Monday, September 2, 2013

Help With Dialogue Tags

Guest Post by Jack Smith

Dialogue Tags
What about “he said”/”she said”—do you need them?  Or perhaps the character’s name instead of the pronoun?  How much of either is needed?  How much is too much?  Like everything else in creative writing, no rules here.  Only what works.  And you can think of this matter in at least two ways: clarity and style—or both.
Take a look at this passage from Raymond Carver’s “What’s in Alaska?”  Do we need the dialogue tags?
“I don’t know.  Something Mary said,” Helen said.
“What did I say?” Mary said.
“I can’t remember,” Helen said.
“We have to go,” Jack said.
“So long,” Carl said.  “Take it easy.”

We could probably use some help here, clarity-wise, since we’ve got four characters speaking, but notice too that Carver creates an interesting cadence by the repetition of “said.”  Really!  Nice, isn’t it?  What if he went by some silly hard-and-fast rule about cutting down your use of “said.”  We would miss the lyrical quality of his prose. Wouldn’t we?
Is clarity a matter in this passage from Carver’s “The Compartment”?
They love you, I said.
No, they don’t, he said.
I said, Someday, they’ll understand things.
Maybe Wes, said.  But it won’t matter then.
You don’t know, I said.
I know a few things, Wes said, and he looked at me.
Clarity is much less an issue here.  But again—notice how the repetitive use of “said” builds an interesting cadence. The texture of the prose draws us in—or at least it draws me in. 
Notice now this passage from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  No dialogue tags:
“He must drink a lot of wine.”
“Or wear purple undershirts.”
“Let’s ask him.”
“No.  He’s too tired.”
There’s plenty of this bare-bones dialogue in this novel.  And by now, this stripped-down dialogue is pretty familiar to many readers—readers, for instance, of Cormac McCarthy.  It creates an impact.  We hear conversation spoken, and that’s it—like an audio tape.
 But there’s a middle road—a “he said,” a “she said,” or “Norm said,” or “Mary said,” now and then—and then an action line that establishes who’s talking.  For instance, also from The Sun Also Rises:
“Poor old darling.”  She stroked my head.
You could avoid the tags by action lines like this.  We know who’s talking.
So what are your options?
1.  Ramp up the dialogue tags.
2. Eliminate them altogether and go with the bare-bones back and forth exchange.
3. Insert action lines now and then to find ways to avoid tags.
But don’t get the idea that it’s best to go for the Aristotelian Mean and take a middle path.  Think clarity, but also think style.
What sound do you want to create?  What tone? 

Write and Revise for Publication , Writer’s Digest, 2013, and Hog to Hog, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize, Texas Review Press, 2008