Jean gripped the end of his shirt and cried, “Don’t leave me! I beg you. Have pity on me.”
“Let go, Jean,” he ordered. “You’re acting like a child.”
She pleaded, “If you go, you’ll never come back. Stay. Stay with me.”
He replied, “You know I have to go home. I’ve got family waiting for me.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jean blurted in astonishment.
“I repeat, I have to go home,” he repeated.
Jean wailed in despair, “But…but I can’t go through these queries by myself. There’s 300 still waiting in my inbox!”
Alright, joking aside, what do we see here? Cried, ordered, pleaded, replied, blurted, repeated, wailed. Did these dialogue tags jump out at you? Made you stumble, made you pause?
In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King, chapter 5 addresses the pitfalls of dialogue tags. I like how they give us this metaphor to explain why dialogue tags are considered lazy writing:
Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act; you’re getting really involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, “Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?” (pp.83-84)
When we tell our readers our characters are pleading, wondering, repeating, we’re basically saying, “Hey, my dialogue doesn’t show how my character is feeling so I need to tell you dear reader that you may know.” In other words, we have weak dialogues or we’re not confident our dialogue portrays the feeling we wish to convey to our audience.
Said, on the other hand, may look boring and so not fancy. You’re thinking, We’re writers! We revel in words! We must use beautiful, interesting words; otherwise, what good are they if we have to replace them with plain old boring said?
Said works because when we’re reading, our eyes gloss over it. It’s invisible. It’s transparent. We see the dialogue, and not the tag. Consider this:
“You get your butt over here, Johnny, or I swear to God I’ll whip it for breaking my favorite vase,” said Mrs. Babblemouth.
And then, this:
“You are in trouble, Johnny, for breaking my vase,” ranted Mrs. Babblemouth in anger.
Hm. Let’s nitpick, shall we? In the first example, the dialogue itself is already showing us how Mrs. Babblemouth is feeling: she’s upset, and we can probably picture her yelling at Johnny even though it doesn’t say so in the sentence. But the image is there, right? You see it.
Let’s take a look at the second example. We know Johnny is in trouble for breaking the vase, but here we’re also being told that Mrs. Babblemouth ranted in anger. Why is the writer telling us? Because the dialogue is not strong enough to convey Mrs. Babblemouth’s anger. We still see it since we’re told that’s what happened, but as a reader we feel patronized. It’s classic Show vs. Tell, and I’ll have a post about this sometime in the future.
You’ve probably come across this term in editing books: R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain. Example 2 above doesn’t RUE. It tells us Mrs. Babblemouth is angry. This is unnecessary and therefore, lazy writing. If the dialogue is already clear, there is no need for an explanation. Ever.
I’ll have more coming up on Dialogue and Adverbs, Dialogue and Characterization, and Dialogue and Speaker Attribution. So stay tuned.
I'm a YA writer who loves to read. Also a mom of 3. My life is crazy but always fun. :)
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