideways, I focused on one tiny cloud. “It looks like a kid sucking on a helium balloon.”

Bobby laughed and punched my arm. “You ever sucked on a helium balloon?”
“Sure, every time one of my sisters has a birthday. I stick a fork in the biggest one and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Okay, it’s not Faust, but it breaks up the monotony and gives them dimension. Instead of relying on a dialog tag to signify a speaker, try assigning an action to the character; a scratch of the nose, bite of a candy bar. Vastly decreasing the use of dialog tags opens up the writing to a whole new world of communication and, in the process, a richer story.

Editorial Intern: Does this mean that all dialog tags should be irradiated?

Dr. Editor: No, not at all. Everything should be done in moderation, much like that box of Twinkies you ate at lunch. Obviously we need tags to signify who’s doing the talking when there are more than two characters in a scene. But too often dialog tags tend to create this thud, thud cadence, and it detracts from the dialog. It’s off-putting to read a lovely piece of dialog and finish it off with, “he said.” Clunk.

Editorial Intern: Does this go for saying things like, “he intoned,” “he gasped,” “he wheezed”?

Dr. Editor: Argh! These are some of the worst offenders because dialog tagococcal joins forces with Show vs. Tell and creates a mess. By using anything other than “said,” you’re assigning more importance to the tag than you are the dialog. It sticks out much like your pink paisley shirt with that red striped skirt. If a character gasps while speaking, then the manuscript has to jolly well show that.

Example:

“I can’t believe you ate my entire box of Twinkies,” I gasped.

Now, let’s try it again:

I clutched my throat and staggered toward the empty box – the very box I’d been saving to bribe the traffic judge. “I can’t believe you ate my entire box of Twinkies.”

Or:

I looked at the empty box and gasped. “I can’t believe you ate my entire box of Twinkies.”

Editorial Intern: Yes, but, Doctor, you use a lot more words to say what I could with two words.

Doctor Editor: This is true. But in the process, the reader better understands the depth of the character’s angst. The long and short of it is never take short cuts. Manuscripts who do this suffocate under the weight of their own dryness and single dimension.

Editorial Intern: So this is what killed the patient? Dialog tagococcus?

Doctor Editor: Still not sure. I haven’t gotten to the last third of the manuscript yet. Hand me the retractors and let’s see what’s lurking behind this prepositional phrase. Eek! Point of Viewicemia. Oh, I really hoped to avoid this beast.

Stay tuned…

One Response to Submission Autopsy – Part 3 – Dialog tags

  1. Chumplet says:

    I’m gonna save these. They’re great!

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