The People Speak – Part 4

POST CARDS FROM THE MUSE

The People Speak – Part 4

By Nandy Ekle

Tag! You’re it! 

That children’s game is an example of what we do in dialogue with tag lines. Tag lines are the little quips that tell us who is speaking. Tradition says to not use the word “said” all the time, but to use a variety of descriptive terms, such as “replied,” or “screeched,” or “blurted.” And then there’s the view that these terms can be distracting, especially if not used correctly. So we should stick with “said” because it’s kind of an invisible tag. But too much of the same word can also be distracting.

I can see the value in both of these points of view. However, there are other ways of making sure your reader knows who’s talking without getting in the way. While we never want our reader to have to back up and work out the order of he said, he said, and we never want to shock our reader out of the story by having our characters whisper when they should scream or purr when they should growl, we also don’t want to bore them with the same words over and over.

One way to do this without being so technical and having to think too hard is to use action during the dialogue. Think about when just and your best friend are having a conversation. One of you grins, the other chuckles. One of you wipes a fallen piece of hair from your face and takes a sip of coffee, the other scratches her ear lobe and sniffles because she has a head cold. Now watch a group of people talking. One speaker raises his hands and gestures the size of the fish he caught. Another laughs because there’s no way that idiot caught that size of fish in that lake. But the guy’s friend stands up in the scoffer’s face to take up for his friend, while another waves her hand in the air at all of them and tells them they’re all a bunch of geeks.

Another way of making sure your readers know your characters’ lines is with voice. I’m going to refer back to Liane Moriarty because I believe she’s a master of this. Each one of her characters has such a distinct voice we know immediately who’s speaking without tons of tags. And that makes a huge difference. Reading her books is like watching a movie. I can hear the difference in each character’s lines as if I’m watching them leave their mouths. 

tag words: n

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