Thursday, September 08, 2011

Dialogue Tags - Staring At Strangers

Look to the left!
Look to the right!
Stand up!
Sit down!
Fight, fight, fight!

Good dialogue isn't just about what's said, because conversation isn't just about what's said. It's about what happens between the words - the nonverbal cues, the tone of voice, the facial expressions, the rhythms, the pauses. Capturing and conveying that effectively in the written word is easier said than done. Dialogue tags do a lot of that work, letting us know not only who is speaking but how.

I keep hearing that "said" and "asked" are invisible dialogue tags and everything else ("she screeched" "he gasped" "they hissed" "I murmured") draws too much attention to itself. Then I keep hearing that adverbs should be avoided or at least used sparingly (Oops! There goes one, now!). What tools does that leave for creating rhythm and pause in dialogue, identifying speakers, conveying underlying emotion from a non-point-of-view character, and still preventing repetitive injury (he said, she said, he said, she said, ad nauseum)?

Ever since I learned the above pearls of wisdom, I've become obsessed with my non-verbal dialogue tags, and woefully conscious of my limited palette in that arena.

"He looked at her. She looked at him. They glanced at eachother. I looked away. We turned to eachother. They eyed one another. He looked down. She stood up. I sat down. We turned away."

Lord save me! But if I tried to avoid that overused collection, I ran into tortured descriptions like "His lips twisted sidewise" or "Her mouth slanted downward." My characters were a group of twitching, tortured, spastic puppets.

In desperation, I found myself staring at strangers - in bars, at bus stops, in meetings - anywhere two or more were gathered in the name of human interaction. If I couldn't hear what they were saying, so much the better. This was an investigation into show-don't-tell. Could I interpret their non-verbals? How would I describe them?

I started to notice the power of props. As someone with a theater background, a former props mistress in fact, I can't believe I overlooked this fact. The cigarette, the drinking glass, the strand of hair, the wristwatch, the bracelet, the purse strap, the sleeve cuff, the teddy bear. We humans have an endless array of props through which we express ourselves in conversations. Set a scene somewhere that gives your characters access to a few props and you throw the world of dialogue tags wide open.

I also started thinking about the whole body. Forget eye contact. Get beyond the character's face. What's their body doing? Their shoulders, their back, their legs or butt or hips or feet? Sometimes I have to get up out of my chair while I'm writing and physically inhabit the character to figure out what they're body does in this moment with this emotion. Makes me a pretty amusing sight at the local coffee shop.

What are your favorite overused dialogue tags? How about delightful discoveries you've added to your dialogue palette?

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