Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dialogue Tags

Week of May 1—He Said, She Said—Dialogue in Picture Books
Tuesday, May 3—Dialogue Tags

I’ve written about dialogue tags before. Dialogue tags are one of the things I love to play with when I’m writing. I’ve heard in some workshops to always stick with said, responded, asked—the basic dialogue tags. I’m beginning to think that suggestion might be truer in novels than in picture books. Why? Because our word count is so limited and our need to communicate emotions, character development, and action are so important.

My editor from Golden Books-Random House recently gave me the challenge of cowboy-ing up a manuscript. (Yes, the book is about cowboys!) One of the first things I worked on was dialogue tags. Think of all the words that might describe how a cowboy says something: hollered, yodelled, yehawed, yelped, goaded, and on and on and on. My editor (and the publisher) loved the cowboy-ing up I did.

I also exchanged several emails with my editor about the placement of tags—should I use said Mack or Mack said? I most often put the tag after the name, my editor most often places tags before names. We found a mixture of the two seemed to work well in my book.

In her book, Comes a Wind, Linda Arms White uses a variety of dialogue tags for the two brother characters who are always arguing. On the other hand, the calm mother in the book uses (for the most part) more “normal” verbs such as said. The dialogue tags used for the brothers are:


Notice how the dialogue tags help us to see the escalating tension between brothers and a bit of their personalities.

 In The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith, O’Neill’s central character, Mean Jean, has two tags associated with her dialogue—growled and howled. The fact that the tags are repeated makes Mean Jean appear even more menacing. When the character of Katie Sue is introduced, different dialogue tags are used—said, sang, and sang out. O’Neil uses dialogue tags to differentiate between the two central characters. Another unnamed character gets one line of dialogue and one “regular” dialogue tag—called out.

Now, let’s look at a completely different example. Chicken Dance, the hilarious product of Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat, uses dialogue tags sparsely. When she does use a dialogue tag, Sauer’s usually chooses said. She also uses yelled, whispered, called, and crooned. (Crooned, by the way, is the choice for Elvis Poultry’s dialogue. How hilarious is that?!) What is most interesting to me about this book is that Sauer often doesn’t use dialogue tags at all. Instead, she opts to identify the character speaking in other ways. Here’s an example:

Marge and Lola waded ashore and spit water from their beaks.
“Any other big ideas?” said Lola.
Marge stared at the setting sun. “Too late. It’s show time. We’ll have to wing it.”
The chickens bumbled off to the barn, found their seats, and settled in for the show.

We know Marge is speaking so a dialogue tag is not needed. Take a look at another example:

The ducks paraded by.
“Don’t bother, drumsticks.”
“Ducks in every year.”
“All a chicken can do is bawk, flap, and shake.”
Marge and Lola ignored the quackers and tested out their talents.

There is no need to write said the duck, quacked the second duck, or another duck laughed. The idea is clear and the word count is reduced!

The moral of the story is, don’t shy away from dialogue tags. But make sure they are working for you and not working your nerves. Each word in your manuscript has to be chosen carefully. If an “unusual” dialogue tag adds to the story, use it. If not, opt for said or restructure the sentence so a dialogue tag is not needed.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Go on a dialogue-tag hunt. Pull out some of your favorite picture books and make a list of the dialogue tags you discover. Make note of how authors structure their sentences and the placement of their dialogue tags.


Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Super post! I was just having this discussion with one of my cps. Thanks so much....BTW, Tammi Sauer is wonderful! Her book Mostly Monserly is awesome!

Christie Wright Wild said...

LOVE this post. Thanks so much for sharing. It is so much fun!

The Storylady said...

In my WIP chapter book(I know, not a picture book, but the word count still needs to be held down) I need to decide between using "her mom said," or "Mom said." It's written in third person, main character's point of view. Do I use "her mom," "her dad" over and over, or do I give them the names "Mom" and "Dad"? Do you think it matters?

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Chrisite and Sharon! I needed that shot in the arm!

Storylady, simple is best. I think the reader will know it's "her" mom, dad, etc. The "said" makes it past tense anyway! Go forth and conquer!

Katyb said...

Thanks for the blog, Rob!
In a picture book manuscript, how should I identify who is talking if I don't want it to be part of the text (i.e. it will be evident from the pictures). Do I use the character names with colons? (E.g. Dad: Good night, Katy. Katy: Good night, Dad). Or do I just write the text and leave it to the editor and illustrator to understand who is talking? (E.g. Good night, Katy. Good night, Dad).
Thanks for your help!

Rob Sanders said...

Hey, Katy! Great question. It's difficult to answer without seeing the entire manuscript, however, the first thing I want to say is don't leave it up to the editor and illustrator to figure out. The msnuscript must stand on its own. I don't know that you want an entire manuscript without dialogue tags...you need to leave some crumbs for the reader to follow. But if you wrote your example like this:
Good night, Dad.
Good night, Katie.
Don't let the bed bug bites.
Don't bite the bed bugs.

I can tell in all four lines who is talking. Katie spoke to dad. I know dad is talking back in line 2 (and line 2 identifies the speaker in line 1). Then I know the pattern continues in the two following lines--Katie says line 1, Dad says line 2. (just like in a novel). Make sense?