One of the best self—editing books ever written is Self—editing for fiction writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. If you don’t have it yet, pick it up. It’s my bible when I’m editing. I’ve read it a million times and will continue to do so for as long as I’m editing.
They’ve dedicated an entire section to dialogue and some of the best advice I’ve ever read. This is what they had to say that became my (aha!) moment.
“You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.
If you’re like most authors, you write sentences like these almost without thinking. What could be easier than to tell the readers how a character feels? If she is astonished you just say so——it saves all sorts of time and trouble. It’s also lazy writing.
I think that one paragraph did it for me and made me completely understand the mechanics of dialogue. Now I’m no expert by any means and I still sometimes catch myself falling into that tag trap. That’s my new word by the way——tag trap lol.
First off, this is telling in one of its simplest forms. Secondly, you haven’t reached deep pov and lastly you’re cheating your readers out of your true creative writing. Dialogue is one of the places your manuscript can really shine. In dialogue you almost always have more than one speaker and it’s sometimes important to keep from having talking heads. If you must use a tag, said is almost always your best bet.
I’m still getting a good foot hold on characterization but there are a few tricks I’ve learned that perhaps I can pass on. Getting deep into pov is one of the ways to determine one character from another. If you’ve done your homework on each character you will see that they’re often as different as night and day. I have a series with four brothers. Of course one of them gets killed off but they’re completely different. Gade is a bounty hunter and has hero instincts where as his younger brother Rio is completely anti—hero and it comes across in his attitude. He’s often cynical, sarcastic and sometimes just a pain in the tush. His actions clearly say “I’m completely selfish.” That’s characterization.
Using action instead of tags is another way to avoid the talking heads but as I’ve had someone point out to me recently it too can become repetitious. So place action only where it conveys a part of the character or helps move the plot forward. Don’t just toss in a raised eye brow unless he/she has a reason to raise an eyebrow. And then don’t do it again until it’s absolutely necessary.
Looking back at our example: “You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.
“You can’t be serious” conveys astonishment——no explanation is needed. And when you explain dialogue that needs no explanation you are dumbing down your readers. Trust in the reader.
There are many different ways to write astonishment. The way we react under the influence of emotion is one of the things that make us who we are.
Using one of the examples they use in the book because I am lazy today, let’s see the different ways we can use.
She dropped the whisk, splattering meringue up the cupboard door. “You can’t be serious.”
Here’s my sad attempts lol, so no flaming allowed.
A single dark brow rose over his cold blue eyes. “You can’t be serious.”
Both of her lily white hands lifted to smother the gasp and giggle. “You can’t be serious.” (Can you almost hear the southern drawl and I’ll bet she’s blue eyed with blonde ringlets.)
So essentially don’t use a tag unless you absolutely have to, get deep into your characters head and know what they would say or wouldn’t as well as how they would say it. I would be careful with inflections and accents in writing and use them sparingly. Although, I will say if you start a character using the word “yew” instead of you, than be consistent. Don’t let them slip into the formal you by accident. Again this all comes from knowing your character.
So tell me what other ways can you think of to convey emotion without using a tag?