Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome
by Sandy Tritt
"Just be like that," she pouted.
"Oh, come on," he groaned. "Not this again."
"You don't love me," she replied.
"Right," he snarled. "That's why I bought you an
eight hundred dollar diamond."
"Here," she sobbed. "Just take it back. Take it."
Okay, what's wrong with our sample above (other than
being melodramatic)? It's an ailment I like to call "Creative Dialogue Tag
Syndrome" -- the writer relies on creative tags (pouted, groaned, replied,
snarled, sobbed) so the reader will know how to interpret their dialogue.
What's wrong with this? Let me count the things:
- The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the
dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst,
the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses
- It is telling the reader how the words are
said, instead of showing.
- If the dialogue is well-written and the accompanying
action is well-chosen, it is redundant.
- It is annoying.
Shelly's lower lip quivered. "Just be like that."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on," he said. "Not
"You don't love me."
"Right," he said. "That's why I bought you an eight
hundred dollar diamond."
"Here." She pulled off the ring and shoved it under
his nose. "Just take it back," she said, her voice breaking. "Take it."
Okay, so nothing's going to help our melodrama too much,
but let's still examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative
dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:
- No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to
stand alone. As long as we know who's speaking, no law says we must use
- Action. "Shelly's lower lip quivered" replaces "she
pouted." It's more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it's
showing, not telling.
- The prosaic "said." Yes, "said" is boring. It's
overused. In fact, it is so boring and overused that it's invisible.
Just like "the" and "a" and "his" and other parts of speech that are
used several times on each page, "said" slides right past the reader and
allows him to concentrate on what's important: the action and the
- A combination of "said" and action. This is
particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last
sentence of the after example above.
While we are on the topic of dialogue tags, lets also
talk about correct punctuation. If a tag is used (preferably "said," but
an occasional "asked" or "repeated" is permitted), a comma separates the
dialogue from the tag (see examples in sentences 2 and 4 of the above
example). If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the
example) is used, it is considered a separate and complete sentence and
should be punctuated as such. If it is necessary to interrupt a dialogue
sentence, as in the last sentence in the above example, use the tag and
action, thus allowing a comma instead of a period.
Note: "I love you," she smiled, is never correct.
"Smiled" cannot be a tag; it is an action. Therefore, it can be written in
one of two ways: "I love you," she said and smiled. - or -
"I love you." She smiled.
If your dialogue contains a question, such as: "Who
are you?" he asked, it is not necessary to punctuate with a question
mark and use "asked" as a tag. This is personal choice and personally, I
usually use the tag.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has
to convey character and to build plot. Using it effectively means
tagging it effectively. Read the before and after examples given here
aloud. Hear the difference. Hear the redundancy. Hear the invisibility of
the hardworking "said."
It will be the best friend you ever had.
(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved,
except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes
(such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the
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Finding Time to Write
by Jack R. Noel
Surveys of published writers have revealed that most of those who reach
success in publishing do so only after years of effort. The years before
success finally arrives are often spent trying to support ourselves and
our families while working in non-writing jobs. Generally, this means
that we have to somehow fit reading and writing into our daily lives and
that can be challenging.
I believe there are methods one can use to ensure that we
succeed in writing to whatever degree we want. I will offer some of these
here. Please donít think my humorous approach means that Iím not serious
about offering real help. Iím deadly serious because Iíve had to face
this struggle myself. I just donít want to whine about it.
First is the Flaubert Method: Have a disease which prevents
your holding a job but does not completely disable or kill you. Spend
the latter part of your life in a single room with sealed windows, a
single door, and rarely admit visitors. This creates a kind of sensory
deprivation which will enable you to remember in excruciating detail every
person and event that occurred before your confinement.
It also gives you time
for reading the work of others. Write all that down, adding enough
imaginative plot to make it into novels. It helps if you can write your
first book and get it banned in your own and several other countries.
This is free advertising.
This sounds funny but versions of it actually exist and it
actually works. I donít have a disabling disease, I have a sleep
disorder: Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. I cannot sleep before 2:30 AM and
yet always awake at 9:30 AM. This guarantees that I wonít be showing up
at the workplace anywhere near 8:00 AM.
years, Iíve worked afternoon jobs. This gives me the first four or five
hours of the day to devote to my writing. Writing as soon as I awake has
released my full creative potential, which before had been effectively
blocked by the rush to work and on the job pressures.
I can now write a 3,000 word short story in eight hours. I
have written a 90,000 word novel in thirty-two days. Just try telling me
Second is the Stephen King Method: Go for the jobs which are
unpleasant and which offer no prestige and inadequate income. Mr. King
reports in his recent memoir that his early jobs after college were (A)
working in an industrial laundry where he loaded sheets and table cloths
ďseething with maggotsĒ into giant washing machines, (B) working as a back
country English teacher while living and writing in a doublewide mobile
Weíre talking really miserable and even desperate jobs, the
kind that'll make writing in closets while youíre dopey with fatigue seem
like a dream job. This will also humble you by giving you a firsthand
taste of the economic class system in the United States. It will enable
you to write stories about those who are poor and different from the
mainstream population. You will write about people like the girl you knew
in high school who wore the same clothes throughout the school year. Your
desperation will inspire you to recreate that girl with powers that she
will use to wreak fiery vengeance upon those classmates who tormented
her. You will send out your manuscript and not hear anything for several
months. Then your publisher will call and inform you that you are so rich
that your knees buckle and youíll sink to the cracked and peeling
The H.P. Lovecraft Method: This is a variation on Flaubertís
method. H. P. Lovecraft was not a robust and outgoing type. He is best
known for his florid-lurid tales of ultra-dimensional gods like Cthulu who
menaced mankind from the other side of Space. He published a couple
dozen of these books, but that wasnít his primary output as a writer.
His social life was conducted via letter writing. He constantly wrote
letters to friends and acquaintances. He died young, but in his brief
lifespan he managed to write something like 120,000 personal letters.
Actually, I have little idea of how Howard found the time for
all that writing, plus adequate reading. The point here is that he did
find it and, with it, he found not only success as a writer but lasting
fame and notoriety.
The Genius Method: This may be the easiest path of all.
Simply be born with a humongous intellect. You will inevitably be
channeled through a first-rate education and go on to be something like a
college professor or lawyer. You will be able to read at double the rate
of ordinary mortals. And your urge to write will impel you to write book
after book, and many will have popular appeal.
Examples of this include men like the late Isaac Asimov, who
wrote over five hundred books and science fiction novels. His IQ was
200+. Asimov began as a Biology professor. But lawyer John Grisham
certainly qualifies too. Anyone who can get through law school and
achieve success in Law is no dummy. Together, Grisham and Asimov
illustrate another prime directive to writers: Write what you know and
what you love.
Put simply, the answer to the question of how to fit writing
into your busy life is this: You will find the time. Everyone whoís ever
felt the constant nagging, hopeful impulse to write has found the time to
do it. Everyone who's found relief, hope or insight from reading has
found the time to read. The truth is, weíre addicted. We canít stay away
from the pen and paper or keyboard and word processor for any length of
time. Stephen King wrote, ďArt is the servant of life...Ē I add that
we are the servants to our Art. Forever and ever, amen.