Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Dialogue can be a tricky thing. The trend is against words like, ‘declared’ and ‘answered,’ but writing, ‘said’ too many times can be just as stifling and boring. So what do you do to inject some life into the scene? Action tags may be the answer.

Which sounds better?

‘Hello,’ Mark said.

‘Hi,’ Anne said.

‘I want to learn about how to make my writing pop,’ he said.

‘I can help you with that,’ she said.

or…

‘Hello,’ Mark said, clicking off his phone screen.

‘Hi.’ Anne waved and sat in the booth opposite.

‘I want to learn about how to make my writing pop.’ He leaned forward and fixed Anne with an attentive gaze.

‘I can help you with that.’ Anne smiled and pulled a book out of her bag.

The second one, right? Sure, it’s a lot more words, but if you’re not on the Word Count Diet, it’s well worth it. We learn more about the characters from their body language. Mark had clearly been waiting for Anne, probably because he thought she might have advice for him. Anne had clearly come to this meeting prepared to help.

It also adds another dimension to the scene. Rather than just ‘hearing’ the characters talk, we can ‘see’ their physical actions. Naturally, you wouldn’t put this much detail after every line of dialogue, that would get a bit dense and slow down the pace, but you get my meaning.

Sometimes you don’t even need a tag. Take my characters, Alois and Sulat. (You can get a feel for their personalities by getting my first chapter free, here). Alois is quite emotive with his words and actions, and he’s very physical and active. Sulat, is much tighter–she’s a woman of few words, and can be confused with a statue, on occasion. I often have long action tags following Alois’ dialogue (what he’s doing with his hands or his face), whereas Sulat often gets no tags at all.

For instance, in this scene they find themselves in a dragon’s lair:

‘Let me just have a quick look around.’ Alois wandered off around a corner and down an aisle made of gold piles and marble statues. Sulat picked up a pair of leather boots with intricate patterns cut into them and held the soles up to her own feet. ‘How often do you get to see inside a dragon’s lair. Come on.’ Alois dropped a hat on Sulat’s head with a dramatic flourish. It did suit her. ‘Isn’t this why you got into adventuring, to begin with?’

‘No.’

The trend right now is to avoid using any dialogue tag besides ‘said.’ Personally, it drives me crazy. I feel like a lot of these ‘rules’ are just fads, touted as rules to give people more reasons to be pedantic and condescending, like somehow a whole chunk of language (like adverbs) are only to be used by the inexperienced and sloppy writer. That’s rubbish, in my opinion. Words are meant to be used: it’s like telling a painter they can’t use the colour green, because only sloppy and inexperienced painters use green. You can get the same effect by using fewer colours and implying green.

As with anything else: if you’re going to do anything, do it well. Cutting out dialogue tags and adverbs are not going to make your writing better on its own.

Also, don’t use ‘said’ after a question. You don’t say a question, you ask a question. *hops down off soapbox*

I do agree, however, that many things can be implied in dialogue without explicitly saying it. If your line features an exclamation point, you don’t need to add, ‘he shouted’–that’s redundant (same goes for ‘asked,’ really. And ‘said.’ That’s why this gatekeeping is so stupid). I prefer action tags, or the complete absence of them, for this reason. They add so much more than the sum of their parts.

However, there are times when the tag is necessary. If there’s only one character speaking, or if it’s internal monologue, you don’t need one at all. If there are multiple people, especially of the same gender. You need to identify who is speaking, and he/she/they is not always enough. (Don’t get me started on dangling modifiers! That’s for another post). So then, if you have to use a tag, should it be a dialogue tag or an action tag?

I was going to make a flowchart for this, but it got too complicated, and really, it is very simple. I know that makes no sense, but stick with me a minute.

Firstly, is the character expressive? Don’t force your character to wave their arms around if they’re a staid and quiet type. That’s fine, it’s in character. (Though you could write, ‘They remained still, but for their moving lips.’)

Secondly, does it add to the scene? You can show that your character is prepared for a fight by writing, ‘she moved into a fighting stance,’ or you can have her say, ‘”I’m prepared to fight you,”‘ (if that phrasing is in character). She unlikely to say something like that from a casual nonchalant contrapposto. Though, if she would, that is definitely worth noting.

Things like this are a constant balance between what adds to the scene/character, and what just slows down the action. When the tension is high, only keep what is absolutely necessary to know. If something can be implied through dialogue, cut the tag, and stick with ‘said/asked.’

The exception is high-emotion slow scenes. These scenes can still have high tension, and the way you ramp that up is through action. Body language is subtle, so every detail counts.

Writing is a highly intuitive, highly subjective art. There’s hardly a rule without an exception, and the exceptions are almost always, ‘you know what’s best for your book.’ But my advice is ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, do it well.’

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