Last week I talked about basic dialogue tags. This week, I want to throw in a few more complex tags
and discuss the use of narration as a tag.
A complex dialogue tag would be an added action or description accompanying dialogue.
"Hello," Ralph said, grabbing Amy by the shoulders and staring her in the eye.
"Hello," Ralph cried and seized Amy by the shoulders to stare directly into her brown eyes.
"Hello." Ralph seized Amy by the shoulders to stare directly into her brown eyes.
These are far from good examples, but I hope they do what I want, and that's show you how much more powerful a tag can be when joined, or even replaced by an action.
Example C could convey a need for Amy's attention or a desire to see if she was paying attention to him, or even that Amy is a youth and needs to focus on him. But adding "Ralph said" as in Examples A or B doesn't give us any additional information.
Rule of thumb: if it doesn't add anything, remove it.
Putting it to use:
Now let's go back to the examples from last week and make it more complicated.
"How are you doing today? I heard you were sick," Rose said in greeting to her co-worker.
Amy looked up in surprise and said, "Fine, thanks."
"How are you doing today? I heard you were sick." Rose grimaced at the pile of shirts she and her co-worker were supposed to price today.
Amy looked up in surprise. "Fine, thanks."
"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose whispered, not wanting her boss to overhear.
Glancing in her direction, Amy murmured, "Fine, thanks."
"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose said, pulling a shirt from the pile they were supposed to be tagging.
"Oh no," Amy said as she tossed a newly priced shirt into the pile, "everything's all better now, thanks."
"Really? I thought you were still sick this morning." She jabbed her pricing gun's needle into the cloth at the neck of the shirt and nearly got her finger in the process.
"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose grimaced at the pile of shirts she and her co-worker were supposed to price today.
"Oh no." Amy tossed a newly priced shirt into the pile. "Everything's all better now, thanks."
"Really? I thought you were still sick this morning."
Okay, now let's talk about these examples.
Both these tags work fine. There's nothing fantastic about them, they are merely nametags for the dialogue. In other words, I believe there are better ways to do things.
This example removes the tags from the prior example. I like it better, personally, for it identifies the speakers only by their actions in proximity to the dialogue.
Establishes the speakers with one "said" each, then uses actions to progress the scene. In my opinion, this example gets a bit too heavy on the action. What is the focus, the menial job they have or the fact that Amy was sick? That I don't know.
I think I like this one best out of them all. It's clear-cut and moves the scene along, it doesn't bog us down with unnecessary tags or description. But notice that there is not one single tag in this example, rather that action is used to establish the speaker, and then we trade off dialogue with the two speakers.
Like everything in writing, the use of tags is somewhat subjective. However, if you salt and pepper your dialogue with unnecessary tags, the reader is bound to get bogged down. Be as concise as possible to establish the speaker, and try to add things to characterize them amidst their dialogue.