I’m writing internal dialogue between Vinnet and her host. It’s Vinnet’s turn to reply. I know I want a short ah-ha! statement, something to indicate the speaker, then a longer explanation. Once again, I need to choose between a dialogue tag or a meaningful action with subtext. Once again, I’m a little stuck, because my character is really just a brain tapped into someone else’s brain but not in control of her host’s body. She’s very limited in both physical motions and in visceral reactions.
I encounter this dilemma every 2-3 pages on average, and while it bothers me and I feel I should have already conquered it, the continuous commitment to find creative solutions to the same problem is one of the things that helps me grow as a writer.
“Why don’t you just use dialogue tags and move on with it?” I’m sure you’re asking.
My first answer is, “Because someone told me not to use dialogue tags.”
“Well, that’s silly. Readers fly over them. They’re just signposts.”
While I believe that’s true for a lot of readers (excluding those who avoid them in their own writing), I stick to this, because it has driven significant improvement in my writing. It was one of the things I learned that helped me Level Up as a Writer.
One of my biggest problems as a writer has always been that I don’t show enough of the right details. My writing tends to be dialogue, a few stage directions, and just enough setting that I think you should catch onto where it’s taking place. But at the speeds that novel readers zoom through words, my default once-and-done, everything-else-is-implied approach doesn’t make for a satisfying reading experience.
But I’ve got my plot, character, and setting! What else does a story need?
A story needs a connection with the reader. And the reader needs more information than I default to. I need to stop thinking that someone else has downloaded all the context for the characters’ decisions and the setting they’re taking place in–and that needs to get shown on the page.
There are reams of metadata that should accompany the character and their relationships: past hurts and triumphs, cherished moments, cherished people, nemeses, values and attitudes, beliefs, political positions. Aspects of themselves that support or inhibit their current goals. Contradictions between what they want to believe about themselves, others, or the world, and what is actually true. People are messy and complicated on their own, let alone in conjunction with other people and in a messed up world.
And all the relevant metadata needs to make it onto the page, probably more than once in case it’s missed the first time. (I have gotten editorial requests to explain things that I explained only once in the book.)
Now, I could just info dump all that.
I’m sure my readers would love it.
Or, I could indicate portions of these things instead of dialogue tags. Little motions in response to dialogue can be big indicators of attitudes and (sometimes) why they’re held, rather than just breaking up blocks of text.
My writing leveled up when I started trying to avoid dialogue tags, and I had to find something else to substitute in. It leveled up even more as I learned more types of content that I could use as filler that also accomplished other purposes. I’m grateful to the writing professor who started me down this path.