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Can we have too many dialogue tags and follow up actions? I am trying to think of a situation where it might make sense to describe everything the people do while talking, but it also feels overkill, because there are too many actions being performed.

For example:

"Is that your dream job? Being a cop." he said as he opened the door of the car, let him pass, and held the door open until he jumped into the car.

"Yes, I wanted to be a cop!" Robert said as he made himself comfortable and put the seat belt on.

"Oh, really? That's really strange, because you look like a thug. You dress like one at least." he said as he went to the other side of the car, opened the door, then jumped into the other side, and then closed the door and locked the door close and started the engine.

How would you fix this monstrosity? You can't really skip all of them, because otherwise the following dialogues and action wouldn't make any sense. I would like a special emphasis on what can be omitted and what needs to be said, etc.

  • 1
    I don't think it's actually possible for any of those people to say those words (the speaking of which would last no more than five seconds) while performing all of those combined actions (all of which would take more than five seconds, and some of them considerably more). So, it's not logical. They can't be saying those words while doing all the things you describe. – Jason Bassford Jul 23 at 1:22
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    A formatting note: don't end your quoted dialogue with a period if you are going to add a tag like "he said." It should be "Is that your dream job? Being a cop," he said, as... You do this twice. Also, if you end with a question mark or exclamation point, it is better to put an interior tag: "Yes," Robert said, "I wanted to be a cop!" He made himself comfortable and put the seatbelt on. – Amadeus Jul 23 at 11:46
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    The question asks about the relative proportions of dialog compared to non-dialog, but I don't think the problem with this sample is the proportions. The problems are more general writing problems. There are too many closely parallel constructions, each one consisting of "as he" followed by a list. And it isn't that the actions are too numerous, it's that they aren't written in an interesting way and don't contribute to the interest of the story. – Ben Crowell Jul 23 at 13:25
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Short answer: yes!

There are a number of related questions on the use of dialogue tags and pauses in passages of speech you can look through for more information, such as How do we handle pauses in a dialogue.

The problem that jumps out to me is that dialogue tags and actions take time to read and therefore serve as the pauses between spoken lines. If there's too much action, it causes a delay in the conversational rhythm.

All of dialogue has a rhythm, and people reading the dialogue will infer the rhythm from what is on the page. If this were music, the pauses would be demarcated by rests between notes, and they indicate a certain length. In language, the word choice and phrasing have their own rhythm. Longer syllables are slower; short indicative or imperative sentences without filler can be snappier, and they all take some amount of time. Think about the characters' speech as the music notes, and the pauses as the rests, and make the dialogue tags or descriptive actions between lines of dialogue take the same time to read as you want the pause to last. (Full disclosure, I wrote this paragraph in response to the question linked above.)

What to do with your passage? Cut down and space out the action. For example:

"Was that your dream job?," Sam asked, "Being a cop?" He opened the passenger door for Robert to jump in.

"Yes," Robert sighed, "I wanted to be a cop." He made himself comfortable and buckled up.

"Huh.*" Sam shut the door, rounded the hood of the car, opened his own door, and seated himself, all the while looking bemused.

As he buckled his seatbelt he turned to Robert and said, "It's kind of ironic, really,* because you look like a thug. You dress like one at least."

Robert didn't know how to respond to that, but Sam had already dismissed the topic and begun whistling as he started the engine.

As you can see, I kept most of the dialogue and most of the action. I just redistributed it and made a few adjustments to them to a) keep that rhythm flowing and b) round out the scene.

The small details I completely dropped, such as closing and locking the driver's door, were sacrificed on the altar of pacing. The reader probably won't miss it because we see him buckling up and starting the engine. Why? The door would have been shut out of habit sometime between sitting down and starting the engine, no problem. Locking the door is such an insignificant plot detail that to include it would probably call undue attention to it-- people may assume it is an instance of Checkhov's gun and expect it to become relevant when they get carjacked at the next stoplight.

*This was a bigger change, but here's why I did it: It would take time for "Sam" to make it to the other side of the car, so this response doesn't flow naturally-- the surprise of "Oh, really?" should be blunted by the physical limitations. The other reason I changed the longer line, unrelated to the rhythm, was because he asked the question about Robert wanting to be a cop, which implies he was considering the possibility already-- therefore it doesn't feel right to have his reaction be so demonstrably taken aback. The other way to fix this would be to change the very first line into a sarcastic joke implying that Sam knows (surely but inaccurately) that Robert would never have considered a career as a cop.

Now the pacing is better, but I think the actual mechanics of getting into the car are still tedious. If they're not important to the plot or the characters, try to replace them with something that is, or drop them altogether. Sam walking around the car takes up the time he needs to ponder, but you could just as easily fill it with Robert's observation of the bobble-headed Ganesha figurine that Sam has attached to the dashboard.

  • I'm reminded of the scene in the "Forest of the Dead" episode of Doctor Who where Donna-trapped-in-a-TV-show and Dr. Moon demonstrate nicely how a narrative can easily skip over nonessential details and the reader's mind will seamlessly fill in the gaps and wouldn't even notice anything unusual unless pointed out directly. – ahiijny Jul 23 at 16:18
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Your Tags are fine, your Actions might not be

I like to go light on dialog tags, only using them when it's unclear who is speaking. But that's my preference.

For the actions, if they tell us something about the characters - they are a stickler for seat belts because they are "rules people" or they slam the door because they are angry - then they are vital and you should include them. If not, then they are just in the way.

"Was that your dream job? Being a cop?" Rufus opened the passenger door and motioned impatiently towards the interior.

"Yes, I wanted to be a cop," Robert snapped, sliding into the vehicle.

Rufus grimaced at the younger man. "That's interesting. Because you dress like a thug." He slammed the door before the startled Robert could reply.

Crossing to the driver's side, Rufus throw himself into the seat. He glanced at his new "partner." Robert sat, arms crossed, frowning into the dash. "Buckle up, kid." He turned the key, and the engine roared to life. "Today's your lucky day."

Here, I was trying to get across that Rufus is a grumpy veteran cop - he's skeptical, he's impatient, he slams the door, he forces Robert to put on a seat belt, he doesn't like that he's stuck with the non-cop.

I thought Robert might be a little childish, not understanding that "thugish" dress will go over poorly with the police. So I ran with it - he snapped his line, he sulks when he sits down, he fails to put on the seat belt.

I left out most of the mechanics of Rufus getting into the car because it didn't add anything useful.

I'd suggest you cut away the unnecessary action. Only include things that tell us about the characters, or directly move the plot. Everything else is implied or ignored.

6

What happens in that section? Two guys get into a car and we learn that the cop always wanted to be a cop, though he dresses like a thug. There's probably no reason to linger on any of that.

"Is that your dream job? Being a cop?"

"Yeah," Robert said. He got into the passenger seat.

"Huh. You dress like a thug."

Just get them into the car and get to the next bit. A lot of story writing is just choreography.

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