I've been reading a lot of student written stuff lately as well as comics (I'm so addicted to comics it's getting expensive) and I've been thinking a lot about dialogue tags. You know the part where you write She said. John screamed. Mary huffed like a kettle about to shriek.
They can get pretty out of hand with all the metaphor and similes that sometimes the tags can take away from the writing. But I get it. Writing He said over and over again gets boring. She asked and She yelled, aren't much variation either.
A lot of teachers tell their students to only use the tags Said, Asked, and Yelled. They do this to keep the bad metaphors away from their student's writing. But the kids want their characters to express themselves and those three options are very limiting. So instead of making arbitrary rules that even the pros don't follow, how about we learn how to use tags effectively?
First off - the really horrible line, "Get away from me," Mary huffed like a kettle about to shriek - doesn't tell us much about Mary. In my mind I'm picturing a kettle, which isn't really what the line is about. So instead of making this super creative, but not too effective tag about a kettle, let's focus on Mary. What does Mary look like while she's saying this? What is her facial position, head tilt, and body language? Is she stiff with fists clenched at her side or is she leaned back, relaxed, with eyes darting down to the person she's speaking to's crotch?
- "Get away from me," Mary huffed like a kettle about to shriek.
- "Get away from me," Mary huffed, body stiff, hands white balls against her thighs, a scowl slitting her eyes.
- "Get away from me." Mary huffed, letting her shoulders brush the wall, foot shifting in the dust, even as her eyes darted meaningfully down to his crotch.
Out of the three dialogues (which all say the same thing), only the second two actually give us something the reader's brain can work with - stage directions. Stage directions show what the character is saying outside of their words. It gives us the unspoken dialogue that a witty metaphor or simile may not.
In comics the stage directions are shown through images, the dialogue is in bubbles, and there isn't any tags. Think of your writing in this context. Use your tags to form images, to show the reader the unspoken dialogue, the attitude of the character, and to move the plot forward.
Help the reader see your characters and not a kettle. Thanks for reading!
NEXT TIME: How to punctuate dialogue.