Six impossible things

What they do while they’re talking

The last set of considerations in a dialog scene are not, strictly speaking, dialog; they’re the speech tags, body language, and stage business that happen around the dialog. But various students of communication contend that somewhere between forty and eighty percent of what we communicate is done with things other than the words, mostly tone of voice, body language (which includes facial expression), and delivery. And while it is possible to indicate tone and delivery in the dialog (see previous posts on punctuation and word choice), there are limits to what one can do within the quotation marks.

One can do a lot of surprise or sarcasm with italics: “That is your big surprise?” But a writer who wants just a hint or undertone is often going to need to go to the speech tags, body language, or stage business that can only be done outside the quotes.

“I suppose we can stop here,” he said, nervously fingering the safety catch on his rifle.

Certain kinds of delivery are much easier to read when the author describes them rather than attempting to duplicate them. Stammering is an example; rendering it typographically works well for the occasional stutter when a character is taken by surprise, but if one wants a character who has a stammer all the time, it is often better to use “P-p-please d-d-don’t” with a very light hand indeed, and instead just say “He stammered” and/or have your viewpoint character have to concentrate to understand from time to time. Another example is shouting. Putting “DUCK!” in all caps to indicate a shout works fine for a couple of words, but when you get “GEORGE ANTHONY THOMPSON YOU GET YOUR BACKPACK AND YOUR LUNCHPAIL AND YOU GET RIGHT DOWN HERE THIS MINUTE OR ELSE!” it is almost always more readable to put the sentence in normal text and add “his mother shouted” as the speech tag.

There are also times when the writer wants the tone or delivery to be a deliberate contrast to the words of the dialog, and again, the only way to accomplish this is in speech tags or stage business. One can, in fact, change the whole meaning of a conversation by altering the speech tags, body language, and stage business:

“That is the ugliest dress I have ever seen.”

“You’re right. It is perfectly dreadful.”

“Jennifer is going to hate it.”


“That is the ugliest dress I have ever seen,” Claudia said with considerable relish.

Dan’s lips twitched, but he kept his voice grave. “You’re right. It is perfectly dreadful.”

Claudia didn’t even try to hold back a broad grin. “Jennifer is going to hate it.”


Claudia frowned. “That is the ugliest dress I have ever seen.”

“You’re right,” Dan said, eyeing the frills, bows and flounces with distaste. “It is perfectly dreadful.”

They stared at it for another moment, then Claudia shook her head and said worriedly, “Jennifer is going to hate it.”

The first, plain-vanilla version lets the reader read in whatever tone of voice and delivery they think is reasonable. This can work very well, as long as the characters’ reactions are pretty much what one would expect them to be from the dialog. If the writer wants something more like the second example, where Claudia and Dan are apparently rejoicing in just how much Jennifer is going to hate this dress, either the dialog has to be radically rewritten (in which case it will lose a lot of its punch), or else the reactions have to go in tone of voice and stage business. The third example is, at first blush, pretty much what you’d expect from the plain-vanilla dialog, but to my eye, it does more than the plain version because the reactions indicate that this isn’t just about an ugly dress. Claudia is worried, right from the start, rather than repelled, and by the end, we know why – she’s really concerned about Jennifer’s reaction.

Speech tags and stage business can do a lot to imply delivery and pacing of dialog simply by where you put them. The exterior information can go right before a line of dialog, as with “Dan’s lips twitched,” “Claudia didn’t try,” and “Claudia frowned.” It can come immediately after the dialog, as in “Claudia said with relish.” Or it can break up the dialog, implying both a slight pause for emphasis and a more simultaneous action, as with Dan eyeing the frills. In each case, the presence of the speech tags and stage business affects the pacing of the dialog to a greater or lesser degree.

As with pretty much everything else, the most effective use of all these techniques is to vary them. If the writer uses italics to emphasize words in every third line of dialog, it gets old really fast; if ninety percent of the dialog is tagged with stage business, ditto. “He said” is considered an invisible speech tag by many writers, but even that can be overused. Mixing it up is much more effective. As a general rule of thumb, the more obvious and/or easy to spot a technique is (like italics or ellipses), the more sparingly the writer needs to use it to keep it effective.

  1. That is something that can be done effectively in other media. The example I like was in the movie “Shane”. There’s a scene where the rich landlord is giving his speech about how his way of life was dying with all of the settlers. It’s a good speech, but viewers don’t want to hear his whines – unless we are watching the two gun slingers walking in the background sizing each other up. That made that scene work very well.

    I also like watching background characters in stage plays. They can add to the entertainment.

    In literature, we can see responses changing things. I’m thinking of a humorous dialog between two Georgette Heyer lovers, picturing twinkling eyes and hearing the voice inflections.

  2. Oh, I’m so glad you covered tags and their placements and what they do to the rhythm of a sentence.

    I’m nearing the end of a rough draft (about 100,000 words) that is going to need heavy revision. This is a good reminder of tag usage.

    Thank you!

  3. This is only one reader’s take on it, but to me the second version of the dialogue comes across not as the speakers’ relishing Jennifer’s dislike of the dress, but as their attempt to avoid saying that she would really love it.

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