This week on Things I Learned On The Fly: how to use dialogue tags and punctuation to regulate the tone and pacing of dialogue
First, let’s start with something simple. Two lines of dialogue between a therapist and patient, perhaps. No tags or further context. Just naked lines, like you’d see in the voice recording sections of Travelogue.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Like myself, more or less.”
Now let’s see what happens when we make one tiny change.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Like myself. More or less.”
It reads differently, huh? In the first example, the patient seems to be feeling okay for the time being. In the second, not so much. If I was the therpist, I would suspect that the patient is holding something back. Why?
By changing the comma to a period, I’ve forced the reader to pause a little longer between clauses. This is what gives the reader the impression that the patient is hesitating, or adding that “more or less” as an afterthought. Admitting to themselves, maybe, that they weren’t being entirely truthful.
Sometimes you don’t need extra words to convey emotion.
Onto dialogue tags. You know, like “she said,” “cried the white rabbit,” and so on. Tags can also take the form of whole clauses and sentences blocking out the actions and body language of the speakers between lines. Where and when you put tags in your dialogue has two functions: (1) telling the reader who’s talking (duh) and (2) regulating the pacing.
What do I mean by that? Example time.
“Take-off is nothing like landing,” said Erin when we moved on to the next part of the lesson. “When you’re landing, the terrain whizzes by and leaves you with no time to think. You just have to do it by feel. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure before you get the hang of it.” She took a moment to glance at the screen in front of her. On it were four lights, all green. “That part of training was a real nightmare for me. Gave me nightmares, too.”
Tag #1 is there simply to (1) establish who’s speaking and (2) ease the reader into the scene change. Tag #2 shows the character’s hesitation, like the period in the therapist example, but less subtle.
I was cataloging core samples of the mats at Hidden Lake when I got the call. Alex and Erin were shouting over each other in a panic. It was hard to make out what they were saying, but I got the gist of it soon enough.
“It’s bad, it’s bad, something’s attacked us and I couldn’t cut him loose fast enough.”
“…came out of the trees like arrows, all at once…”
…An awful choking sound…
“…missed his jugulars, but tore the trachea…”
“Tell us what to do!”
And so on.
In this excerpt, you can’t really tell who’s talking most of the time, and that is intentional. It’s a chaotic scene, and tags would bog it down.
Vander didn’t say anything after Luo left like I thought he would. I could tell he wanted to get something off his chest but maybe he didn’t want to bring it up while I was drugged to oblivion. And that was fine by me, because I had my own concerns to voice.
“Alex, he’s…I don’t think he’s taking this well. I saw him drinking and I don’t think it was water and I asked him when’s the last time he wrote anything in his journal and he said he doesn’t remember and I’m just worried about him, okay?”
Diarrhea of the mouth. No tags.
“Huh?” she said. “Do what?”
A simple tag for pacing. Even though the reader is probably just skimming over it, as they should, it forces them to slow down a little. Maybe their imagination will fill that gap with a facial expression, tone of voice, or gesture. It’s what happens when I encounter intruding tags, anyway.
You’ve probably heard people say that using adverbs and fancypants tags like “sighed,” “ejaculated,” and “inquired” does more harm than good. While I agree, I’ll let more experienced writers weigh in on this. All I can say is, most of the time I get by just fine without them.
When I write a conversation, I don’t just think about how the characters speak, but how they move around and interact with their environment while talking. You can get a lot of mileage out of choreographing your actors, even if only in your head. Remember that these are people, not disembodied voices. And don’t let the reader forget that, either.
That’s all for now.
New passages in “Quarantine,” “Nothing to Say,” and “Resilience”