Floating Dialogue

In a previous blog post, I discussed why writers shouldn’t be afraid of using the word “said” too much when writing dialogue. While I did talk about being able to tag dialogue with actions rather than “said” and its replacements (whispered/exclaimed/etc.) I didn’t mention another possible route that will also save dialogue from repetitive tags. Not using a tag at all.

Now, it’s absolutely fine–if not sometimes preferable–to not have tags after dialogue,  especially in a quick exchange. The more words there are to read, the slower action will seem to be passing. So, if Bill and Sam are having an argument, it might be preferable to have an exchange along the lines of:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill said.
“You’re an idiot.” Sam crossed his arms.
“Who’s the one who tried sailing a bottle to China?”
“I was five, let it go.”

And so on and so forth. Without the tags, more focus is placed on the dialogue, and it, as a whole, reads more quickly. So, all in all, a good thing.

Why I don’t suggest not using tags as a suggestion in my previous “said” article, however, is it’s very, very easy to abuse it. While it’s fine to have some untagged dialogue, what you definitely want to avoid is floating dialogue. That is, untagged dialogue that leaves the reader wondering who the heck is talking.

As I have said before, writers tend to have a bias when it comes to dialogue vs. narrative. Some find dialogue difficult to write, some hate narrative, it really just comes down to what each writer’s strengths are. For those who tend towards dialogue, floating dialogue is a common problem I see with new writers.

Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but the reason I tend to write so much dialogue is that, where narrative can seem wordy and forced, the call and response nature of dialogue keeps it coming so quickly that sometimes I have troubles keeping up with where I want the conversation to go. Since I hear the characters talking in my head, it’s easy enough to just write what they’re saying and forget about writing what they’re doing in my head. It’s their words that are important after all, right?

Well, sort of. While, in those situations, you are probably doing the bulk of your story telling in the dialogue, the readers sadly isn’t seeing what you’re seeing your characters doing while reading. And so, while you are writing a powerful, emotional scene between your main characters, filled with brilliant, brilliant dialogue, your reader is being left with something akin to the written version of hearing a movie in the next room without being able to see who’s talking or what they’re doing.

While it’s a fine balance–you never want to talk down to your readers/hit them over the head with something they probably already understand–you don’t want to make it too difficult for them understand what’s happening. If you’re spending every other page flipping around trying to understand who’s talking, you’re more than likely not going to get invested in the story. When you aren’t invested in the story and it’s taking a lot of effort just to understand the basics, it’s pretty likely you aren’t going to enjoy the book/will be putting it down not too far in.

And so, if you are planning on using untagged dialogue, watch out for floating dialogue by:

1. Only use untagged dialogue when there are two people in the conversation. When it comes to floating dialogue, this is probably the biggest problem I’ve found in my editing work. While it’s fine to switch off between two people in an argument without tags, you can’t do that where there are multiple people sitting around. For example:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said.
“How are you?” Karen asked.
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Ok, hands up. Who can tell who’s saying what at the end of the conversation? Since Karen asks Sam a question (How are you?) the “I’m fine” is probably Sam again, but then, is it Karen saying “Awesome”? Or is it Bill? And who says it looks like rain? Bill? Sam? Karen? Depending on who said “Awesome” it could be any of them.

In contrast with just two people:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Perhaps still a little float-y, but at least you can more than likely tell it’s Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill.

2. Don’t use untagged dialogue when the characters are doing something. As stated in my “don’t be afraid of ‘said'” article, you can get around using ‘said’ over and over again by making the tags action. For example:

“How are you?” Bill shuffled his papers away.
Sam took a seat across the desk from him. “I’m fine.”

In this case, the dialogue tags are not only telling the reader who’s speaking, but acting as stage directions in a way. Going back to the movie example, with no tags and multiple people, you’re in the other room listening to a bunch of talk from who knows how many people. With no tags and two people, you at least can tell who’s speaking, but that’s all you have, a bunch of lines with no action. If all your characters are doing is standing around having a conversation, you don’t need any tags. If they’re moving around, though, you need to show it–and while it’s happening. Putting on an action tag not only shows the reader what’s happening (what the “actor” is doing on-screen) but it also keep the reader up to date. One thing I perhaps find the most annoying of all floating dialogue problems is something along these lines:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool, have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
While they had been talking, Bill had walked around the corner and pulled out a giant dog that then attacked Sam.

a) Action slows down when the actual exciting part is buried under a mountain of “this is what you missed”

b) For the past five lines I’ve been picturing Bill and Sam standing there talking, now I have to reattach it to the incorrect visual I have in my head, which means I have to backtrack in my mind slightly rather than staying with the action.

Both of these problems can be solved by simply tagging the lines with action:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool.” Bill slowly moved towards one corner of the room. “Have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
Bill pulled out…

3. Don’t put tags in after a new person has already entered the conversation. In the same vein of not making the reader play catch up to the action, if a third person enters into a two person untagged conversation, make sure the reader knows it immediately.

“Hey,” Bill said.
“Hey, how are you?” Sam asked.
“Not bad.”
“Awesome, do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know. It looks like rain.”
“Oh, hey Karen, how are you?”

Wait, what? When did Karen get there? Was she actually speaking when I thought it was Bill? When possible–if you don’t have a legitimate reason for keeping the reader off balance–try not to make the reader confused enough to stop and reread previous lines.

4. Even in a two person conversation, don’t only use tags at the very beginning of the conversation. Ok, so there are two people standing there talking to each other. Nothing else it happening, it’s just going to be a quick back and forth. Sounds like the perfect place not to use tags. You mark the first speaker as Bill, the second as Sam, and then go at it. If it’s a very short conversation, that’s absolutely fine. If it’s going to go for pages back and forth, still make sure you throw some more tags in their down the line, even if it’s just to make sure someone doesn’t miss a line somewhere and get really confused when it seems like Sam’s saying what Bill would. A good rule of thumb is to have names attached to dialogue atleast three times a page, just to make it clear which speaker is which. Of course, that’s just a vague outline. If it seems likely the reader is still going to get confused even with three tags, make sure you put more in. If you think it’s crystal clear, you might be able to go for longer between tags (though checking in with a beta reader/editor who can tell you if they’re lost will help you know whether or not it really is that apparent later on).

5. Remember the reader isn’t inside your head. And, as always, this is the big one. While it might be obvious in your head that Bill is saying something and then Sam is, you just can’t expect the reader to know that. While it’s so obvious to you that Bill’s moving across the room while speaking, until you’ve written it down, the reader just can’t know that. Don’t over explain things (if it isn’t important that the main character just got their hair done and put on some new sneakers they bought last week, you don’t need to say it. If you already said they don’t like peas, you don’t have to repeat it) but make sure you have all of the necessary information to keep them from being confused a couple of paragraphs down. Are multiple people speaking without any way for someone outside of your head to know who you mean says what? Then use tags. Is the character moving around while talking? Then use action tags. Are there just two people standing there having an important conversation? Then you’re probably ok if you don’t want to use tags for a little while.

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