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View Full Version : personal preference: action tag vs. dialogue tag?



edutton
02-06-2016, 06:34 PM
I'm discovering that I have a strong preference for action tags over dialogue tags, when it's at all appropriate... I find that even something as simple as "He turned to watch as she came into the room. 'Nice dress. Did it come with a glue stick?' " feels better than " 'Nice dress. Did it come with a glue stick?' he said as she came into the room."

Just curious how others feel about it?

mirandashell
02-06-2016, 06:46 PM
I'm not sure it really matters as long as it suits the voice. If it fits the rhythm, if it sounds right to your ear, then.... do it that way. Don't get caught up in the little things whilst you are writing. Cos it's a very good way to derail yourself.

CL Polk
02-06-2016, 08:03 PM
Action tags. I think they give more opportunities than dialogue tags.

mirandashell
02-06-2016, 08:11 PM
To do what?

CL Polk
02-06-2016, 08:29 PM
oh god why are you asking me to think before I've had coffee. well. half a cup of coffee. but I'm still trying to get the brain up to speed.

more opportunities to show characterization, location setting, mood. More opportunities to carry tension through the scene. More opportunities to introduce subtext and symbolism. More opportunities to keep the reader anchored in the vivid, continuous dream of reading.

it's not like I don't use said or asked. it's just that I tend to reach for the action tags because they can do more.

Kerosene
02-06-2016, 08:40 PM
You mean descriptive beats. What would we tag action with? "He beat his fist on the table," he did. wat

I use them at times when I feel they are needed--rarely. Too many and it starts to make the characters act like they're having seizures all the time. I've found after reading well-written dialogue that very little should be accompany dialogue; the reader can think up their own small actions and expressions most of the time and hint at the character's tone of voice in resonance to the emotion they feel from understanding the situation. Action, reactions, and dialogue tags IMO should only act as clues to help the reader.

mirandashell
02-06-2016, 08:44 PM
But Will is right. Dialogue tags aren't often needed. If the dialogue is well-written, the reader doesn't need constant reminders of who is saying and doing what.

Give your reader room to breathe. Trust them to have imaginations that will fill in the gaps you leave.

Kerosene
02-06-2016, 08:54 PM
Well, I still attribute most dialogue with at least "said". I'd rather have "said" plastered all over the page than to lose the reader. Once it's obvious who's talking, I'll drop "said".

CL Polk
02-06-2016, 09:15 PM
You mean descriptive beats. What would we tag action with? "He beat his fist on the table," he did. wat

Hah! You're right. why do they call them action tags, i wonder? descriptive beats is much more accurate. I better pour some more coffee on this fact. thanks!

mirandashell
02-06-2016, 09:29 PM
But you shouldn't really have to unless there's a lot of people talking. If it's a dialogue in the strictest sense, you should only need to tag at the start. Especially if the two voices are differentiated properly.

morngnstar
02-06-2016, 09:34 PM
I don't think it's even a personal preference. It's just better.

But doesn't have to be every time. Don't put an action there unless it actually shows something worth showing.

morngnstar
02-06-2016, 09:36 PM
But you shouldn't really have to unless there's a lot of people talking. If it's a dialogue in the strictest sense, you should only need to tag at the start. Especially if the two voices are differentiated properly.

If it goes on a long time, it takes careful attention not to lose track. Characters with distinct voices / points of view can help, but still I better see the speaker attributed at least a couple times per page. Then again, try to avoid dialogue that goes on for more than a page anyway.

Jo Zebedee
02-06-2016, 09:57 PM
Both. Mix it up, keep the rhythm changing. Make it fit the scene, too, and the feel. They're both tools to be used. :)

Kerosene
02-06-2016, 10:00 PM
But you shouldn't really have to unless there's a lot of people talking. If it's a dialogue in the strictest sense, you should only need to tag at the start. Especially if the two voices are differentiated properly.

The advice, "People's voices should attribute their dialogue, not the tag." is one of the hardest pieces of advice to pull off. There's only a handful of writers in my mind that can do that properly and for not very long.

Sure, if two people are talking back and forth, it's easy to just redraw the dialogue tags after a while. But not all conversations happen between two people. And while some characters can have distinctive voices, some might not and others might not have strong enough voices for many readers to pick up.

I believe in writing to the middle. There's a teaching technique where you "teach to the middle" as in not those who excel or who fall behind, but to those who are staying afloat as a safe middle ground for all. I see writing as teaching in a sense, and have tooled my writing style so that I write to the middle of my readers. Not those who are paying attention and taking notes and keeping track of everything, and not those who can barely stay with me, but the middle. Like I said, I attribute most of my dialogue with "said" to keep some readers on track. While it's not necessary, I find "said" is nearly invisible while reading and can keep some minds on track. For example I've been reading Hemingway lately, and at times he'll drop dialogue tags and my mind is more focused on the content than the order of things and I'll have to backtrack. I don't want most of my readers to do that if it's possible.

mirandashell
02-06-2016, 10:08 PM
Oh dear.... now we are starting to repeat ourselves. And yeah, I got what 'teach to the middle' means the first time you said it so.....

