Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Dialogue Tags

Pop here to see vintage witch tags, and to learn about Seed Crystals left behind by the ancient race of Lemurians.

And off we go again.

I thought it was time to draw a deep breath and read through my last ms again. Settled dust and all that.
Speaking of which, I've just finished reading Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Second best book I've ever read. Not least because one of the principal characters has a copy of my first favourite book, A Farewell to Arms, in his bookcase.
I was very disappointed by Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (an antiplot! And none of the beautifully expressive language I was expecting. And, if you swing from reader mode into writer mode, you suddenly spot bucket-loads of uninspired similes and wasted adverbs), and I couldn't get into Ulysses (although will give it another shot after Christmas). But in Waugh's writing, I recognised so much of what I've been attempting to concoct - like a warmer Hemingway. And Waugh is the first author I think I have ever encountered who shares my dismissal of dialogue tags.

Gosh, the argument still rages across the interweb! Said is/is not dead; said apparently being the wisened author's preferred choice of tag.
But what happens when we drop the tag? After all, the idea of a tag seems somewhat inappropriate anyhoo: when somebody tags along, or when something is tagged on, the word inherently suggests an afterthought - an unnecessariness.
Sure, the tag supplies clarity of subject. However, with careful structuring, we can create clarity without tags, not least by suggesting the subject immediately beforehand:

Peter tugged at his collar.
John narrowed his eyes.
'You're not thinking of asking her out on a date are you?'

To me, there's little doubt that John is talking here. (The NVC also helps to avoid any confusion.)
So no need to tag on said John, or even hissed John with obvious disgust. Could even be forgiven for plonking a colon in there too.

Occasionally the dialogue might rattle along between two characters for any number of pages, our brains switching from John to Peter to John to Peter as we pootle along. An occasional reminder - a cue - comes in handy, just to assuage any doubt in the reader's mind that John has just spoken:

'Enough of your nonsense Pete!'


And we have verbal mannerisms to employ too: everything from stutters to tautologies to any number of characteristics expressed through verbal foibles:

'Now that's not, I say not, on!'
'Good Heavens my deluded and softly-spoken comrade: grow a spine!'

So Waugh made me feel good about writing. His prose is incomparable. I could extract any number of lines from each page to warm your literary cockles.
From chapter five: here's how to imbue exposition with sensory stimulae and N400s!:

Tony had spent very little of his life abroad. At the age of eighteen, before going to the University, he had been boarded for the summer with an elderly gentleman near Tours, with the intention that he should learn the language (... a grey stone house surrounded by vines. There was a stuffed spaniel in the bathroom. The old man had called it 'Stop' because it was chic at that time to give dogs an English name. Tony had bicycled along straight, white roads to visit the chateaux; he carried rolls of bread and cold veal tied to the back of the machine, and the soft dust seeped into them through the paper and gritted against his teeth. There were two other English boys there, so he had learned little French. One of them fell in love and the other got drunk for the first time on sparkling Vouvray at a fair that had been held in the town. That evening Tony won a live pigeon at a tombola; he set it free and later saw it being recaptured by the proprietor of the stall with a butterfly net ...)


Back to dialogue tags and, as ever, I like a little balance.
I had to read the opening to chapter five twice because Waugh threw in a new character and gave me few clues with which I might make sense of this character. Also, there's little by way of reorientation at first - only the word 'deck' hints that Tony is onboard a seafaring vessel:

'Any ideas how many times round the deck make a mile?'
'None, I'm afraid,' said Tony. 'But I should think you must have walked a great distance.'

The dialogue continues in this way, without another tag, for half a page until this deck-walking character is given flesh:

The genial passenger was surprised and then laughed.

And at the bottom of the page, further yawning maws are stuffed:

Regularly every three minutes for the last hour or so, this man had come by ...

But for my double take, I'd say that Waugh accomplishes an awful lot of reorientation in this opening page, and perhaps for that reason he chose to keep the deck-walker under a shroud, and then only for one page. Furthermore, given that this man is a new acquaintance, I can understand why Waugh bonds us to Tony as he embarks on a new life, with a switch into third limited (most of the novel is in third omniscient).

So, having apparently broken my local library's record for 'most pages printed off in one session' (and golly, half a manuscript is quite a meaty thing to behold!), I have an exciting few days ahead of me. Sink or swim? Deal or no deal? Golden balls? We'll see. I must say, though, that I know exactly how to begin The Carnival-Panelled Piano now. Settled dust and all.