Those Pesky Dialog Tags

Be careful what you wish for, y’all. You might get it all at once.

I’m sorry that I’m two days late now. I didn’t finish this until midnight last night, and I didn’t really want to post it up in the middle of the night.

The last few weeks have been incredibly draining. Writing on top of working full time is exhausting already, and certain events had tensions running high as well. And of course, when it rains, it pours, and I’ve had page proofs for two short stories to go through, and a manuscript I’m trying to get through. All of this has me overworked, and emotionally drained.

But even with all of this, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Because I’m working on stuff that will be in print. Not just “might be”. And y’all, it’s as amazing and frightening as I always dreamed it would be.

So, all of the updates aside, let me tell y’all about some stuff I’ve learned from working with three editors over the course of as many manuscripts. I like dialog tags the way Lecter likes fava beans.

I’d assume everyone knows what a dialog tag is, but you know what they say about assuming. It makes an ass out of u and me. A dialog tag is a small phrase before, after, or in between the actual dialog. So, think he, she, I said, asked, thought, murmured, etc. These are of course necessary so that we know who is talking in a scene, especially when you have several characters having a conversation.

I like to use them just a little too much.

My new rule of thumb is to not use a dialog tag if you don’t need them, because it honestly hinders your prose quite a bit. Of course, it takes practice to know when to use a dialog tag and when not to use them. For me, it took three editors putting all the superfluous tags into a sock and beating me with them.

The story I sold to Zombies Need Brains, “The Weapon They Fear”, is the one that it really clicked for me in, so I’m going to give you guys an example out it. Also, here’s a shameless plug. It’s appearing in the anthology The Razor’s Edge which is coming out in September. You can even go ahead and preorder it here. Also, be sure to go and follow Zombies Need Brains on Twitter @ZNBLLC, and add them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/zombiesneedbrainsllc/

Okay plug over. There was a particular section of dialog in the story where I basically scooped a handful of tags up and just sorta sprinkled them liberally over the section. Here’s the section as it was originally.

“Did you know him?” I signed. He nodded.
“His name was Darius,” he signed slowly. “We were
on the same mission, and we were captured together.”

“I need answers Davi. You said they sacrificed them-
selves so we could escape. Why?”
I signed back. Davi
sighed, the sound rolling out from the bottom of his belly.
“Because you are our hope.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Shifter gene is a random genetic mutation,”
Davi
signed, sitting down in the shaft. I did the same. “It doesn’t
follow a pattern and it can happen to any human child.
We’ve studied it for years, but we can’t find the reason that
it happens. It just does.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
I asked.

Take a moment, really look at that section, and see if you can find all the tags that should be changed. Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t change either of the first two, and I would have changed at least one. But I didn’t catch how much of a cluster this section was until we were already on the proofs, and I didn’t want to go too crazy. Below you’ll find the changes I made during the proofing.

“Did you know him?” I signed. He nodded.
“His name was Darius,” he signed slowly. “We were
on the same mission, and we were captured together.”

“I need answers Davi. You said they sacrificed them-
selves so we could escape. Why?”
Davi sighed, the sound rolling out from
the bottom of his belly.
“Because you are our hope.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Shifter gene is a random genetic mutation.”
Davi
sat down in the shaft. I did the same. “It doesn’t
follow a pattern and it can happen to any human child.
We’ve studied it for years, but we can’t find the reason that
it happens. It just does.”
“What does that have to do with me?”

Spot the difference? The change seems negligible, but the section reads much better now, and even without the tags, it’s still clear who is talking. I eliminated at least three more tags over the next page through to the end of this scene. You can imagine how many words that cut, and how much smoother it made the prose flow.

Take a look at your own work and see if you can’t get rid of some of those tags! I promise that it will make your work a lot better!

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