Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dialogue, Action, and Tags: Stay on Track

I’m not sure what’s going on in the publishing world, but I’ve noticed an annoying trend in the dialogue–action–tag sequences. It’s something one would expect to find in novels written by novice writers whose work hasn’t been edited. Imagine my surprise to find it in the published books of several longtime popular writers.  

Some writers (or maybe their editors) are separating a character’s dialogue and action by creating separate lines on the page. One line for dialogue and then a new line for action while the speaker remains the same.

Why is this a problem? Because a new indented line signals the reader something new is happening, not an extension of what’s been happening. 

Our eyes see the indent, register a new line, and our brain signals back, “be on the lookout, something different is about to happen.” Generally, an indented line in a dialogue sequence signals that a different character is going to speak. When a writer varies from this pattern, the reader experiences momentary confusion and can’t help but wonder– “Did I miss something here?”

All of which causes a break in concentration as the reader is pulled out of the story.

Who Is Talking?

I doctored this snippet from my novella, Susannah’s Promise. See if you can tell which of the two characters is talking. 

Naomi inched forward in her chair. 
“There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers,”  she said.
“Older than dirt?”
She couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth.
Naomi grinned. 
“Don’t forget, honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”
Naomi inches forward in her chair. The line indents to signal a different character is speaking, right? Maybe not, if the writer has decided to separate the action and dialogue.

The reader will expect a new speaker. When this doesn’t happen, the  story thread is broken. There’s a brief bit of confusion as reader stops to tray and figure out who is speaking in order to re-establish the continuity of the story.

Overuse of Character’s Name

To help keep the reader in the loop when separating dialogue and action, I’ve noticed some writers will tag the dialogue to keep the reader on track. For example:

Naomi inched forward in her chair. 
“There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers,” Naomi said.
“Older than dirt?” Susannah said.
Susannah couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth.
Naomi grinned. 
“Don’t forget, Susannah,honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”

Yes, I went a little over board above, but I’ve kept the reader on track with who is speaking and ensured the story thread isn’t dropped. That said, isn’t there an awkward feel to this example? An overuse of the characters names when there are only two characters in the scene? The reader should have no trouble knowing who is speaking. It’s up to the writer to correctly signal the reader when there is a change in speaker. 

Let’s look at the way I wrote this exchange in the novella.

How About This?

Let’s see what happens if we resort to keeping the dialogue and action of each character connected with no line breaks.

Naomi inched forward in her chair. “There’s a lot of factors at work, the main one the average age of our customers.”
“Older than dirt?” Susannah couldn’t stop the upward twitch of her mouth. 
Naomi grinned. “Don’t forget, honey chile, I fall into that age bracket.”

In this version, the pattern is clear and the indentations mark a change in speaker. Confusion is minimized by keeping the action and dialogue in the same segment with no line break. There is no need to repeat character names and the reader can easily follow the story thread. 

Why would any writer want to be associated with a style of writing that causes reader confusion? 

I can think of one reason: padding a print manuscript. Print books traditionally count the number of lines per page, not the number of words. A 300 page novel full of dialogue with little narrative is considered, for print purposes, to be 75,000 words (250 words per page times 300 pages). Using that formula, a 300 page book of narrative with minimal dialogue is also considered a 75,000 word novel. 

By breaking up the dialogue and action, you get more lines per page. Over a 300 page print book that means fewer words need to be written. 

I can’t see any other reason for a writer to adopt this pattern of writing. I’ve even more 
unsure why a good editor would let it slide into print. The writer’s goal is to bring the reader into his or her story world and then guide them on the journey. If the reader has to re-read dialogue exchanges because the writer is using this confusing trick, why would a reader want to finish the journey?