Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Defense: Characterization Through Dialogue Tags

A friend of mine critiqued the first two chapters of The Eye of Cruax, which is one of my many, many partially-abandoned works in progress. I'll finish it one of these days, I swear.

The work is (one of my) homages to Terry Pratchett, so it is a (mostly) lighthearted fantasy story that plays with the tropes of the fantasy genre. 

In the second chapter, the reader meets Ganthis, a lieutenant in one of the city's two major criminal syndicates. He is meeting with several of his associates in ye local pub.  One of the associates tells Ganthis about a job that she's just completed and, in response, Ganthis does this:

Ganthis gave one sharp bob of his head. “Good work.”

My friend informed me that the sentence was excessively wordy. He suggested that I replace it with the shorter and cleaner phrase, "Ganthis nodded."

It's possible that he's right about this, and it's possible that some Future Geoff--who will likely be wearing a silver jumpsuit while he's revising this story--will ultimately agree with him and make the suggested change. However, Present Geoff would like to take this opportunity to leap to his own defense and explain why he chose the words that he chose.


"Ganthis nodded" is a perfectly cromulent sentence. It works just fine. A reader will see, as if in their mind's eye, Ganthis nodding along with the conversation. The only problem is that "Ganthis nodded" is a completely neutral sentence.  From it, we know that there is a person named Ganthis who, at some point during the conversation, moves his head up and down.  The statement, while describing an action, doesn't tell us anything about Ganthis as a character.

The original statement "Ganthis gave one sharp bob of his head" is quite a bit wordier. It conveys the core conceit of "Ganthis nodded" in a much less efficient way (it's eight words to two, so it's four times less efficient), but it also, hopefully, tells the reader a little something about Ganthis.

This is not a man who is merrily nodding along with the story.  This is a man who is listening intently and who acknowledges his associate with a single, very precise, downward and upward motion of his head.  This is a man who does not talk very much (note now many more words are taken up by his action than by his dialogue). The reader may get the feeling, from these two sentences, that Ganthis is a careful, taciturn man who does not mess around.  They would, of course, be right.

At least, that's the idea.  I want to stress that, while this was my intent to convey more about the character through a slightly wordier digression than was strictly necessary, it may not have actually worked.

Time, and future revisions, will tell.

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