(From a lecture delivered to students in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA program)
I love talking about dialogue tags and filter words. The concept is simple and making a quick change to our approach to these two things can vastly improve the quality of our writing. When I revise, I set aside one read-through just for finding, considering, and fixing dialogue tags and filter words. It’s the only thing I look at during that run-through, and often, fixing dialogue tags and filter words does so much toward the overall flow and style of the work.
First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. As pretty much every craft book will tell you, the simplest dialogue tags are the best: I said, he said, she said. Even more importantly, across every panel of agents I’ve ever attended or interviews with agents I’ve read, the use of overly embellished dialogue tags is a core place where an agent will find a reason to say no thanks, not this one. We want to avoid those robust, meaty tags like: he squacked, she screeched, I spat, etc. We might think these kinds of dialogue tags are good, that they’re performing a showing-over-telling function, but in truth, dialogue tags like the examples above call attention to themselves rather than the dialogue they’re attempting to describe. And also, those dialogue tags call attention to themselves for what the dialogue itself is not doing – that is, if someone squacks, or bellows, or snaps, or exclaims, it should be apparent within the dialogue itself or delivered via some other more natural means.
Example: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped, setting the plates on the counter.
Better: “Don’t take that tone with me.” She slammed the plates on the counter and heard one somewhere in the middle give way, the crack of mishandled porcelain, the splintering of her life.
In the example above, I removed the dialogue tag entirely and allowed the dialogue to stand on its own, the emotion then underscored by the action that follows it.
This leads me to my next point, which is that as much as is possible, do away with dialogue tags entirely. For the most part, readers can follow along with the dialogue, especially if you intersperse it with actions that then remind readers of who said what. This relates to the idea of using punctuation and organization to your benefit – whatever occurs in a paragraph together, whether dialogue or action or a combination, is being said or performed by one person. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker/performer. In writing, we have a term for when we break dialogue with small actions – beats. Using beats allows you to slow the pace of the dialogue, in addition to indicating who was just speaking. They allow a pause in the speaking, which then offers your readers and your characters a moment to reflect on what has just been said. Likewise, dialogue tags can themselves be used to break up speech, thus creating emphasis on various phrases:
- “Consider my perspective here. I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me,” he said. (speech followed by tag. All ideas presented up front and in quick succession)
- “Consider my perspective here,” he said. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag. Emphasis on perspective)
- “Consider my perspective here,” he said, sliding the contract back over the table. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag including action to lengthen the speech. This moment just grew longer. Emphasis on perspective, with the action to reflect his disdain for the contract.)
- “Consider my perspective here.” He slid the contract back over the table in one deft push. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech with no dialogue tag and only action. Same effect as above)
Consider Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” again. This story relies entirely on setting and dialogue to convey emotion. There’s not a single dialogue tag other than “he said” or “she said” and those are minimally used. Take a look at this excerpt:
“Then what will we do afterward?” [said by Jig]
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.” [said by the American]
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”
So the beat occurs when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The American has just said it’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy, and Jig looks away. She’s considering this. This pause is Hemingway telling us perhaps this isn’t the only thing making them unhappy. Then, look at the sentence after she looks at the bead curtain (hint: symbolism – a divider). Because her dialogue leading up to this moment has been a series of questions, we read this one as a question too, and yet it isn’t actually a question. It’s a statement. Hemingway flips the expected punctuation mark for a period and though we read it as a question, we hit the end of that sentence and realize she’s making a statement of fact. Now, I’ve included the final two sections because I want you to look at Jig’s dialogue there: “And afterward they were all so happy.” What’s her tone there? Is she serious? No, she’s being sarcastic. She’s letting him know she’s not buying it. That it isn’t going to be that easy. Did Hemingway write “said the girl sarcastically” or “sneered the girl”? Nope. Because he trusted in the power of that dialogue to convey what he wanted to convey. And he succeeds.
Read this story thoroughly and pay attention to the use of dialogue tags. Where does Hemingway use them? Where does he do away with them?
Filter words are indicators of feeling or thought which put an additional layer (or filter) between the reader and the actual sensation or thought being conveyed. Rather than presenting the situation mimetically, these phrases filter the experience through the narrator or focal character’s perspective. Filter words are: felt/touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or thought, etc. Take a look at the following example:
He saw the V of geese passing across the sky. He heard them honk, a father directing his children and imagined him to be saying something like, “don’t make me turn this formation around.” He felt the cool, crispness of an October morning through the thin flannel of his sleeve. He heard a shot ring out, cracking the morning stillness. Oh heavens, he thought, surely it isn’t hunting season already. And then he heard the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.
The first problem with this paragraph is that the sentences are simple and follow the same pattern – i.e. there is no variation in sentence structure (syntax). Worse, readers are not actually seeing the v of geese nor hearing them honk, nor feeling the cool air. Readers are observing the character see, hear, and feel those things. Compare:
Geese flew overhead in their V formation. The one leading them began to honk incessantly, a father scolding his children not to make him turn that formation around. The cool, crispness of the October morning seeped through the flannel of his shirt, goosebumping his skin. And then a shot rang out, cracking the morning calm. Oh heavens, surely it wasn’t hunting season already. And then followed the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.
How is the experience of this paragraph different than the one above? In what ways do you feel that you yourself as the reader are more engaged in this scene, seeing it firsthand? Now, as the above indicates, we’re in close third point of view. We are delivered direct thought in the line that begins “Oh heavens.” This is the character’s actual thought, and because we are in close third, we don’t need it to be filtered, but we do need to change “isn’t” into “wasn’t” in order to keep with the narrative voice rather than direct thought.
This principle around filtering applies to first person narration as well. Compare: I held the baby up to my ear and felt for her breath on my cheek, but there was none. I placed my ear closer to her chest, listening, but heard nothing. And I felt along her jawline, palpating that tender skin, feeling, feeling. And then I felt it – a pulse. –à I held the baby up to my ear, praying for breath on my skin. Nothing. I lifted her, my ear to her chest, listening. Nothing. My fingers palpated the tender skin under her jawline, but nothing. And then there it was, soft and thready, but there. A pulse.
This is not to say you can never use those words, but you want to do so infrequently and mindfully. The key thing to remember is that whether you’re working in first person or close third, readers know that whatever information they’re being given is that which the character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks. It’s understood. If you’re working in third person omniscient and move between different characters’ interior landscape within the same chapter, then using these kinds of filters can act as your transition point. For instance, if we’ve just been in a male perspective and then we get, “She thought about what he’d said and decided he was full of it,” then the phrase “she thought” is our transition point. You can do it with any sensation as the trigger point that we’re changing perspectives, but once you’ve indicated that transition, it’s back to avoiding them entirely.
Here are some additional resources to aid in your study of dialogue tags and filter words: