Updated: May 1, 2020
As promised on Tuesday, let’s talk about the controversy surrounding the topic of writing with or without dialogue tags.
Considering their definition, you might be hard-pressed to think of how in the world such things could be controversial. But if you haven’t noticed by now, the world is really pretty good at making mountains out of molehills.
And creative writers, who come complete with our very own complexes, are right up there in this regard. We can bicker with the best of them.
What does the next great piece of literature look like?
Is Twilight a literary disgrace or a fun mindless read?
Are dialogue tags the mark of an amateur writer? Or is it nothing short of snooty to leave them out?
I can’t (read: won’t) answer the first question right now. As for the second one, I’ll admit I did enjoy that silly series up until the second half of the fourth book.
Oh, and the movies are all appalling. Kristen Stewart’s acting. Enough said.
But then there’s that third question…
As we’ve already alluded, some writers think that dialogue tags are lame, lackluster and lazy. That’s mostly because it’s showing, not telling who spoke.
And for these kinds of writers, showing, not telling is the end-all, be-all of creative expression. That’s why they’d much rather write:
“That can’t be what you really think.” She laughed, the sound rife with derision.
"That can't be what you really think," she laughed, the sound rife with derision.
Don’t see the difference? That’s okay. You’re probably in the dialogue-tag-loving or at least the dialogue-tag-allowing crowd. Besides, we’ve got a few more examples coming up right after our Writing Challenge right below…
Try writing without any dialogue tags. At all.
If you want to start a fight in a literary crowd, bring up dialogue tags. Some creative writers feel like they couldn’t write without them; others consider people with that opinion to be rank amateurs.
For its part, Innovative Editing takes the middle ground, believing that dialogue tags can be useful for certain lines and less effective with others. Even so, trying to write without them (as shown in the example below) can be a beneficial practice. And if you don’t like what you see after you’re done, go back and add them right on in.
Regardless, you’ll probably find yourself learning more about the power of rearranging words and rethinking your presentation in the process.
Just to show you that writing without dialogue tags can be done – and done engagingly – I’m including an early-on snippet of Not So Human, the first book in my five-part Faerietales series, which I also referenced on Tuesday.
In the published piece below, there’s just one dialogue tag included. Shoot me an email about what it is, and I’ll send you a free e-book download to the whole fantastical novel from start to finish.
On your mark…
“What happened to your car?” Now that Sabrina had the freedom to ask questions, she found herself focusing on the most trivial of them all.
Deanda stepped on the gas the slightest bit harder. “This is a loaner. We’ll drop it off when we get to where we’re going.”
“Where are we going?”
Frustrated, Sabrina shook her head. “No. I want answers, and I want answers now. I’m dressed like a baby prostitute driving ‘away’ in a rented car after four creepy guys just followed me all over Lancaster. Now what was that all about?”
She steeled herself for the answer. Drug deals gone bad. International spy rings. FBI conspiracies. She could take the news, whatever it was. While any mention of aliens would be disconcerting, Sabrina tried to mentally prepare for that as well.
Deanda first glanced in the rear-view mirror and then at her. “We’re moving at eighty miles an hour, right?”
Sabrina didn’t bother glancing at the speedometer. “Sure.”
“So you can’t throw yourself out of the car when I tell you what I’m about to tell you. Your brother would kill me if anything happened to you.”
Sabrina got very quiet then, her insides doing their familiar little drop at the topic. Unlike Eugene the other night, Deanda was very well aware she didn’t have a brother. So unless she was suffering from some sudden and inexplicable memory loss, she was pulling a very inappropriate joke.
Sabrina stared at her friend for a few seconds.
“That isn’t funny.” The three words were all she could manage.
“I didn’t intend it to be.”
Sabrina didn’t know how to respond to that, so she waited for her to continue. Maybe it was how Deanda’s eyes were still discolored by the contacts, but they looked very, very serious. And her glossy lips were set in a way that didn’t seem to bode well either.
“I’ll tell you everything, but first you have to promise me you won’t do anything stupid, okay?”
Sabrina nodded, and Deanda took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.
“You’re going to think I’m insane, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Looking very nervous, she glanced over and then straight ahead again, her hands digging into the steering wheel.
Sabrina took a deep breath of her own.
“You’re not quite who you think you are,” Deanda continued slowly, like she was pondering every syllable before she spoke it.
In no mood for the elongated version of whatever story Deanda was about to give her, Sabrina interrupted. “Just tell me. Spit it out. Please.”
So Deanda did, uttering the last four words Sabrina ever would have expected. “You’re a faerie princess.”
Then, once you’ve done that, why not try this exercise out yourself? How long can you write without dialogue tags?
You won't know unless you try.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on dialogue tags here.