Friday, September 17, 2010

"Stop!" she cried.

Attributions and tags are the verbs that indicate speech, such as said, yelled, retorted, and so on. Said is a perfectly good, unobtrusive little word; some of its more colorful counterparts can be distracting. Strong dialogue often makes tags redundant.

Diane Lane
“Stop or I'll shoot!” she cried.

The dialogue shows that she’s upset and loud. Cried is unnecessary. Remember: Moderation in all things.

Beats are the actions that accompany dialogue and show how the speaker is feeling or reacting.

Consider how the following beats suggest Albert’s reaction to the envelope.
The envelope lay unopened on the desk. Albert wiped his brow. “It came today.” 
Albert, hands tucked in his pockets, stared out the window. “It came today.”
Albert picked up the envelope and smiled. “It came today.”
Albert waved the envelope and grinned. “It came today.”

NCIS
Here’s a scene with no attributions. It has a couple of beats and thoughts, but I think the dialogue conveys the mood and makes it clear who’s speaking.

“Back off, Kendall. I’m not drunk and it’s not your business.”
“It’s my business if it affects my case. Or my partner.” Damn touchy son of a bitch. The dumb jerk hadn’t learned anything. She could smell the bourbon.
Your case? How the hell do you think you got it? Because I gave it to you, that’s how. You’re a goddamn babe in the woods. Do you want to solve this thing or not? Because if you do, you need my help.”
“You got that backwards, hotshot. You need my help to stay out of jail. You’re the light at the end of Grayson’s tunnel, and he’s not looking anywhere else.”
“I can take care of myself.” He stood and grabbed his coat.

How do you do it? Anything you avoid? Bits of dialogue you want to share? Any advice or words of wisdom?

7 comments:

Ramona said...

Ellis, I agree with your moderation comment. Said is useful word.

I also like your illustration about the beats--they show so much about the character and the moment, and with no telling.

Nice post.

Peg Brantley said...

I attended a workshop in May presented by Charlotte Cook. Her small press won several awards over the years, and she's firmly convinced that making sure there were plenty of dialogue tags or beats is one of the success markers of a well-edited manuscript.

A point she made was how a reader is pulled from a story if he has to go back and figure out who said what. Much, much better to have the 'saids' playing their unobtrusive roles.

When I first began learning the craft of writing, I avoided 'said' like the plague. Now, I find it's my friend . . . in limited qunatities.

Great post, Ellis. Thanks.

Polly said...

I think a mix of tags, beats, inner thoughts can describe a scene without too much of any of them. In either banter or arguments, I like my characters to bang out of the dialogue as long as possible without any breaks to keep the scene immediate. But readers can't lose the thread and backtrack to see who's talking, or you'll lose them.

Polly said...

By the way, your scene from The Peeper was well done and visual. You never lost the heat. Great example.

Ellis Vidler said...

I hate it when I have to go back and count the lines to see who said what. Mixing the identifiers, as Polly said, seems to me the best way. I try hard to avoid telling--she said softly--and to keep those dialogue-only bits short and make sure they're clear, but I miss sometimes.
Thanks for the discussion, y'all.

Polly said...

I find it interesting that writers in the know say to use said rather than another word, but when the subject of adverbs come up, writers in the know say to use a stronger, more descriptive verb to describe the action, which kind of negates using said. Writing can be so confusing.

Ellis Vidler said...

I don't think it really means a stronger attribution. Look for a better way to say it. Instead of "she said softly," maybe something like "she breathed the words in his ear" or, from his POV, "He leaned closer to catch her soft words." On the other hand, an occasional adverb doesn't bother me. Moderation!