Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, V

I asserted (or maybe "said") before that dialogue tags are a convention for accomplishing one thing, namely pointing to the speaker. But the tags themselves, no matter how invisible to the reading eye, have a rhythm in the reader's ear. Rhythm in dialogue is not only a rhythm of beats, but, for lack of a better term, a rhythm of meaning. This is an element of prosody that comes naturally to many writers, but only with experience to others.

There are important rhythmical differences between

"I want them and I intend to have them," Lizzie said.

and

Lizzie said, "I want them and I intend to have them."

and

"I want them," Lizzie said, "and I intend to have them."

Because prose, like music, is a linear modality, whatever comes last gets a slight, undeserved (and sometimes unwanted) emphasis. In the first example, we get the dialogue, followed by the tag, which throws the emphasis very slightly to Lizzie rather than to what she said. In the second example, we reverse this, giving the reader Lizzie first and then throwing the emphasis onto what she said, which tends to sound a bit more dramatic.

The third example, of course, is the most dramatic of the three, because it temporarily suspends the dialogue (indeed, suspends meaning), like an actor pausing for a beat in delivery. The suspense throws the emphasis heavily to the last part of the line. The first example imparts a more matter-of-fact tone; the third sounds as though Lizzie is really making a point.

The beat can be added even more effectively (and sometimes overdramatically) by what actors call "business":

"I want them." Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms. "And I intend to have them."

It is also legitimate to insert business through em-dashes, which break the dialogue without inserting a true tag, but let the sentence run without a period:

"I want them—" Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms—"and I intend to have them."

The convention on how this is punctuated is still under debate; you also see

"I want them"—Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms "—and I intend to have them."

and several other combinations. I happen to like the em-dash interruption, but it has had a pernicious effect on how dialogue is written, leading some writers to believe they can write

"I want them," Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms, "and I intend to have them."

That's a comma splice, as is

"I want them," Lizzie smiled, "and I intend to have them."

which, to compound the sin, has her "smiling" her words.

Some writers don't seem to realize that a full stop in the middle of dialogue is legitimate. So instead of

"I want them." Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms. "And I intend to have them. And if anyone wants to fight about it, they can see me in court." She glanced back over her shoulder with a feral glaze to her eyes. "Or, perhaps they'd like to meet me in single combat?"

we get

"I want them," Lizzie turned away and crossed her arms, "and I intend to have them. And if anyone wants to fight about it, they can see me in court," she glanced back over her shoulder with a feral glaze to her eyes, "or, perhaps they'd like to meet me in single combat?"

I have no intention of meeting Lizzie in in combat, since she's beginning to seem a bit daffy (and I have no clue what it is she wants, though she's pretty damned insistent), but the second version of the paragraph is a run-on trainwreck. It's fine to put business into dialogue with full stops. Not everything needs to be stitched together with commas. Honest.

7 comments:

Eliza Graham said...

Nothing to do with your post but I just ordered S&A and I'm hoping it gets here before the weekend as I'm out of books!

Tim Stretton said...

Without wishing to resort to national stereotypes, Lizzie seems excessively keen to resort to litigation. I had only borrowed the teabags, and would have been happy to return them if she had only asked politely.

Sam Taylor said...

Fascinating. I was just doing this last night (using "said" tags to control rhythm; inserting "business"). I do a lot of this, just by instinct. Good to see the instincts validated. Thanks!

David Isaak said...

Eliza--

Out of books? An emergency!

On the other hand--heh heh heh--that will leave her without anything else to read except S&A...

David Isaak said...

Dear Mr Stretton:

Those particular teabags were of great sentimental value. Our entire family is traumatized. I'd go into more detail, but I've been advised not to comment when legal action is pending.

In the future, please contact me through my lawyers.

Sincerely,
Lizzie

David Isaak said...

Hey, Sam--

I think that most of us do this by instinct. It's only when reading chapters by people with no instinct for it that I've become aware of it in a more analytical fashion.

You know the kind of people I mean. The folks who write ten lines of dialogue and then end it with Phil said. I mean, if the reader didn't know it was Phil by then you probably confused them, and if it is obvous that it's Phil, why bother? Hey--I forgot to rant about that one!

Jake Jesson said...

Love this 'series', David. Especially as I've always had a slight problem with dialogue tags, due to my first writing experience being on RPG forums. There, dialogue is written in pseudo-script format, such as follows:

---

Somewhere

*A character performs an action.*

Character 1: *as something happens* Hey!

Character 2: *loudly* I think we're being used for demonstration purposes!

Character 1: Ah, right.

*Something else happens.*

---

(Oh, the drama!)