Monday, May 14, 2012

Abused Dialog Tags

Copyright © 2012, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I recently read a short article about ways that many newbie novelists abuse dialog tags. For example:

“I’m so glad you’re here!” she smiled. -- (You don’t smile words.)
“Hell is too good for you!” he scowled. -- (You don’t scowl words.)
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he laughed. -- (You don’t laugh words.)
“I just saw a rat!” she shrieked. -- (You can shriek words, but there's a better way to say this.)

Here are alternatives to the examples above:

“I’m so glad you’re here!” She beamed a sweet smile that seemed completely genuine.
“Hell is too good for you!” His brow furrowed into a deep scowl.
He let out a terse chuckle. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
She let out a shriek and pointed to the corner. “A rat!”

Some argue that the only tags you need are ‘said’ and ‘asked.’ The reader’s eyes just skip over these tags, and thus do not distract from the actual dialog. While I am sympathetic to this view, and generally agree, I believe other tags are also appropriate, if used sparingly. For example, it seems reasonable to tell the reader that the speaker muttered, whispered, yelled, cried [out], or snapped. I also sometimes use ‘responded’ and ‘commented’ when it appears the lines of dialog are peppered with too much of said, said, said in a row.

Of course, the deaded adverb often intrudes into dialog tags, giving an impression of over-the-top writing by the author. For example:

“I didn’t really notice,” he said evasively.
“You’re such a bitch!” she said angrily.
“What would I ever do without you?” she responded adoringly.

Consider the alternatives to the above:

He averted his gaze. “I didn’t really notice.”
She bared her teeth and leaned close. “You’re such a bitch!”
“What would I ever do without you?” She tilted her head and gave an adorable smile.

Note that, in all of the alternative lines I’ve composed above, the dialog tags have completely disappeared. The speaker is inferred by the accompanying gesture or facial expression, and the reader is given a richer picture of the character’s emotions.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: Rogue Island

Copyright © 2012, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Rogue Island is a sarcastic alias used by Rhode Island locals; an affectionate reference to the state’s rampant corruption and mob influence. In Bruce DeSilva’s excellent crime novel, jaded Providence newspaper reporter Liam Mulligan is losing at love, is harassed by his soon-to-be ex-wife, and chafes at his boss’s mundane assignment to do feel-good stories about dogs.

But somebody is burning down buildings in the Mount Hope section of Providence where Mulligan grew up. People are killed - civilians and firefighters. Mullgan knows some of them. Despite his boss’s objections, he sets off on his own investigation, not trusting the city’s arson investigators, whom he publicly belittles as Dumb and Dumber.

As the number of fires mount, Mulligan begins to doubt they’re dealing with a classic pyromaniac, despite a much-touted FBI profile of the arsonist. The fires are confined to a specific rectangle of the neighborhood. And a few obscure real estate companies have been buying up properties in the same area. Homeowners who have been approached to sell are among the arsonist’s victims.

Rogue Island lays on a heavy dose of hard-bitten language and wisecracking dialog. Mulligan find himself on everyone’s bad side as he steps on plenty of toes to push his investigation forward. The cast of characters, the clues, and the action keep coming at a brisk pace, urging the reader to keep turning the page. At about 300 pages, it is a thoroughly enjoyable quick read.