Beyond Trumpeting and Ejaculation; Other Uses for Dialogue Tags

I dimly remember an exercise from middle school in which we spent the better part of an hour coming up with synonyms for said:

She chortled…

He sobbed…

She gasped…

They chanted…

Long before we got to that pinnacle of 19th century linguistic excitement – He ejaculated – the limitations of the exercise were growing painfully clear. While it’s neat that we have a lot of words in English, imagine a piece of prose laboring beneath the weight of these dialogue tags:

“I love you,” she prevaricated.

“You don’t,” he expostulated. “You can’t.”

She stared into his eyes, then hissed, “Yes, Ronald. I swear.”

“No,” he trumpeted. “No!”

Some writers seem to think the example above is something to which all of us should aspire. Having graded thousands of high school stories and essays loaded to the margins with I lisped, and she labored, I can’t agree.

Often, of course, it’s best not to use a dialogue tag at all; carefully crafted dialogue can usually haul its own emotional freight without too much extra help. On the other hand, we’ve all had that vexing experience of losing our place in the dialogue and being forced to count down the lines with our fingers muttering, “John said this, then Jane said this, then John said this, then Jane said that…”

Contrary to the standard high school dictum, said and replied can be great options. Both are virtually invisible, inaudible; we read right past them into the heart of the quote itself, which is surely what we ought to be doing most of the time. At the same time, they help us to keep our place.

There is another function to the dialogue tag, however, one that has nothing to do with either clarifying the speaker or explaining the tone in which the words are delivered, one concerned almost entirely with pacing. Consider this exchange from A Dance with Dragons (unless you’re worried about MINOR SPOILERS. In that case, AVERT YOUR EYES!)

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

“Vengeance.” His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. “Justice.” Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, “Fire and blood.”

I love this passage, but let’s play with it a bit. Imagine it went like this:

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers. His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening: “Vengeance. Justice. Fire and blood.”

All the essential elements of the original are there, and yet this seems to my ear immeasurably worse. The problem is that the quote itself is rushed. Vengeance, as both a notion and a word, deserves its own space. If this were a film (and I haven’t watched the show far enough to see if it plays out this way) the actor would pause after the word, but an author can’t write explicit instructions to the reader: Pause here to consider my genius. Linger on this carefully chosen word.

Instead, the author controls the pace of the reading in other ways, in this case, through the dialogue tag, which is extended to include a single action and a description of Doran’s voice. My altered version, on the other hand, sounds like a grocery list: While you’re picking up the Captain Crunch, bananas, and milk, don’t forget the vengeance, justice, fire, and blood.

And, of course, in none of this is there a role for trumpeting, gasping, prevaricating, or any of the other tags I spent that childhood morning listing. Doran’s tag is punched up from said to whispered, but the verb doesn’t draw attention to itself. Its function isn’t to tell us how Doran is speaking – we’ve just had a description of his voice – it is, like all the other words around it, to slow the line of dialogue, to let each one of those brutal nouns hit home with all its force.

TLMB: What does it mean? A contest.

EDIT: CONTEST CLOSED. COVER REVEAL COMING SOON. But you should still scroll down and see some the hysterical entries…

After much consideration, I’ve finally settled on a title to the third book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. And it is… drumroll… drumroll…


Ok, that’s not it, exactly. That’s the acronym. We’re not revealing the title until we can reveal the cover, which is probably a couple of weeks out. In the meantime, this strikes me as a great chance to run a contest. Below, in the comments, put in your guesses for the title of this third book. There will be three different divisions, each with a different prize:

Division 1: My wife’s favorite title. Prize: KETTRAL ATHLETIC DEPT. T-shirt

Division 2: My poker buddies’ favorite title. Prize: KETTRAL ATHLETIC DEPT. T-shirt

Division 3: The title that’s closest to the real title: Prize: An ARC of TLMB (although they probably won’t be printed until late summer).

Rules: Only three entries per person. Contest closes whenever we do the cover reveal. And no, I’m not exactly sure when that is, so get on it!

