speaker tag woes

When a brilliant writer invites you inside his head, you don’t decline. In the Postscriptum to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco illuminates the process behind the book’s creation, from choosing the time period and location to fretting over medieval language. Though I’d like to blog my way through each section, today I’m focusing on the bit about speaker/dialogue tags (“Who Speaks?”). Eco shows five different examples of the same exchange:

1. “How are you?” “Not bad. And you?”

2. “How are you?” John said. “Not bad. And you?” Peter said.

3. “How,” John said, “are you?” And Peter replied at once: “Not bad. And you?”

4. “How are you?” John inquired anxiously. “Not bad. And you?” Peter cackled.

5. John said: “How are you?” “Not bad,” Peter replied, in a dull voice. Then, with an enigmatic smile, he added: “And you?”

In all cases except the first two, we see that the author intrudes on the story, imposing his own point of view. He intervenes with a personal comment, to suggest how the words of the two speakers should be interpreted emotionally.

Right. This agrees with common advice about speaker tags. But then Eco goes on to say:

But is this intention really absent from the first two, apparently aseptic examples? And is the reader freer in these aseptic cases, where he could undergo an emotional imposition without being aware of it […], or is he freer in other cases, where at least he knows the game the author is playing?

Aseptic – that’s the word for it. The very lack of emotion in said can carry its own special baggage too. (Eco points to Hemingway as an example.) An emotional void is unsure footing – the “what am I supposed to be feeling?” feeling. Eco drops the thought here, but it was enough to set me thinking…

When I started writing I found that expressive tags came more naturally, though (to my dismay) this went against the common advice concerning said. I turned to some of my favorite MG authors for guidance and it dawned on me that I was drawn to the more colorful tags because that’s what I had grown up reading and that’s what my ear wanted to emulate.

I finally realized that most of the advice concerning said was aimed at writers of adult fiction, but it wasn’t until I found this quote from Eco that I understood why. When you’re writing to an audience that’s still learning how to relate to the world, it’s ok to impose some emotions. You want kids to know the “game the author is playing” because they’re still learning the game. Train them how to interpret emotions at a young age, and set them free to tackle Hemingway when the training wheels are gone.

So my characters are going to continue exclaiming, mumbling, grumbling, muttering, gasping and scoffing until I’m tired of the noise and shush them.

addendum: I’ve shushed them quite a bit, but I still can’t resist a few juicy speaker tags. 🙃

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