Tuesday, 30 August 2011

‘Hate is a strong word, but I really, really, really don’t like you.’

There’s a general writer’s rule that dialogue tags are bad, and no word other than ‘said’ should follow a character speaking. The idea is that someone’s dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own without the need to explain how it’s pronounced. Dialogue should show characterisation and allow the reader to form an opinion of that character without the author shoving their own opinions down the reader’s throat.

One such book that is guilty of dialogue tags is Twilight. I promise this isn’t going to be an attack of Twilight but more of an exercise. I’ve always had an issue with the character Jessica, Bella’s frenemy. She’s considered a bitch, right from the start, but in the reader’s introduction to her, does she ever actually do or say anything nasty? I decided to take away all dialogue tags, all exclamation marks and all italics, to let the dialogue speak for itself. Below is the result:

When Bella firsts sees the Cullens.

Bella: Who are they?

Jessica: That’s Edward and Emmett Cullen, and Rosalie and Jasper Hale. The one who left was Alice Cullen; they all live together with Dr Cullen and his wife.

Bella: They are very nice looking.

Jessica: Yes. They’re all together though – Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together.

Bella: That’s really kind of nice- for them to take care of all those kids, when they’re so young and everything.

Jessica: I guess so. I think that Mrs Cullen can’t have any kids though.

Bella: Have they always lived in Forks?

Jessica: No. They just moved down two years ago from somewhere in Alaska.

Bella: Which one is the boy with reddish-brown hair?

Jessica: That’s Edward. He’s gorgeous of course, but don’t waste your time. He doesn’t date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.

At the front of the cafeteria line, Bella is distracted because she sees Edward for the second time:

Jessica: Hello, Bella, what do you want?

Mike: What’s wrong with Bella?

Bella: Nothing. I’ll just get a soda today.

Jessica: Aren’t you hungry?

Bella: Actually, I feel a little sick.

Jessica: Bella, what are you staring at? [a moment later] Edward Cullen is staring at you.

Bella: He doesn’t look angry, does he?

Jessica: No. Should he be?

Bella: I don’t think he likes me.

Jessica: The Cullens don’t like anybody. Well…they don’t notice anybody enough to like them. But he’s still staring at you.

Bella: Stop looking at him.

Discussing Jessica inviting Mike to a dance:

Jessica: Are you sure you don’t mind…You weren’t planning to ask him?

Bella: No, Jess, I’m not going.

Jessica: It will be really fun.

Bella: You have fun with Mike

In the cafeteria again:

Jessica: Edward Cullen is staring at you again. I wonder why he’s sitting alone today.

[Edward indicates for Bella to join him]

Jessica: Does he mean you?

Bella: Maybe he needs help with his biology homework. Um, I’d better go see what he wants.

One thing I would state is that Jessica seems there to prop Bella up- to be the admiring/jealous friend who makes Bella feel even more special by letting her know how unusual it is for Edward Cullen to take an interest in her. Which really just leads me to think poor Jessica, as every boy she’s ever fancied seems to like Bella, and that would be hard for even the saintliest of girls.

This experiment works even better with Lauren. Yeah, yeah, I know, who the f– is Lauren? (Alex reads Twilight, hilarious videos on Youtube) If you’ve read the book, or own it, or can borrow it from someone, turn to page 104 (In the British paperback version anyway) and read Lauren’s dialogue without dialogue tags. What the hell? If Lauren’s a bitch, make her a bitch; don’t just tell us that she’s acting bitchily. The result of that, (for me anyway) is that the narrator comes across as petty and unreliable and paranoid, turning every innocent sentence into something suspect.

This is definitely a post where I need people’s comments. How does Jessica come across to you? Especially if you’ve never read the book. Knowing all of the dialogue tags, it’s interesting to see if someone who hasn’t read the book will pick up on the ‘finer’ aspects of Jessica’s personality. So let me know!


prerna pickett said...

hey Charlotte, the 'rules of the awards are posted on my blog...you pretty much post the pics of the award on your blog, or just let people know what they are, along with who gave you the award, pick five people to pass the award along to and write seven things that we may not know about you. Hope that helps!

Elana Johnson said...

I have a hard time with Jessica's personality, because of the movie. In that movie, she was like all hair-flippy and stuff, and she didn't come off that way in the book.

But I agree about dialog tags. I do use more than said, though...

Lisa Fee said...

Thats really interesting.I always write" said", though I worry that it gets repetitive.
I think writers some times put a bitch in as it is an easy character to create.

Charlotte said...

Thanks Prerna, that's really helpful! :)
Elana, I definitely use more than said too, though I try not to over do it. I think it's ok to broke the rules every now and again.
Lisa, I read a really interesting post discussing this the other day, but unfortunately I can't remember who it was. Basically what they said was that 'said' flows with a book so that the reader doesn't notice it, but something like 'chuckled' 'retorted' or 'simpered' for example, distracts from the narration and takes the reader out of the moment. I agree that a bitch is an easy character to do, but to paraphrase Harry Potter, sometimes you have to choose between what's easy and what's right. *Laughs at how pretentious and ridiculous I sound.*

Charlotte said...

*break and whose. God, I must be tired right now :)

Eleanor at Mirror Of My World said...

oh the writing in twilight is just awful i csnt stand it... x

Eleanor at Mirror Of My World said...

also go u on getting blog awards your posts are fantastic keep writing xxx

Isis Rushdan said...

Hi Charlotte,

I do use more than "said" b/c sometimes we need to break the rules. Very interesting posting sections without the dialogue tags. Truly does allow the reader to see the characters in a new light.

Charlotte said...

Thanks Isis, and I agree that rules should sometimes be broken. I think it really is a very useful exercise for every author out there, when they want to test the strength of their characterisation. Another general thought is that if the characterisation is strong enough then you should be able to know who's speaking without a name next to it, just from what it is the character says and their manner of speaking.

David Powers King said...

I never had the chance to read Twilight, but this experiment of yours is interesting. Awesome blog you have set up here! :)

Charlotte said...

Thanks David, and thanks for following! :)

The Many Colours of Happiness said...

This is really interesting. I couldn't stand Twilight, so I didn't read past the first few chapters and can't remember any of it! I actually really like dialogue tags, my favourite author Markus Zusak uses them well, and as such I have always been prone to use them to. I think they add in the tone of the voice. Often when I'm talking to friends it's their tone that reveals what they're really saying, rather than the actual words they are using. That being said, dialogue tags can be used really badly in literature too!

Charlotte said...

Markus Zusak can get away with anything. If I could write like he does I'd be laughing. :) You've made a really good point there- there are definitely exceptions to every rule and tone always matters. I remember my creative writing teacher saying that you can understand how something should be said from the section of dialogue you're reading. He gave an example such as 'shut up.' Yet my initial thought was that 'shut up' can be yelled or whispered even in an argument, so it doesn't always work. I think some readers like to be left to make their own decisions about these things whilst others prefer a bit more explanation from the author. I could never write with no dialogue tags at all, but I do recommend the above as an exercise to check characterisation. Ok, I'm done with my long, rambling answer. I'll 'shut up' now! :)