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Thread: Dialogue tags - what are they and when is too many?

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  1. #4
    Amuck! Amuck! Amuck! ECathers's Avatar
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    Any time you have an adverb (Search your ms for "ly" and you'll find most of them.) you have an opportunity to create better characterization and a better overall action sequence by using stronger verbs, showing emotions, etc. (In fact I did a whole rant on adverb abuse and how to fix it some time back.)

    Although you can't sigh words, I have no problem with: Jane sighed. "I'm going to the store." if it's broken up into two sentences. Especially if the reader already has a good idea why Jane is sighing, such as they've just had an argument and she uses this to get away from the scene.

    Another way to get around tags is to give at least one the characters a bit of "business." Say she's in the middle of cooking dinner: "How was your day?" She reached into the fridge and hunted for an onion.

    Verbs are useful in conveying emotion even when you don't explain why.

    Jane stabbed the last chunk of garlic into the meat and shoved the roast into the oven. "I'm going to the store." In this particular case, the fact that she "stabs" and "shoves," rather than "placing" or "sliding it in" gives us a clue to her mindset, which can either be explained in Jane's next scene at the store, or Fred can wonder about it after she leaves.

    Giving a character a distinctive voice can also help the reader stay on top of who's talking. I have one character who speaks in an archaic form (in a present day novel) so if someone says "'Tis" or "whilst" or "I know not," the reader knows it's him talking.

    IMO throwing in several saids and askeds isn't a biggie, especially if you have a few characters talking together. It's when the tags are noticeable in and of themselves that they become problematic. "He declared," "she enthused," "he gushed," "she lectured," and my absolute most hated: "he opined,"* would almost always be better as "said."

    Another annoying one is when the author gives out hair or eye colors seemingly only for the sake of being able to say, "the brunette said," "the blonde answered." In one book I read recently, the author only mentioned hair colors once or twice (and not in a memorable way) and three chapters later expected me to remember who was who.

    If you insist on doing this, at least remind your reader who on earth has what color hair. Have Mary combing her gorgeous golden curls and Laura thinking of how her own hair is a dirty brown shade and then you can say, "the blonde said." (Though I still feel it's clunky.) Thirty or more years since my last reading of the series and I still remember the colors of the Ingalls' girls hair because the author made us care about it. Oh the other hand I'd be hard pressed to tell you the MC's hair color in a book I read last week--and not because I'm having a senior moment.

    ETA: *IMO the only person who should EVER opine in a novel is someone who's being portrayed as annoying, snobby and full of themselves.
    Last edited by ECathers; 03-17-2013 at 03:32 PM.

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