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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dialogue—how many tags

Use dialogue and action tags to eliminate confusion about who’s talking, but don’t use so many that they distract.

Example one:

“Jenn is totally freaking out,” Trish said.
“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
“She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


This example could use a few more dialogue tags or action tags to help the reader understand who’s speaking. By the end, it’s getting confusing keeping track of who’s saying what.

Example two:

“Jenn is totally freaking out,” Trish said.
“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—” Trish started.
“Is she doing okay?” Venus interrupted.
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell,” Trish said.
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?” Venus said.
Trish replied, “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


The interchange is too bogged down with character names and dialogue tags that aren’t necessary for the reader to figure out who’s talking. Visually, it’s too busy. You want your dialogue to be clean, but not confusing.

Example three (this is how it is in the book):

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings.
“What brought all this on?” Venus picked up the game controller.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
Trish rubbed her back and winced. “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


Here, I have exactly three action tags for seven lines of dialogue. In my opinion, that’s a good rule of thumb—not too many tags, not too few. Most people can keep track of who says what without dialogue tags for about 3 or 4 lines, so here, I have four tag-less lines between lines with action tags.

How many lines you can have without tags also depends on how long the dialogue lines are, so don’t take the 3 or 4 lines rule as law. Use your own judgment and your critique partners to determine if things are getting too confusing without tag lines.

Go through your manuscript and see if there are places you can eliminate dialogue tags. Then, after you do that, see if there are a few places where there are too many lines without tags, and add one or two in. This method of culling first and then carefully adding some tags in later is usually best, especially if you tend to have a lot of tags when you write your first draft.

3 comments:

  1. Hi, Camy. Thank you for this post on balancing dialogue tags. As a teen I wrote too many tags, and then when I was in my 20s, I tried so hard to write in a "sophisticated" manner that I left enough tags off that I made my stories a bit confusing. Still learning and working on it...

    --Nedra

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  2. Camy,

    I like action beats but one can have too many of them too. It's all about balance.

    I'm not sure that ex 3, although better overall, is really better than ex 1 as far as helping the reader know who's talking. You do a great job of having two people volley in conversation. Authors run into problems when there are more than two people present or when one person comments, then something happens, and the same person comments again, changing the volley. Otherwise, in a straightforward exchange like this, it's pretty obvious, at least to me.

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  3. Patricia, you're right about when there are more than 2 people talking. In the example, it was my critique partners who suggested I add an additional tag because I originally didn't have Trish's tag on the last line. It all depends on how long the dialogue is, how long the sentences are, and the overall flow of the dialogue. Critique partners are helpful for this because I tend to be dialogue-tag-light, which sometimes leads to confusion.

    Camy

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