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Who Said That? by Jenny Jensen

January 19, 2020 by in category On writing . . . by Jenny Jensen tagged as ,

Snow falling. No deadlines looming. Perfect day to cozy up on the couch and read.

Deep into a very funny paranormal romance I reach the climactic moment when the cheeky young witch meets the acid tongued evil vampiress. Biting insults fly back and forth with the speed of fiery spells. I’m laughing and then…wait. Who said that? I have to go back to the beginning to be sure I understand which character that pithy insult came from. The dialog rages on for a page and a half, not a dialog tag in sight. The punctuation alone sets apart the speakers. The rhythm of the story is broken when I lose my place and I wish the author had found a way to make that clever, long exchange read effortlessly. It’s still funny and well written though, so I read to the end.

Not long ago I’d given up on a detective story when I stumbled on yet another doozy of a dialog tag line: “I want to go home,” she said vulnerably. Really, vulnerably? The character’s husband has just been gruesomely murdered and her junky son is in jail. I’m pretty certain she’s vulnerable. Worse, given the flow of the narrative I know who’s speaking. That adverb felt like hitting a chug hole at 40 mph. Sigh. That was the final disconnect for me – I’d lost the rhythm of the story. I no longer cared who’d murdered the bookstore owner.

The writerly world is flooded with dialog tag dicta. We have the Elmore Leonard – Steven King school of absolute ‘she/he’ said (and possibly, maybe, sometimes ‘asked’). We have the proponents of injected emotion: ‘she yelled’, “he cried”, “she demanded hotly”. And then there are the minimalists who reject all tags, relying solely on punctuation to set speakers apart.

There are no rules for dialog tags, and I don’t champion making any, but smart writers are aware of how a tag affects the narrative flow and when it adds to, or detracts from that flow. The purpose of a dialog tag is to identify the speaker. Good storytelling shows emotion so the narrative circumstances and the wording of the dialog will convey how the words were said. Depending on how the scene is structured no tag would be needed, or ‘said’ would be enough.

And then there are those instances where a more elaborate tag is vital. (There really are no rules!) All the great writers occasionally use some variation of ‘she snarled’ ‘he groaned’ etc. Sometimes it makes sense to support the dialog by a little telling. Even Steven King admits to slipping in an adverb in a dialog tag or two. A writer’s gotta do what their story demands. As an editor and reader I prefer that the music of the dialog within the setting of the scene show me all I need to know.

The reader’s inner ear will hear good dialog; it’s an unconscious understanding. For my money the best dialog tags are invisible. All that need register at the conscious level is the identity of the speaker. Does anyone knowingly read ‘said’? It’s like a good child, seen but not heard. “Unless it’s little Parker next door whose screams of delight fill me with joy,” I say unreservedly.

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