Working Writer Tip: Tagging Plus

Last week’s post got me thinking about other tips for writers.

I wish I could give you the name of the author or the book that changed the way I wrote but it was so long ago that I can’t recall either. What I do remember is that I was reading an interesting book and, as usual, I didn’t have enough time to do it justice. Housework, kids, students’ homework and so on. So I decided to do what I often did when I was in a hurry and unwilling to stop reading. Forget the descriptions and zero in on the dialogue because that’s what moves the story along. You know how it works. You skip the long paragraphs that are most likely descriptions and zero in on the short, choppy partial lines that indicate dialogue.

I could not read that particular book that way because there were no long paragraphs and few short, choppy sentences. So I read the whole book. Every word. Then I read it again to find out how he wrote a story that couldn’t be skimmed through.

It was soon apparent. He used dialogue tags, those things most writers use as a way of avoiding using the word ‘said.’ But he used them in a way that changed how the story was written. And read.

He used dialogue tags to integrate into dialogue those descriptive passages that would normally be separate paragraphs and he did it so well that they could not be separated.

That made me sit up and take notice. I mainly write short stories and am always on the lookout for ways to squeeze more information into fewer sentences without distracting from the scene. Well….. I’d just read a book that did it wonderfully well and as soon as I figured out what he did, I started doing the same thing.

Consider the following three ways to say the same thing:

First, just using the word ‘said’:
She said, “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.”
He said, “I already did, and in their stalls.”
She said, “Good, they’ll feel safe.”

Second, using dialogue tags as they are often used:
She gazed at the sky. “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.”
He nodded briefly. “I already did, and in their stalls.”
She sighed in relief. “Good, they’ll feel safe.”

Third, using dialogue tags to move the story along, not just to tag the speaker:
She gazed at the sky, grimacing as a thunderbolt rent air thick with the storm that had been building for days. Weeks. Since they’d moved in. “You’d better put the horses in the barn. It looks like rain.” She rubbed her hands along her jeans.
He grinned, cocky, wrapping an arm around her waist until she unconsciously leaned into him and moved her hands from her jeans to his chest. “I already did, and in their stalls.”
A second, more horrific clap of thunder brought them closer until they were one body, one person. “Good, now they’ll feel safe.”

The third way seems longer, but remember that whole paragraphs of description have been eliminated by integrating the content of those paragraphs into a few dialogue tags and the resulting reading is not cumbersome.

Not all writers choose this way of putting a story together. Not all writers should choose it because writing is a very personal art. But for those of us who do, especially short story writers or any writer trying to reduce the number of words in a manuscript, it can put the whole range of storytelling tactics together into one manageable chunk. And that’s gold in the writer’s world.

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