Tag or No Tag? Showing Not Telling
When writing every author will have their own opinions as to the presence and effectiveness of dialogue tags. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. However with every word counting on the page there are different schools of thought.
Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’ to only use said.
Others will use dialogue tags very very sparingly or not at all. Stuart MacBride is an advocate of this and his books rank very highly among my favourites.
Yet again other authors will use all kind of different descriptive tags such as answered, snapped, asked, howled and so on and so on.
Personally I now try to use as few dialogue tags as humanly possible with said being the only one I will use. My train of thought is that the character’s voices should be strong enough to denote the speaker. This for me is an extension of showing as opposing to telling. Different emphasis on certain words can change everything.
Take for example the three passages below which all have exactly the same dialogue.
‘Go away,’ yelled Susan
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ snarled Brian angrily, ‘you cheated on me. Why should I leave?’
‘Please calm down,’ cried Susan.
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’ Brian repeated.
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go,’ sobbed Susan.
‘And I have?’ asked Brian.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Brian, ‘you cheated on me. Why should I be the one to leave?
‘Please calm down.’
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go,’ said Susan.
‘And I have?’
‘GO AWAY BRIAN!’
‘I’m not going anywhere. You cheated on me Susan. Why should I be the one to leave?
‘Please. Calm down.’
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go.’
‘AND I HAVE?’
For me Passage A is tagged to death and I would not enjoy reading anything which was written in this way. Also I hate seeing the word “asked” right after a question mark. The question mark itself shows that something is asked.
Passage B is the middle ground and is indicative enough to identify the speakers without intrusion. This does tend to be the norm in most of the books I read and said become background chatter which is easily ignored.
Passage C is in my humble opinion the strongest of the three and says so much more than A or B because it treats the reader as an adult.
If the author were to have Susan move behind a table or shrink back from Jason in the narrative then it will show her fearing him. Or Brian could throw something across the room. It would be showing not telling, which every decent author always promotes.
We all have an opinion on this. Please share yours.
Morgen: One of my tips on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/writing-101 is about tags and follows this theme and it’s always interesting to see other writers talking about it. I also write dialogue-only pieces (no tags at all) every Thursday for http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/5pm-fiction. It’s great fun. Thank you, Graham.
Graham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses, dug drains and slated roofs to make ends meet. For the last eleven years he has been manager of a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland.
An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a regular reviewer and interviewer for the well respected review site Crimesquad.com for over three years.
He has three collections of short stories available as Kindle downloads and has featured in anthologies such as True Brit Grit and Action: Pulse Pounding Tales as well as appearing on several popular ezines.
You can find Graham via…
- Twitter – @GrahamSmith1972
- Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/Grahamsmithauthor
- Blog – http://grahamsmithwriter.blogspot.com
- Amazon Author Pages – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Graham-Smith/e/B006FTIBBU and http://www.amazon.com/Graham-Smith/e/B006FTIBBU
- Goodreads – http://www.goodreads.com/grahamsmith
And his books via…
- Gutshots: Ten Blows to the Abdomen – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gutshots-Ten-Blows-Abdomen-ebook/dp/B0089YIOJS and http://www.amazon.com/Gutshots-Ten-Blows-Abdomen-ebook/dp/B0089YIOJS
- Harry Charters Chronicles – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Harry-Charters-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B007712QB6 and http://www.amazon.com/Harry-Charters-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B007712QB6
- Eleven The Hardest Way – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Eleven-The-Hardest-Way-ebook/dp/B00771BMJ8 and http://www.amazon.com/Eleven-The-Hardest-Way-ebook/dp/B00771BMJ8
- Off the Record 2: At the Movies – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Off-Record-Movies-Charity-Anthology/dp/1291093672
- True Brit Grit – http://www.amazon.co.uk/True-Brit-Grit-Anthology-ebook/dp/B007Y0FBNU
- Action: Pulse Pounding Tales – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Action-Pulse-Pounding-Tales-ebook/dp/B008082QP6
- Flashy Shorts – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flashy-Shorts-ebook/dp/B008QQM4IQ
Graham is also running ‘Crime and Publishment’, a fantastic weekend of crime writing courses (I can say that because I was at the first one last March). 2014’s author tutors are Chris Ewan, Zoe Sharp and Michael Malone. Darren Laws of Caffeine Nights will be teaching attendees how to pitch to a publisher and will also be accepting pitches. More information on Crime and Publishment can be found at http://www.crimeandpublishment.co.uk and https://www.facebook.com/CrimePublishment.
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