One of the topics of discussion that frequently arises in writing posts is dialogue tags. When we write fiction and someone has a conversation, some camps say stick with “He said” and “She said” while others allow for some variations like “She replied” or “He grumbled” to add expression to the words as well as variety, as long as it doesn’t get too flowery.
“She conveyed”? Really? Opined? Would you use these words in conversation?
Eventually in all of these articles, we get to the fine art of using action verbs to indicate who’s speaking. I’ve taken to calling this “Shruggery”.
Why? I’m fairly sure that if a census were to be taken of various actions characters use to clarify the words are theirs, the shrug would score way above any other flip of the hair or crossing of arms. It comes up a lot, even in my own writing. The thing is, how often in real life is a shrug actually used to convey anything?
It fits most readily with young, male characters. In the Novel, Jumper, by Steven Gould, the main character, David, shrugs an amazing number of times when asked questions. It sort of works because in his situation, he doesn’t really want to provide answers, yet it’s often enough to stand out and make me take notice of just how often David shrugs.
Yet even with a surly, secretive teenager, there might have been other actions that could be interspersed with his trademark shrug to distract questioners from their objective.
When we are creating personalities for our characters, the need to sometimes use action instead of tags presents a real opportunity to instil habits and use body language to paint a detailed word-picture of who they are through repeated gestures, twitches or nervous habits.
What does your character do with their hands when they are sitting and waiting for something? Are they a nail biter? Or do they fiddle with their fingers or teeth? Do they bite their lip, pull at their clothing or drum their fingers on their lap? Or do they pull out a whetstone and start sharpening a blade? All of these actions say something about the character.
How does your character avert questions they prefer not to answer? With clever word play? Or with a distracting action? How does this fit into their persona?
The action can be situational. We all know the basic body language: The person resistant to an idea crosses her arms in front of her, the surprised person’s jaw drops, or the character reacts to an outside stimulus: “Jim’s head whipped around at the sound of an explosion.” The next words will surely come from Jim.
Perhaps something less dramatic: “Jenna turned and let her weight fall against the giant oak tree, leaning against it for support.” What is Jenna about to say? That depends entirely on what’s going on in the story, but it will be Jenna speaking next.
The point here is that there are many actions that can bring attention to a character’s dialogue as well as convey more subtle information to the reader to bring the characters more to life in the process. A good example from Time Shifters by Shanna Lauffey reads: “Who do you work for?” Akalya interrupted. Julia swallowed. Akalya could see that whatever she answered would be a lie.
In that swallow we know that Julia is nervous, especially as she is about to tell a lie. A little more of the sample would show she is being questioned at knifepoint and has good reason to fear.
Another passage I found rather well done from Force of Chaos by Lin Senchaid:
“What do you mean?” Lucas faked a horrified expression. “I’m the most religious person you’ll ever know.”
“What you take on faith, I know. I’ve never seen God, but I’ve been in the presence of my father. How can I have doubts when I’ve played Pinochle with Lucifer himself?”
“Lucifer plays pinochle?” Skevin raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Yeah, and he cheats too.” Lucas and Skevin covered their mouths with their hands to stifle their sudden laughter.
Rather a lot is expressed between the actual dialogue here. Lucas, the 15-year-old Antichrist talking to his closest high school friends, uses a facial expression to feign shock at a comment from one of his friends. Then Skevin raises an eyebrow, showing surprise at what he’s been told. Lastly we see it’s all joking in good fun as the boys have to hold their hands over their mouths to stifle laughing in class.
Using actions to attribute dialogue in fiction writing isn’t anything new, but it is sometimes done very creatively and sometimes only with familiar gestures that we’ve all come to recognise in real life, if not as much as in fiction.
Does it matter that it’s not entirely realistic? *shrugs* You decide. Let me know what you think in the comments
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