Dialogue tags. Super important, can be controversial, and can be used in ways that invoke madness. (In me.)

pubLIZity Nick Kroll show

We could talk about how you need to cut out using adverbs and how that’s tell, not show, but if you ever want to really get why you shouldn’t use so many dang adverbs with dialogue tags, go on a road trip with nothing but the (truly delightful) audiobooks to Harry Potter. I prefer the ones voiced by Stephen Fry.  But every single bit of dialogue is:

“What is it, Harry?” Hermione shrieked quite panickedly.
“Professor Umbridge’s hairy ankles,” Harry groaned vomitously.
“Merlin’s pants!” Ron moaned decidedly.

It’s, uh, it’s a lot. Lot of adverb abuse there.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.  No, what really chaps my hide and makes me tear out my hair is when I can’t figure out who the heck is talking. Let’s look at a few examples.

First off, don’t start a work with someone talking and not assign who the hell just said that. I once tried to read a story where there were a solid ten different lines of dialogue unattributed to anyone, then I had to do dialogue math while counting backwards in order to know who the hell said what. A quick check through the story showed that they employed this little mind-boggling tactic at the start of every single section within every single chapter.

The noise I’m making just remembering that frustration? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Daryl Dixon crying

Second, the biggest mistake I see that leads to this sort of “Who’s on first? I don’t care! (No, that’s our shortstop!)” type issue is having the person to whom the speaker is speaking to perform some action in the same line. Lemme ‘splain.

We have Bartholomew and Mildred for this scene. Bartholomew wishes Mildred would cut out this bulldonk about claiming her mother is the superior cook.

“And another thing: Your mother’s dumplings taste like paste. Like actual glue.” Mildred stopped in her tracks and turned slowly around.

“What… did you… just say?” Bartholomew backed up a step.

Now, the structure of those two lines indicate to the reader that it was MILDRED complaining about the pasty, glue-like dumplings, and Bartholomew nervously asking her to clarify.

But come on. Bartholomew has been griping about those god-awful dumplings for ten years with no end in sight, and really, he should cut it out, because Mildred thinks they’re divine and is this close to running off with that nice boy down the street named Ralph. He happens to adore her mother’s dumplings.

What should happen is this:

“And another thing: Your mother’s dumplings taste like paste. Like actual glue.”

Mildred stopped in her tracks and turned slowly around. “What… did you… just say?”

Bartholomew backed up a step.

Now it’s clear that ol’ Barty ran his mouth, pissed off Mildred, and will be sleeping on the sofa tonight. And Mildred might be Facebooking Ralph later tonight.

But let’s up the ante here.

Mildred fumed. Bartholomew snorted in derision.

“You’ve never liked my mother’s cooking. From day one you’ve complained about it.” Bartholomew rolled his eyes. “Nattering on and on about how your mother made blah blah blah, but she puts ketchup on her burritos.

They each stared at the other, nostrils flaring like a snorting bull.

[raises hand] Um. Whose mother befouls their burritos with ketchup? Still Mildred’s? Who is stating that the other’s mother is the worst sort of human on earth? It looks like ol’ Barty is continuing to run his suck, because it’s his name in the dialogue line. But oho, it is Mildred delivering this riposte, not Bartholomew!

Let’s fix it.

Mildred fumed. Bartholomew snorted in derision.

Mildred, smirking over the little “wheen” noise Barty’s nose made, jammed a finger in Bartholomew’s chest. “You never liked my mother’s cooking. From day one you’ve complained about it.” She grew angrier when Bartholomew rolled his eyes. “Nattering on and on about how your mother made blah blah blah, but she puts ketchup on her burritos.

They stared at each other, nostrils flaring like a snorting bull. Mildred broke into laughter as a snot bubble popped in Bartholomew’s cavernous schnozz.

Please note that not once did we use “said” or “asked” or “stated.” You can, absolutely, but even without their use, it’s clear that Mildred is grossed out by the ketchup, that Barty needs a tissue, and we all know who is saying what. Also, seriously? Ketchup??

Buffy summers blech face

Keep the action being performed by the character in the same line as their dialogue. Mildred turning and slapping Bartholomew while telling him he’s a jerk-jerk who jerks, and Bartholomew sloshing his cherry-limeade her in face while sneering about her complaint that tater tots are too spicy. Either do that, or put the action after hitting RETURN.

Try this on for size.

“Show us on the feelings doll how this makes you feel, Bartholomew, and then use your words.

“Words? Pah!”

“I’ll give you words!”

Oh my sweet little eight pound baby Jeebus, who is saying what? We have added a third person to the conversation, and while that might be kind of sort of clear in line one that Bartholomew is definitely not speaking, unless he likes to refer to himself in the third person, the other two lines? No clue.

FIXING THIS:

Dr. Lecter steepled his fingers, cataloguing all the ways in which his new clients proved their crassness, their inherent rudeness. When it appeared that they would only continue to behave like spoiled children, he intervened. “Show us on the feelings doll how this makes you feel, Bartholomew, and then use your words.”

Mildred threw her hands up in the air, almost knocking over a three thousand year old vase from Iran; the first chair violinist in Tehran’s orchestra had given it to Dr. Lecter as a gift two years prior, although she had no idea of its significance. “Words? Pah!”

Bartholomew shot to the edge of his Corbusier chair, almost upending it. “I’ll give you words!”

Dr. Lecter imagined making them eat their words. And then eating them. Eat the rude, he thought to himself, smiling.

Hannibal eating dinner,eat the rude

Every line of dialog has a clear indication of who’s speaking, even though there are potential reactions from our new character.  If someone responds to what the speaker has just spoke, put their response in a new line. If the speaker is noting another person’s action, that can stay. An example of this exception, because there’s always an exception, is above where Mildred (rightfully) points out how disgusting Bartholomew’s mother is for debasing a perfectly fine burrito with tomato schmortz, regardless of Bartholomew’s eye roll. She witnesses his reaction (the eye roll), acts (narrowing her eyes), and continues to talk. It’s clear she is still speaking.

Otherwise, it would need to be:

Mildred, smirking over the little “wheen” noise Barty’s nose made, jammed a finger in Bartholomew’s chest. “You never liked my mother’s cooking. From day one you’ve complained about it.”

Bartholomew rolled his eyes.

Oblivious to her husband in her fit of pique, she bulldozed on, her tirade growing louder and louder. “Nattering on and on about how your mother made blah blah blah, but she puts ketchup on her burritos.

See the difference? Help a sister out and don’t make me do dialogue math to count backwards and figure out who is saying what. Tell me. And then make the person they’re speaking with have their own lines.

Your readers will thank you, and so will I.

Sharing is caring: