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“He said.” “She said.” Sometimes a writer needs them to indicate who is speaking. Sometimes it’s easy to insert them when, with a little effort, we could make our writing better.
Tags can disappear when reading a conversation. They may sound redundant in the process of writing them, but reading them may cause them to be ignored. However, the writer should not depend totally upon this approach although it’s easy to use. We are, after all, verbal animals, and our major source of communication is through language. What we say is important. What our characters say to one another is important. It reflects their feelings, desires and ideas. “I hate you,” is a clear indication of what the character speaking feels toward the other. Or does it? The writer means to convey a strong feeling, but is it hate or do the words arise out of hurt? More about this later.
Dialogue that is fast-paced, i.e., one line from each of two characters, may not need tags, assuming the reader can tell one character from the other. To accomplish this the writer has to have established a unique voice or manner of speaking for each character. In addition, determining who is speaking is a product of a character’s personality and relationship with the other person as well as the words chosen or the way in which they are spoken. This brings me to what I alluded to above.
Writers have the advantage of seeing action, events and spoken interactions as the writer creates them in the mind’s eye. The writer hears what is being said, sees the look on a character’s face and the person’s body language, and may sense surrounding smells and sounds. As writers we may set the scene by describing it visually as well as providing the smells and sounds that accompany it. The reader can “see” the scene and may add his or her own details depending upon attitudes the reader brings to the scene.
Here’s a scene and accompanying dialogue:
They relaxed side by side on the warm sand watching the sun depart from a sky filled with towering cumulus clouds. Smells from nearby barbecue grills and a growl from his stomach reminded them they had not eaten all day.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too.”
I guess we know how they feel about one another. Right? What more is there to say? As the writer of this event, I see the two as the reader does, on the sand, watching the sunset, hungry and in love. But there’s more to this than the words the couple exchanges. While verbalizations are primary in our communication, body language plays no small part. So…
“I love you.” She lightly touched his sunburned nose with her finger, smiled and snuggled closer to his body, taking in his clean masculine scent.
We understand fully. She’s crazy about this guy. She even likes his red nose and how he smells.
“I love you, too.” He kissed her temple, but his eyes held little warmth for the woman in his arms.
Oops. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he doesn’t mean what he says. Or perhaps he’s worried about something. Will tonight be the night he confesses to her about his past? Or dumps her for another woman? Or is he focusing on the man who is sneaking up behind them with a gun in his hand?
It’s easy to see where a writer could take this depending upon whether it’s a romance, cozy mystery, or suspense. Okay. In the spirit of the Halloween season:
“I love you, too.” He placed his mouth on her neck and bit her.
A writer can replace the tags with a description of body language that will tell the reader more about the situation.
As to the “I hate you” mentioned above, let me clarify.
“I hate you.” Tears filled her eyes and she knew she was lying to him and to herself.
The reader knows who said the words, but the description of what she is feeling modifies her words and opens the door to even more information about her and about her relationship with him.
How much detail the writer includes is dependent upon not allowing the information to intrude on the flow of the conversation. If it is a fast give-and-take, then the writer may only use dialogue, no information about what the characters are doing because the words are dominant and no tags because the reader knows who is speaking.
I’ve used a few simple examples here to demonstrate how writers can avoid tags. I’d like to hear how you use or avoid tags.