This is the nineteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When I work with new writers, one thing I often notice is their lack of faith in their dialogue: They don’t trust that it’s strong enough to stand on its own. They feel that they must add something to really get the point across. These writers add action words to their dialogue tags in an attempt to hide any flaws they fear may be hiding in their characters’ verbal interactions. In other words, they do everything they can to make certain that the reader gets the full import of what the characters are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to communicate.
Often, and unfortunately, these action words take the form of gerunds. Let me follow this with a caveat: Gerunds in dialogue tags are not always a bad thing if they’re used purposefully and sparingly. I use them. Other writers I admire use them. But if I’ve used a gerund in a dialogue tag then I can defend it because I’ve already spent a good deal of time trying to consider whether or not to use it.
The gerunds in dialogue tags that bother me are the ones that are clearly there to underpin weakness in the dialogue. This happens when writers feel they need an action to complement a line of dialogue. Here’s an example:
“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders.
Let’s add an adverb and make that gerund really awful.
“What do you mean?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders nervously.
The writer (in this case, me) felt the need to add that gerund (and perhaps the adjective as well) because the dialogue itself was pretty weak. “What do you mean?” is a boring question. Anyone can ask this, but your character can’t just be anyone. He has to be a particular person with particular turns of phrase and particular movements (what are often called “beats” in dialogue) to flesh out what he means.
Let’s give it another try, and this time let’s write a better line of dialogue that essentially says the same thing as our original, just more clearly.
“What am I supposed to say to that?” He shrugged his shoulders. “What does that even mean?”
I tinkered a little with the original line and split it into two, but I divided the two lines with the beat of action. I feel like my two lines are pretty strong, and they seem particular to this person, whoever he is. Because my dialogue is strong, it doesn’t need the support of action. So my action can stand alone.
The action also does something the dialogue cannot do. It illustrates visually what the dialogue means verbally. The phrase “What am I supposed to say to that?” is a phrase of exasperation, so the action takes this a step further and shows exasperation. The follow-up question of “What does that even mean?” amplifies both the original question and the action.
If I had kept the gerund shrugging it would have combined the dialogue and the action, which crowds the reader’s mind in asking her or him to do two things at once: see and hear. Let’s focus on asking one thing of our reader at a time. The act of reading is not the act of movie watching, which often requires viewers both to see and hear at the same time. Literature and film cannot do the same things in the same ways.
The gerund shrugging is also a weak action word because it does not have a clearly demarcated time of beginning. How long has this guy been shrugging? After all, we enter the word “shrugging,” and presumably the dialogue, as the shrugging is already under way. On the other hand, when we read the line “He shrugged his shoulders” we are entering the action at the moment it begins. It has not been unfold-ing since an indeterminate moment in time. The action feels particular, as if it is caused by the line of dialogue that precedes it. It gives us a chance both to digest the dialogue and imagine the action. It does not ask us to do both at the same time with the confusion of wondering when the shrugging actually began. This is deliberate writing. We should all be deliberate writers.
I want to close with a few lines of dialogue from my upcoming novel, The Last Ballad. In this scene, a man has just come up a riverbank and met a small boy standing at a crossroad. The boy is staring down into a ditch where his injured dog is lying. The man asks the boy where they are.
The boy lifted his eyes from the ditch and looked around as if getting his bearings.
“Gaston,” the boy finally said.
“Gaston,” he repeated. He looked down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”
The boy shrugged.
“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here.’”
I worked really hard on this scene. I wanted it to communicate an edge of laconic strangeness. The boy’s poverty has rendered him a bit provincial. The man’s travels have rendered him a bit wistful. I purposefully separated the actions from the lines of dialogue and cordoned them off in their own sentences.
But what if I’d used gerunds?
“Gaston,” the boy finally said, lifting his eyes from the ditch and looking around as if getting his bearings.
“Gaston,” he repeated, looking down at the boy. “Do you mean Gaston County?”
“Mama just says ‘Gaston’ when she says ‘here,’” the boy said, shrugging.
Written this way, the scene unfolds too quickly. The boy gives his answer about their location before getting his bearings. The man’s quizzical repetition of the word “Gaston” is marred by his deliberate action of looking down at the boy. The words and the actions do not go together. They must be separated and addresses and experienced on their own terms.
My advice is this: Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website is www.wileycash.com.