The Multifunctional Life of Dialog Tags

multifunctional

It mixes! It spins! It cleans! I washes windows and cleans navel lint! I like things that do more than one job…I’ll even grant that the beagle is quasi multifunctional…telephone attendant, file clerk, and chief margarita mixing queen.

Dialog tags fit in this category as well, and I wish more authors would take advantage to its multifunctional gorgeosity because it would enhance their writing. Obviously, their primary role identify who’s doing the talking. But this lovely little nibblet of goodness has a lot more range than mere character identification. It can be used to identify what the character is thinking, reacting to, feeling, about to do, what happened in the past…oh, the brain overloads at the possibilities.

Let’s take a simple example:

“Let’s knock off early and go caroling in the local drinkeria,” the beagle said.

Handsome Rottweiler said, “Oh heck yes. I love caroling in neighborhood bars!”

Overworked and Underpaid Editor said, “I can’t. Look at this mountain of editing.”

“You’re such a killjoy,” Handsome Rottie said.

The Beagle said, “Tell you what; you come with me caroling, and I’ll help with the editing afterward.”

“Afterward?” Overworked and Underpaid said, “We won’t be in any position to work caroling? Remember what happened last year? We got picked up by Lake Forest’s finest and you ended up doing parlor tricks on the Sergeant’s desk.”

“We got out of jail, didn’t we?” the beagle said.

So Hemingway it ain’t. But we have dialog tags in a short scene. There are no clues as to what is going on in the characters’ heads. It’s simply what you see is what you get. This is fine for a short scene, but tedious if your entire book is written in this manner. So let’s use the magic of the multifunctional dialog tag and see if we can’t spice it up a bit.

The beagle jumped off her couch and nosed her boss, who was knee-deep in paper. “Let’s knock off early and go caroling in the local drinkeria.” 

Handsome Rottweiler, sensing some serious fun was afoot joined in. “Oh heck yes. I love caroling in neighborhood bars!”

“I can’t,” Overworked and Underpaid Editor said, rubbing her tired eyes. “Look at this mountain of editing.”

Handsome Rottie rolled his eyes.”You’re such a killjoy,”

The Beagle wasn’t about to give up that easily. After all, there was booze to drink and mischief to make. “Tell you what; you come with me caroling, and we’ll help with the editing afterward.”

“Afterward?” Overworked and Underpaid nearly chocked on the words, “We won’t be in any position to work caroling. Remember what happened last year? We got picked up by Lake Forest’s finest and you ended up doing parlor tricks on the Sergeant’s desk.”

The beagle grinned at the memory. “We got out of jail, didn’t we?” 

What we are doing is getting inside these character’s heads in order to add color and flavor to the dialog. And this is something I see missing in a lot of manuscripts; I have little idea what the characters are thinking, and this forces me to guess. I don’t wanna guess. I wanna see the scene the way you see it in your head.

You can see that Mr. Multifunctional Dialog Tag still performs his primary duty by identifying who’s speaking, but now he’s doing double duty to make these characters come to life. So check your writing. Do you see places where you can add some multifunctionality to your dialog tags to spice your scene up? And while you’re at it, can you please pass the cheese grater/salt shaker/pizza slicer/toenail clippers?

5 Responses to The Multifunctional Life of Dialog Tags

  1. authorguy says:

    This is how I usually handle my dialog, because I hate dialog tags. It looks like this about removing dialog tags and replacing them with useful prose, and that can only be a good thing.

  2. Pelotard says:

    Mind you,there’s a fair bit of head-hopping in the scene Mk. II. 🙂

  3. authorguy says:

    Which to my way of thinking works, since we are building the character’s POV into the paragraph. (it’s a feature, not a bug.) One of the benefits to this style of writing is that you can have two characters talking about the same scene using very different prose in the ‘dialog tag’, which enhances the scene as well as the characters if done right.

  4. Har! Pelo, you so win! I was waiting for someone to ‘j’accuse’ of head hopping. Let’s all say it together…OMNISCIENT.

  5. ericjbaker says:

    I like the mix-and-match approach.

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