What Your Choice of Dialogue Tags Says About You

One way to look at it is to consider any movement away from the exclusive use of said or asked a step away from the very “best” writing, from the kind of writing intended to be considered “literary.” If you spend any small amount of time examining blogs or books on writing, you will find that this is a very common directive: use said, asked, and nothing else.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the most common works in conjunction with that other famous maxim: show, don’t tell. If you use the word ranted to describe the speech act of one of your characters, you’re telling your readers how to understand what is happening rather than illustrating through action and dialogue.

Source: What Your Choice of Dialogue Tags Says About You | Jane Friedman

One of the first things a new writer hears about dialogue tags is how annoying it is when somebody finds a thesaurus and inserts a dozen synonyms into his/her story for “said” and “asked.” The result is often highly annoying except when it is done sparingly.

For humor, where was the ever-popular, “‘Ouch,’ he explained” approach and the campy Tom Swifty insertion of a punning adverb such as: “‘Let’s get married,’ Tom said engagingly.”

I see nothing wrong with substituting the word “shouted” when the people are far apart from each other or in a noisy place. Otherwise–as the article says–we have author intrusion into the story and telling rather than showing when we substitute words for “said.”

Writers can avoid the fact they’re inserting an editorial opinion into the story when they, for example, substitute a word like “ranted” for “said.” The character’s thoughts can show that he’s ranting and so can his facial expressions and movements during the conversation.

Big-name authors often take a stylistic approach to dialogue tags. One in particular constantly uses “observed.” That’s really not a good general synonym for “said,” especially, in quick back-and-forth dialogue because it implies that the comment is measured and based on logic rather than simply uttered.

When an author goes nuts looking at a manuscript page of dialogue with the word “said” all over it, one way to avoid this repetition is to ask how many of those dialogue tags are needed. A back-and-forth conversation doesn’t need a dialogue tag after every line as long as the reader can always tell which person is speaking.

A lot of food for thought in this blog post from Christopher Hoffmann on Jane Friedman’s blog!


















4 thoughts on “What Your Choice of Dialogue Tags Says About You

  1. Thanks for this, Malcolm. I added both yours and Jane’s (Christopher Hoffmann’s) to my folder for students. I had one student a couple of terms ago who used both “hissed” and “snarled” as dialogue tags – repeatedly. I explained several times that those might be considered action beats, but not dialogue tags. Finally, I asked her to “growl” one of her sentences out loud and see how that worked. That seemed to get my point across.

    1. Looking for alternatives to “said” seems to be a disease that infects every generation of writers. I wonder how such a thing as, “‘Baby, I love you,’ Jack growled” works in “real life.”

  2. Interesting post, Malcolm.

    However, if one is to do away with most speech tags (and I agree that they do get tedious and disturb the flow), it is essential that the writer of the dialogue is scrupulous about otherwise signifying which character is speaking. Nothing riles me more than having to count back the dialogues (Jim is speaking, Jane is speaking x n) only to find that the puzzling bits of dialogue, as suspected, cannot possibly belong to the mathematically calculated speaker.

    Of course, it helps if the ‘voices’ of the speakers are distinct.

    1. Right, readers shouldn’t have to plough backwards through the page to figure out who’s talking.

      Writers can use names in their dialogue, such as, “Jane, you ignorant slut, how can you say that?” to help clarify who’s talking.

      It’s odd how writers sometimes go to a lot of trouble planning what each character looks like without considering how they talk.

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