Hmm... I'm going back to what I said the first time: it's all about the flow. And that is where mine will stop.

CL Polk
02-06-2016, 10:12 PM
I think my thing about tagging descriptively is that I don't usually have two (or more) characters just sitting or standing still while talking, and I want to keep the reader aware of what they're doing in the midst of that conversation.

And that action can do a lot for the story. Consider two people in a kitchen, talking. they could just sit at the table, or they could be cooking together. or cleaning. or putting away groceries, whatever fits the story, right? and then *how* they do it will add another level. Are they a well coordinated duo, or is there a fight for control of the task, or is one person trying to do something and the other one is ... standing around, not being helpful (and adding fuel to the conflict by their inaction?) or is the other one "helping" but just getting in the way? Lots of possibilities, for me, so I try to incorporate this kind of action into the dialogue.

Does it come out muddy or obfuscated? I hope not.

edutton
02-07-2016, 03:09 AM
I want to keep the reader aware of what they're doing in the midst of that conversation.

And that action can do a lot for the story...

Agreed. That's one of the things I am trying to do more of (evidence from my SYW notwithstanding, I do actually often tag conversations... :/ )

edutton
02-07-2016, 03:14 AM
I'm not sure it really matters as long as it suits the voice. If it fits the rhythm, if it sounds right to your ear, then.... do it that way. Don't get caught up in the little things whilst you are writing. Cos it's a very good way to derail yourself.

I'm actually in edit mode, so now I'm definitely focusing on the little things. :) In this case I'm not dithering about which way to go, I know now how I prefer to do it - and I do use a mix, as I'm sure everyone does. It's just a case of general curiosity, and procrastinating on rewriting a particularly challenging scene.

mirandashell
02-07-2016, 03:44 AM
Then stop procastinating and start editing. Faffing about gets you nowhere and editing is the payment for the fun of writing.

edutton
02-07-2016, 03:55 AM
Then stop procastinating and start editing. Faffing about gets you nowhere and editing is the payment for the fun of writing.

:D I'm back on the horse now.

CL Polk
02-07-2016, 04:20 AM
...editing is the payment for the fun of writing.

I dunno, I find the deep reconstruction of revision to be pretty fun. and the refinement of editing is also enjoyable. I like going over a sentence I wrote and making more deliberate decisions than I'm capable of in the rush and flow of a first draft. maybe that's strange, but oh well.

morngnstar
02-07-2016, 04:27 AM
... editing is the payment for the fun of writing.

That can be read two ways.


I dunno, I find the deep reconstruction of revision to be pretty fun. and the refinement of editing is also enjoyable. I like going over a sentence I wrote and making more deliberate decisions than I'm capable of in the rush and flow of a first draft. maybe that's strange, but oh well.

Me too. It's like putting the finish on a piece of furniture you made. For me, at least, my writing doesn't look good until I do it, so it's the most satisfying part.

Roxxsmom
02-07-2016, 04:42 AM
I'll use actions if they feel appropriate and don't interrupt the flow. They can definitely help with attributing dialog. But they can become intrusive and annoying if they're used every time a writer needs to attribute something. If your characters are constantly nodding, shrugging, wincing, picking things up, staring into the ruby-red depths of their wine before answering, or otherwise fidgeting like a bunch of cooped-up third graders, it can become really annoying.

Sometimes a good-old-fashioned "she said" does the trick.

CL Polk
02-07-2016, 04:55 AM
Me too. It's like putting the finish on a piece of furniture you made. For me, at least, my writing doesn't look good until I do it, so it's the most satisfying part.

That was what I was thinking about. Or else knitting or dressmaking - There's a lot of techniques that are time consuming and fussy, and maybe "get in the way" of the fun part of making. But the time and care taken shows in the finished work, so I will get down into those details, and I like them.


I'll use actions if they feel appropriate and don't interrupt the flow. They can definitely help with attributing dialog. But they can become intrusive and annoying if they're used every time a writer needs to attribute something. If your characters are constantly nodding, shrugging, wincing, picking things up, staring into the ruby-red depths of their wine before answering, or otherwise fidgeting like a bunch of cooped-up third graders, it can become really annoying.

Sometimes a good-old-fashioned "she said" does the trick.

Yes, this right here. you can't throw down a beat on everything. the gesture has to matter, and you can't clutter things up. Even with beats, it's still valuable to have distinct character voices and a sense of movement in the words, not just shrugging shoulders and swirled chardonnay.

mirandashell
02-07-2016, 03:28 PM
Lordy me.... it was a little throwaway humorous comment.

Nah.... not in the mood. Gone.

edutton
02-07-2016, 05:15 PM
I dunno, I find the deep reconstruction of revision to be pretty fun. and the refinement of editing is also enjoyable. I like going over a sentence I wrote and making more deliberate decisions than I'm capable of in the rush and flow of a first draft. maybe that's strange, but oh well.

No, I'm finding the same thing. It's frustrating sometimes, but yeah, it's also fun.