Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Taglines And Other Bugaboos
Have you read Lolly Winston's book, Good Grief ? I know this book has been around for a while, but if you haven't read it yet, go and buy it! Or take it out from the library. (No, I don't know her at all and don't even know anyone who knows her!) But I'm just sayin'. It's good.
It was her first book, which is astonishing enough when you read it, but it's also an incredibly moving story that tackles grief, loss of love and recovery. It sounds dark and yes, it has its moments, but it's also funny and insightful, too. And though I shed a few tears, I also laughed out loud at it.
She wrote it in First Person present tense, meaning we are always and only in her head and watching the action as it is happening. Now. Those of you who read a lot of chick lit or women's fiction are already aware that you're seeing more and more of this POV in books. For those who are longing to write in this tense, it might pay to study Winston's take on it.
One of the big problems with using this tense is that new writers tend to insert too many tag lines. For the uninitiated, a tag line is a clause at the end of a quote like "Blah, blah," I say to him. Or "Blah, blah, blah," he says, without turning to look at me." It's used to identify the speaker for the reader. ('Cause, ya know...sometimes we forget and we don't want to have to count quotes backward to see who's talking--you know you've done it!)
For some reason, this kind of tag line(ie: I say, he says) seems to jump me out of the moment, remind me that I'm reading in present tense instead of being lost in the story. NOT that it's wrong to use it. But I find it gets over-used especially with new writers trying to crack the difficult POV code. Maybe that's why Winston's almost invisible use of First Person Present struck me as so good. Maybe it's because there's often a better way to identify the speaker than to use a tag. Winston's characters voices were honestly so distinct, I rarely needed a tag line to know who was talking.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons this book is a good, smooth read and her mastery of this tagline issue is only one element. But because I'm always curious when I read something that works, I went back and studied what made her dialogue feel smooth to me. While she included at least one of those "I say," tags per conversation (just to orient us with the speaker), more often she used no tag at all (assuming there are only two people in the conversation and, how confused can we be?) or action or inner thought as a tag. This technique works for all POVs and not just first person, present tense. But here, it seems to accomplish what a tag line aspires to accomplish without jolting me out of the moment. Check out how Lolly Winston uses sub-textural inner narrative instead of a tag, as well. She says one thing, while thinking about something entirely different. But this inner narrative is always connected thematically to the dialogue.
When you're submitting your books to publishers, just know that tags tend to be a bugaboo with editors. Often they wave like a red flag. Editors are all so subjective. Some freak out if you use any other verb but said, as in "She said, I say, he said," etc... The argument is that 'he said' is an invisible tagline to the reader. While I guess it is true to some degree, if it's overused, like anything else, it seems to jump out at the reader, too. Some editors encourage these other tags. It can be confusing!
There are a few all editors seem to agree on. Tags like 'she gulped, barked or growled,' make editors (justifiably) pull out their hair and uncap a new red pen! Mostly because one cannot literally growl and speak simultaneously. They particularly object to using noises as tags, ie: he sniffed, she huffed, she clucked or sighed. As in "I wish you'd stop doing that," she sighed. Your characters can do all of those things. (maybe not cluck unless she's a bird) but they can't talk AND sigh at the same time. Hence, the tag veto.
Say you want your protagonist to snort. It's a funny verb. I like it occasionally. But instead of "Right," she snorts. "When synopses write themselves." (Ugh.) It becomes -- She snorts. "Right. When synopses write themselves."-- See how I've turned what would have been a (bad) tag into an action? Not only that, if you listen to the way people speak, often the action of snorting in disbelief, etc... will come BEFORE the dialogue in real life. Not after. Because we're formulating something to say AFTER we react to it. Not before. Try reading your dialogue out loud and you'll see what I mean. Literally act out your tags. It's an eye opener.
You can also try taking a page of your book heavy on dialogue. Take a red pen and highlight how many tags you've used. Then ask yourself, was each one necessary? Am I losing track of who is talking and if so, why? Is there something I can do to strengthen, or make my characters voices more unique so that we already know who's talking? Or can I find a more interesting way to help readers keep track of my characters by using action or inner narrative to identify them?
That's all for now. I've babbled enough for one post. Happy writing!