While I was on vacation, I picked up a copy of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And it is heartbreaking, and staggering, and all of those things. It’s hard not to scarf down this book as if you’re a starving person who just had a plate of steak and potatoes set before them. It just goes and goes and goes and you’re there, hanging on every word like a life raft. At least that’s how I feel when I read it. It pulls me along and before I know it I’m a hundred pages down the road and an hour has passed.
One thing I’ve noticed about this book and come to love is that Dave hardly ever uses dialogue tags. And yeah, some writers don’t. But a lot of writers don’t write long dialogue back and forth strings that take up two pages. Dave does and the tags are absent.
And this is where, if it were anyone else, people would be jumping up and down, screaming, “You can’t do that! How do we know who’s saying what? WE’RE SO FUCKING CONFUSED.”
But you know what? With Dave, you aren’t. Here’s why:
By the time you reach a conversation string, you’ve read a walloping paragraph/page that has forced you to read at higher speeds. It’s nearly manic. His voice is so audible, it’s like he’s talking to you, flinging his hands around, trying to make a point. So when you come upon the conversation, you’re already a little used to speed, to mania, to some confusion, to feeling. You have already been listening in on Dave’s thoughts — now you’re listening in on a conversation.
Everything’s back and forth most of the time. Toph says something and Dave responds. We know enough about these people (I feel weird saying characters) to know what they sound like when they speak. We’ve spent enough time in Dave’s audible head to know what he’s most likely to say. So when there’s a conversation between him and someone else, we always know where Dave is, even without tags.
And the beauty of this whole thing is that without tags and without exact back and forth, (exact back and forth being that Dave says something and then Toph says something… sometimes Dave says something and on the next line, he’s saying something again) you feel as if the conversation is even more real and authentic. Because when people are talking excitedly to each other, or scratch excitedly — just talking, they don’t say something and then wait for the other person to respond. We frequently talk over each other. We interrupt. We correct ourselves, just change our minds mid-conversation and make a new, opposite point. And in this book, we hear that. And we hear it without being confused.
One of the things I find myself saying most while editing or working in a critique group is the phrase “dialogue tags.” A lot of people don’t like to use them. Which is fine. Obviously you can not use dialogue tags and everything will be fine. No mobs will hassle you.
But here’s the thing: Missing dialogue tags only work if the speakers are clear. And usually, if someone asks you to use dialogue tags, it’s not because you’re being a rebel and breaking the rules and this person can’t handle that — it’s because your dialogue is just confusing and your reader is simply asking for clarity.
The thing is, you can obviously break rules. Fuck rules. Who needs ‘em? The greats sure don’t. But the fact is that the greats aren’t just breaking rules willy-nilly and laughing at their own genius. Their rule-breaking is a kind of give and take. They find something new to do — and they find a way to clarify and qualify it.
Eggers couldn’t have had his long, tagless strings if he hadn’t first set the stage with his voice and characterization. Cormac McCarthy goes one more and doesn’t even use quotation marks — not because he thought it would be cool, but because when you read without quotation marks everything sounds just a little more silent, just a little more lonely.
So sure, break rules. But make sure you’re making all the considerations.