Writerly Wednesday: More Dialogue – On Tags, Sensory, Details & Gestures

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Last week I addressed how knowing your characters can have quite an impact on the dialogue you write. This week I’d like to address some more on dialogue, but this time, I’d like to focus on what I lovingly refer to as the ‘fluff’ that cushions the dialogue: tags, sensory, details and gestures.

Dialogue Tags

Tags are what guide the reader through a scene. Even though a character may have a unique cadence or rhythm in your story, without tags the reader can become lost in conversation. But what should you use as a dialogue tag?

This is a personal reminder of mine that I have posted beside my computer screen: “When in doubt, use said.” As writers, we have read more than enough posts out there in the blogosphere that advise us to keep it simple and use said as a dialogue tag.

Easier said than done, huh?

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to use ‘said’ when writing because sometimes there are moments when you *think* that that word just isn’t enough. And I think that what we should realize is that it’s okay to use other words when writing the first draft because here’s what’s going to happen during the editing process: every single one of those other tags will end up either being replaced with ‘said’ or removed entirely because they’re not needed.

But what else can you do to spice up the ‘fluff’ around your dialogue?

Take said and make it unique to your work. When you’re writing and/or editing, add descriptive detail – cushioning – around the dialogue itself. Not every line of dialogue needs to be followed by a ‘said’ – especially if you’re in the rhythm of the characters and the reader is able to follow along fairly easily.
Sensory, details and gestures are great fillers that add a little break in the dialogue when needed or help give the reader a bit of visual of the scene as it unfolds and comes to life in their imagination.

Sensory – smells, tastes, emotional or physical feelings, and the sounds that surround the characters in the scene are great to weave throughout a scene – especially one where a heated argument is happening. Here is an example from a class exercise I did back in September:

“I’m not having this discussion with you, Matthew.” Liv leaned against the burnt-red brick wall. Her face scrunched as a cloud of exhaust blew past her.

“Well, too bad, Liv. We’ve got an eleven hour ride back to New Orleans.” Matthew pulled a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and pulled them over his eyes.

“And I plan on spending that time catching up on some paper work. Not talking.” Liv crossed her arms over her chest and looked up, wishing she could hop a flight back home. Her attention instantly came back down to earth. In front of the station, a black suburban had a near-miss with a pedestrian. Liv pushed her body off the wall and watched an elderly woman walk, unharmed, into the parking lot.

If you’ll notice, there isn’t a single ‘said’ in that entire clip, but yet you can still tell that Liv and Matthew are the ones arguing and they are standing outside amongst exhaust and sunshine and they’re in front a train station at what is apparently a very busy intersection.

Details – What do you notice around you when you’re in deep conversation with someone? Or what about when you’re having a group discussion? Do you notice the way the sun is beating down on you? Do you glance around the room and notice that there’s a crack in the ceiling? Details – large and small – are another way to break up dialogue when/if needed. Here is another example from another writing exercise:

“Let me ask you something, Agent McKinley,” he shook his head in an effort to move the long dark strands of hair from his face, “when you left your sweet, quaint little one-bedroom apartment this morning, did you remember to lock the door?”

Liv had to keep herself from laughing. “What does that have to do with you pulling a gun on that waiter? Or much less the jewelry store you robbed back in New Orleans last night?” She crossed her arms over her chest then squeezed her hands into fists.

“Oh, it has everything to do with it. Take a look around the next time you go home.” His eyes darkened. “I left something special for you. I just hope you find it pleasing.”

“You’re so full of shit.” Liv leaned against the burgundy wall of the sleeper car, keeping her eyes locked on the man. From her peripheral, she could see they were starting to move into the more populated areas of Georgia. Only another hour to go and we can send this bastard off in a squad car, she thought.

Once again, notice that said was never used, but also take note of the details weaved within the dialogue – from the strange man getting his hair out of his eyes to Liv noticing out of the corner of her eye that the train is getting closer to its destination. The details broke the dialogue up a bit while also adding to the overall scene.

Gestures – This is my personal favorite because I’m one of those people who tend to talk to with their hands, especially when I get heated up. *smiles* In all seriousness though, have you sat back and actually watched two people in conversation? If not, I highly suggest that the next time you’re sitting at the coffee shop, the waiting room or standing in line at the grocery store, watch people’s movements as they talk. A small nod, wave of the hand, or an all-out-tossing of their hands in the air says way more than what their words can possibly convey. Here’s one last example with Liv – one of my MC’s – and another mysterious character who’s been trying to have a conversation with her:

“What is it you do, Alistair?” She raised her voice above the rackety noise coming from the tracks beneath them.

“Many things, actually. But Atlanta poses a new adventure for me.”

“That doesn’t answer my-“

“-I answered it the best way I can at the moment. I can’t give away a secret to someone I barely know now can I?” His lips pulled into a wicked smile. “What do you do?”

“I think you have an idea about what I do or else you wouldn’t have been pining to speak to me since we set foot on this train.” She uncrossed her legs and prepared her body to either grab the knife hidden in her right boot or run to the next car if needed. No need to bring out the gun in the left one unless he pulled his first.

“Ah,” he pointed a finger at her, “you would be correct.”

Liv’s movements in preparation to pull her knife shows the reader more than her words can tell: she doesn’t trust the man she’s speaking to…and she’s packing. When Alistair points his finger at her, the reader sees that not only does he already know Liv’s a federal agent, but he’s comfortable enough in this conversation to know and accept when he’s being called out on his BS.

‘Said’, sensory, details and gestures bring a type of cushioning to dialogue that could otherwise feel bland or boring.  Make your scenes and conversations feel real to the reader so they will become lost in the story and the characters you’ve created.   

What other words or types of tags do you use in dialogue? Do you add a little ‘fluff’ around your dialogue to break it up or add a little *spice* to the scene? What about details, sensory and gestures? Are you mindful of these items when you’re writing and do you weave those into your scenes to help them come alive for the reader?

C'mon! Don't Be Shy ... Talk to Me!