Making Dialogue Work for You

Critique groups like to use certain words and labels when gathering to discuss manuscripts. POV (point of view), “beats,” “tags” and “show, don’t tell” are a few of our favorites.

A discussion on dialogue tags and descriptive beats came up at our critique group yesterday. There was some confusion as to what each is. One person even thought that the words were interchangeable.

A dialogue tag is when a word is used to describe the manner in which a character is speaking. For example:
“Wait,” Bob shouted.
“Wait,” Sally whimpered.
“Wait,” Grandma hesitated.

The dialogue tag is “telling” the reader how the character is saying the words.

When I was a child in elementary school, our teachers encouraged the use of dialogue tags. It was frowned on to have too many “saids” and “asks” in our stories.

Nowadays, it is believed that the reader doesn’t really notice the dialogue tags, so “said” is preferred. Some editors go as far as to say that dialogue tags are distracting and confusing. The action of the scene or the emotion of the character should be apparent if the writing is clean and concise. There is no need to say “Bob shouted” if the story tells the reader that Bob is running down the street after his estranged girlfriend who has just driven off in his new Corvette.

“Beats” are used to move the action along or to enhance the emotions of the dialogue. No “said” is needed. A “beat” will indicate who the speaker is while showing action. It is “show, not tell.”
“Wait.” Bob ran, waving his arms, as Jill drove off in his brand-new red Corvette.
“Wait.” Sally wiped a tear from her eye.
“Wait.” Grandma stopped as she tried to maneuver her cane through the revolving door.

What techniques do you use to keep dialogue moving?


One thought on “Making Dialogue Work for You

  1. A good overview here! I enjoy (writing and reading and thinking about) dialogue, which is probably why I am so fond of plays. For myself, I like to begin a story amid dialogue. I find that I write in first-person a lot as well, which is something I’m trying to get away from a bit, but for me that can really drive the dialogue. Finally, I pack the dialogue-tag phrasings–some would say overpack!–with information to give character and plotting clues. I’m not sure if this always advances the story or not; I think it just depends on the reader and whether s/he enjoys the challenge of reading dense(r) prose.

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