“I don’t know why you’re even arguing this.”
“I’m arguing because it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, Kate. Starting a scene with dialogue is fine, but plopping the reader down into the middle of the conversation? All that does is confuse everyone.”
She shook her head. “No, the uncertainty creates a lure, a hook that draws the reader in. Without some context, pronouns without clear antecedents prompt the obvious question, WHAT is the subject of this conversation? For that matter, WHO are these people? Even more specifically, are you a man or a woman?”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you called me ‘Kate’, and my action tag up there uses the pronoun ‘she’. I’m obviously a woman, but what about you?”
“You aren’t necessarily a woman. Female, yes, but you could be revealed to be a very mature girl, using an adult’s vocabulary. Or you could be a computer or a robot. I’ve seen that kind of twist in science fiction stories. I read this one by Robert Silverberg -”
“Don’t change the subject,” Kate said. “My point is that, by their presence or absence, the writer can deliberately use dialogue tags to reveal OR conceal.”
“You are most gracious, my lord.”
“Or should I say, nothin’ to it, General.
“Or how about, you’re just teasing me, Bobby Thompson!”
“Kate, I think you should lie down.”
“No, I’m just making another point about dialogue. Look, did you see what I did there? With any one of those responses, I not only let the reader know roughly what kind of society the two of us are operating in – a formal aristocracy, a military structure, or a teenager setting – I also gave the reader a clue as to what our relationship is.”
“Oh, I get it! If you’re deferential and call me ‘my lord’, you must be at a substantially lower rung on a rigid social ladder. However, if you call me ‘General’ in a familiar way, then although your military rank must be far enough below me to warrant the use of the title, our personal relationship is such that you feel comfortable using the colloquial sentence structure!”
“Exactly, and in the young adult example, our relationship is clearly set as a flirtatious one between peers. Not only that, but in all three examples, I’ve told the reader that you are a man, or at least a male, without ever using the words he, his or him.”
“Hey, that’s great!” he said. “With just four or five words, the WHERE of this scene is outlined, at least from a cultural standpoint, and we’ve got a good start on the WHO, since I now have a gender, a name, and an idea of our relationship. That’s a fantastic economy of words, Kate.”
“Thanks, Rob. The WHAT is now apparent from the content of our speech – we’re talking about dialogue. WHY is a plot issue, not a dialogue issue, and HOW is self-evident from the vocabulary we’re using. However, the WHEN is still a bit uncertain. What century is this? More information will help to nail that down, but rather than state it overtly via the dialogue, it can be done more subtly via the interstitial action tags.”
“What do you mean, interstitial action tags?”
She smiled and adjusted the antimatter feed ratio in the cryo-arc lamp. “They’re little bits of action. If you use them right, they can tell a lot more than the bare facts of what the speaker is doing. However, you don’t want to have too many of them in a conversation, because then it will look like we’re twitchy and overcaffeinated.” Kate ran a fingertip around the edge of her glass. “Even if we are eating dinner, for example, making a point of mentioning every bite taken, every time one of us reaches for the salt and every sip of wine will get tedious to read. Even facial expressions don’t need to be mentioned very much,” she said. “It’s better to let the dialogue be the focus, and just let the readers fill in the blanks.”
“That’s a good idea,” he ejaculated.
Kate fumbled the spiced almond she was about to eat, then jerked backwards, recoiling from the splash the almond made as it fell into her glass of merlot.
“Don’t do that.” she said, dabbing at her blouse. “Please don’t do that.”
“What? What’d I do?”
“You ‘ejaculated’ in the middle of a conversation.”
He blushed. “You know perfectly well that I used it in the sense of -”
“I know what you meant. Just don’t, OK? And if you can possible help it, don’t splutter, shriek, bellow, state, whimper, whine, expostulate, utter, roar, or any other similarly unusual verb. Just say or ask.”
He shook his head. “The reader will get bored if it’s nothing but ‘he said’ and ‘she said’. That’s tedious repetition,” he averred.
“No,” she said, “it’s invisible repetition. The reader won’t even notice it, whereas that ‘averred’ you used in your last sentence is like a gilt rococo frame around an ordinary picture. It doesn’t matter what you actually said, the reader is stuck on that strange dialogue tag. You were obviously trying too hard to use a verb other than ‘said’, with the only result being that you sound like an overused thesaurus.”
“You’re being overly fussy and structural. English is a rich language, with a thousand ways to shade expressions of meaning.”
“I agree, and if you use them in the actual spoken part of the dialogue, the reader will be impressed with your erudition and eloquence. However,” she continued, “keep all that fluff out of the tags. A lot of times, you can skip the tags altogether. If you show someone doing something, then go right into their speech, you don’t even need a ‘she said’. ”
“Hang on, you just used ‘continued’! What happened to ‘only use said’, huh? You just broke your own rule!”
“Yes, Rob, I did.” She crossed the room to the bar, poured a large tumbler half-full of Jonnie Walker Blue Label. After taking a sip, she came to where he was sitting, stepped out of her shoes and eased herself down onto his lap. The silk of her blouse whispered against his tie. Kate ran her fingers through Rob’s hair and gently lifted the glass to his lips.
Her breath was warm against his ear. “I broke my own rules, Rob, because I am the writer, and I can do whatever the hell I want.”
Tony Noland is a writer, blogger and poet in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His work has been featured in e.zines such as Evolve, and in the anthologies, 12 Days – 2009, Unluck of the Irish, Inhuman and Chinese Whisperings: The Yang Book. The most popular of any of Tony’s poems, Ode to the Semicolon has been featured on numerous grammar websites.
Tony is active on Twitter as @TonyNoland. You can
find his fiction and writing blog “Landless” at http://www.TonyNoland.com.