GUEST POST: Connecting the Dots by V.E. Schwab

When it comes out writing, one of the most common questions I’m asked about process is whether I’m a “plotter” or “pantser”—whether I outline my books before starting, or fly by the seat of my trousers. As a fantasy writer, I have to imagine the majority of us fall into the former camp (the thought of setting out on an adventure WITHOUT a map is quite frankly terrifying). At the same time, I’ve found that knowing too much about my story diminishes the excitement of actually WRITING it. I need the kindling to light the fire, but discovery keeps it alive.

Because of this, I’ve realized I’m neither a plotter, nor a pantser.

I’m a connect-the-dots-er.

What this means is that before I start writing a book, I create five to ten plot points that absolutely must be present in order for my story to be, well, my story. Some of these are pivotal plot moments, some are twists, others are moments that reveal the nature of a character, but each is vital in its way, and together, they make a loose road map for my book. A way to keep one’s self from wandering 50,000 words in the wrong direction.

With A Darker Shade of Magic, for instance, the very first plot point I had was the inspiration for the entire book: the moment when a magician walked through a wall, and ran into a street thief who picked his pocket. This intersection of the two main characters, Kell and Lila, was a pivotal moment, a crux, and I knew that without it, the story wasn’t the one I wanted to tell, and I ended up working outward from that moment to find the other ten points.

But the important thing about connecting the dots is that I start with these marks, but not the lines between. Finding my way from point to point, that’s the blank space, the place for discovery. I might stray, explore, write myself down wrong paths, but I never stray so far that I loose the pattern, and I can always back up to the last plot point or work backwards from the next.

The advantage of plotting is that you have a detailed plan, but little room for inspiration. If you do have an idea that leads you astray, you risk setting off a chain of events the ripple effect of which disrupts if not negates your entire outline.

The advantage of pantsing is that everything is a mystery and anything could happen! The downside is that anything could happen and you might write yourself down a path of no return and have to rip out thousands upon thousands of words worth of plot stitches.

Connecting the dots is a way to introduce a controlled measure of chaos into the creative process. To stray without straying, to keep the story in your mind, the next plot point a guiding light in the distance, but the way from here to there filled with possibility.



V.E. Schwab is the critically acclaimed author of Vicious, which was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013, an Amazon Best Book of the Year (as well as Best Book of the month), a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice 2013 Book Awards, and the ALA top pick for Fantasy for their 2014 reading list. She is also the author of several books for children and teens, including The Archived series. You can check out her website here, then go buy her new book, A Darker Shade of Magic, here.

Please Help!

I’m really excited about this, but I need your help to pull it off!

Starting today (2/13) and running for one week (until 2/20), I’ll be giving away my share of all book sales ($2 for each copy of THE EMPEROR’S BLADES, $3 per copy of THE PROVIDENCE OF FIRE) to the charity Reading is Fundamental. The mission of this group is to put books into the hands of children who would otherwise have limited access. Check out their website here.

Clearly, the books I write aren’t kids’ fare, but I’m excited to put some of my income from the Unhewn Throne series toward this wonderful, important organization. If you’ve been holding off on your purchase, or you need a book to buy for a friend, this is your chance — you’ll know that some of the money is going to a very good cause.

Please share this message widely. Tell your friends, buy early birthday gifts, buy late birthday gifts, take out full-page ads in the Times. Perhaps most importantly, spread the message on facebook, twitter, instagram, and other social media. I’d be thrilled to be able to write a big check to Reading is Fundamental in a couple of weeks.

THANK YOU, and happy reading!

(Two notes: 1) No need to tell me you’ve purchased the books — Tor is tracking that for me, and 2) This applies to physical books AND ebooks sold by Tor in North America — it’s harder for me to get audiobook or overseas numbers, so I’m not including those in the tally.)

Dual-Wielding, Ekphrasis, and Dirty Underwear: Another Round-Up

Just in case the last volley didn’t fully satisfy, here’s another round-up of recent posts and articles I’ve done, most of them for The first two are about the ways in which writing poetry for so many years has informed my experience working in epic fantasy. Enjoy!

Altogether Elsewhere; or Enough About the Fucking Feast Already

Keeping the Underwear Clean; The Art of Formal Constraint

When My Wife Put her Face in a Fireball for Epic Fantasy

Three Ekphrastic Dialogues; or, No Dual-Wielding Until Book III

Reflections of a Snake Wrestler