#1 – DIALOGUE – SIMPLE TAGS

RESTORE BY NUMBERS

This will be a regular feature.  I’ll provide a passage from a master that has been vandalized (by me) at the numbered locations.  You restore the original. 

THE CRIME:

“Did you see the boy in here that night?  The boy who was painting the rocks?”

“What boy?” asked Redd (1).  Redd looked surprised.

“The Shiprock High School boy,” Chee answered (2).  “He saw your car in here . . .”

Redd looked stricken.  “It was the math teacher,” he expostulated (3).  “Not a boy.”

“We were wrong about that.  It wasn’t the math teacher.  It was a high school kid,” said Chee (4).

“Ah, shit,” Redd exclaimed (5).  “Ah, shit.”  He leaned back against the rock.  “So,” he sighed (6), “they’ll be after me, then.  No matter what.”

“Best thing would be to turn yourself in,” Chee advised (7).

Clue:

A dialogue tag identifies the speaker.  Focus on the verb.

Copy and paste the passage where you can edit it.  Then check E.J.’s comments below.

A Tip:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. – Elmore Leonard

THE ORIGINAL (Tony Hillerman in “Coyote Waits”):

“Did you see the boy in here that night?  The boy who was painting the rocks?”

“What boy?” (1) Redd looked surprised.

“The Shiprock High School boy,” Chee said (2).  “He saw your car in here . . .”

Redd looked stricken.  “It was the math teacher,” he said (3).  “Not a boy.”

“We were wrong about that.  It wasn’t the math teacher.  It was a high school kid.” (4)

“Ah, shit,” Redd said (5).  “Ah, shit.”  He leaned back against the rock. “So (6) they’ll be after me, then.  No matter what.”

“Best thing would be to turn yourself in,” Chee said (7).

E.J.’s Comments:

(1) The question mark makes it a question.  No need to say it was asked.

(2) & (3) Reference E. Leonard’s comment.

 (4) Delete even “he said, she said” whenever you can.

(5), (6) & (7) Ref.  Leonard.

On the whole, “he said” and “she said” are invisible to the reader.  Unless you overdo them in a passage of dialogue.

Bonus Tip: Note the underlined words (my underlining).  They suggest how something was said.

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About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website www.WhiskyJackPublishing.ca
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3 Responses to #1 – DIALOGUE – SIMPLE TAGS

  1. Kay Camden says:

    I’m in the process of exterminating unnecessary dialogue tags from my novel. It’s apparently a bad habit new writers get into, and I’m guilty (of over tagging, and of being a new writer).

    Is it really true you should *never* use anything but “said” as a tag? Not even once in a great while? No “gasped” or “growled”, even if it’s done with purpose and never done again?

  2. EJ Lavoie says:

    Never say “never”. It is the exception that proves the rule. An exception can be bloody marvelous writing.
    Upcoming features will touch upon overtagging. And yes, darlink, anything unnecessary should be exterminated from your writing. Love your word choice – especially since I just saw a news clip on bed bugs.

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