73 days to a novel: 40,000 words and not a dialogue tag in sight

Passed the 40k mark on Dark Heart this morning, leaving just under 60,000 to go. That feels good – it’s getting substantial now. With 41 days left, I need 1464 words per day, and based on this week’s progress I should be right on target.

I’m a big fan of the DragonPage, which is an excellent SF/fantasy podcast that comes out of Arizona, and co-host Michael Stackpole (New York Time bestselling author, doncha know?) is always on hand to offer excellent advice on the publishing industry and techniques of writing. In fact he has his own newsletter, The Secrets, which is an excellent resource for writers. One of the recent topics of discussion has been the use of dialogue tags – he said, she said, he whispered, she shouted, etc – or more specifically, the disuse of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are unnecessary and unnatural. Just take a sample scene: It’s an out of control spaceship, and our hero and companion have made a shocking discovery.

“The pilot’s dead,” Jack said grimly.

Wait a second – that’s totally fake. Imagine you’re in the scene and you’re the companion. If you were there, it would run like this:

“The pilot’s dead.” Jack’s face was grim.

That’s how it would be – in real life, when someone talks to you, you don’t think “Jack said hello”, you think “Jack was smiling”. Dialogue tags – the saids, asks, whispers, shouts, whatever – are fake.

Ok, ok, I’m being a little heavy on them. They are a tool of writing, and there is always a place for them. And they can be used to great effect if you are going for a particular stylistic approach for a piece (look at Hemmingway, for instance). But if you want naturalistic characters and dialogue, and generally more interesting writing, then don’t use them. If your prose is structured correctly, it should be perfectly obvious who is speaking, so dialogue tags are just unnecessary. Once you’ve got rid of them, you can focus on the important stuff, like the fact that Jack’s face was grim. There’s the interesting character point. I don’t know what proportion of an average novel’s wordcount is taken up with saids and asks and whispers, but it must add up. It seems to me that if you lose these unnecessary words, you’d be left with a whole bunch of extra word space which can be used for characterisation and plot.

Anyway, Mike Stackpole explains it with a great deal more flair than I just did, but suffice to say that Dark Heart has crossed 40,000 words with not a single dialogue tag in sight.

At the risk of turning this post into the newsletter of the Stackpole Appreciation Society, another thing he’s turned me on to is eBooks and electronic publishing. Now, I’m not going to attempt to discuss the whole shifting paradigm here, as this is a 6-month-long conversation that has been going on on DragonPage Cover – just go and download the podcasts and listen for yourself. But one thing I did get out of it was Legends, the eBook application developed by Michael Zapp for the iPhone and iPod touch. Mike S. has been championing this developer and his application, and for good reason – it’s a great application – and he’s got several of his own works available as a Legends eBooks. I got in touch with Michael Zapp to discuss Legends, and as a result, The Devil in Chains will be appearing as a Legends eBook in the iTunes app store very soon.

Legends eBooks are stand-alone applications – it’s the eBook and the reader application all in one package. Some people have (sometimes impolitely) suggested that this is the wrong way to do it, that you should be able to download a reader application, then load individual eBook files into it. I think this comes from a rather outdated point of view that having ten individual eBook applications on your device is bloated and a waste of space, but consider this. Each Legends eBook is only a couple of MB. The smallest iPhone or iPod touch is 8GB. That’s plenty of room! The other thing that some people have seemed to forgotten about is distribution – if you have a separate eBook reader, where do you get the eBooks from? iTunes only offers applications, music and video. You’d have to host your own eBook files, which (aside from cost) is an added complication for people, because they have to go to a new website and find what they want. If you have the reader and eBook as a single unit, it can all go in one place on the iTunes app store, it’s easy and convenient, and people don’t need to think twice about it, you just download your eBook like you’d download some music and start reading. It’s pure win.

So getting back on topic, Legends rules – black text on white, white text on black, touch gestures, portrait or landscape, zooming, you name it. Everything you need in a reader. And as the iPhone and iPod touch have accidentally become the most widely-used eBook readers in the world, the iTunes app store is a place you want to be. Check out Legends, check out Dragonpage, and check out Stackpole’s website – I’ve added some links to the sidebar there.

Tonight it’s back to work. Let’s see if I can hit 41,000 before lights out.

  • TC

    I have to comment just to defend dialogue tags a touch. Although overuse results in appalling prose, I’m a fan of the occasional ‘said’ to keep things on track. I’ve seen just as many (if not more) disasters when a vehemently anti-tag writer uses so many visuals to accompany dialogue snippets that the whole piece seems textbook and forced.
    The only tag I tend to dislike at all points is ‘whispered’ as 99.9% of the time it just comes across as tacky, over-obvious injected dramatic tension.
    So yes, too many tags equals bad. Too many actions equals bad. Too much dialogue with no accompanying tags or actions equals bad.
    It’s all a super-happy balancing act set above a pool of shark infested lava.

  • Hey TC, long time!
    Like I said (heh, said, gettit?), dialogue tags can be used to great effect, and when used well (but sparingly) or for a particular style, then no problem. But other than that they are not necessary. True, you’d never have three pages of dialogue with no actions, so the trick is to balance (as you say) dialogue/description/action to get some good prose going.
    However, it can be done without dialogue tags if you so wish, and you could take anything you’ve ever written and take them all out, and with a touch of editing it shouldn’t make any difference. With those words taken out, you’ve got some extra room to put some story in.
    Dark Heart will be 100,000 words with no dialogue tags. I might have it a bit easy – it’s all first person so there is a lot of seeing what people are thinking going on – but as an exercise it makes me think an awful lot harder about what I’m writing. If I don’t have dialogue tags, how to I identify characters? What makes the dialogue of a particular character identifiable as that character? So it helps in developing the voices of your protagonists and heroes, which to me is a good thing.
    So yeah, if you have to use them, use them well or not at all.