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!

















What’s wrong with ‘he said’ and ‘she said’?

Victor Appleton, author of the Tom Swift series of books, went to a lot of trouble to avoid using the word “said.” His gyrations gave rise to the “Tom Swifty,” a gag line of dialogue and attribution that basically made fun o Appleton’s approach to dialogue.

The Wikipedia entry for the Tom Swifty provides typical examples such as “‘Who left the toilet seat down?’ Tom asked peevishly” and “‘Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!’ Tom said sternly.”

saidThe gurus of writing suggest “he said” and “she said” for most of your dialogue needs because most attempts at variety call attention to themselves and–in time–annoy the reader.

I’m reading a thriller novel by a New York Times bestselling author of some 30 books. I won’t mention his name or the book because I really have no need to speak ill of another author. I’ll stipulate that authors always face difficult decisions when one character has a vast amount of information to convey to another character.

No author wants to have a five page quote. So, s/he is likely to try to orchestrate some back and forth dialogue between the “teacher” and the “learner.” This helps. But it can soon lead to another annoyance: The learner asks a three-word question and then the teacher replies with a half a page of information, followed by another short question and another long answer.

The author of the thriller did a little of this, but his habit (and I’m making up the name of the character to obscure who I’m talking about, was the use of paragraph openings consisting of “Joe went on” and “Joe continued” and “Joe shifted to his next point,” all followed by long paragraphs of information. The author’s habit stood out because he used the same construction multiple times per page.

I hoped that once we got past the section of the book where the leaders of the black ops mission were done filling in the new operatives about the scenario, I wouldn’t keep seeing that clumsy writing. Unfortunately not. While this author doesn’t date himself by using Tom Swiftys, he continues with his awkward dialogue in a way that makes me consider flinging the book into the next box going to the library’s used books sale.

Here’s an example (without the characters’ real names and real dialogue) from one page:

“We can’t,”Bob replied, but we can work around it.”

“We’re in a major city,” I reminded him.

Bob replied, “We are now, but we won’t be tomorrow.” He further informed us, “The day after tomorrow, we’re talking the back  roads to a more lawless area.”

It seemed to me that this plan had flaws.

Sam let us know, “We can’t be certain that this will draw The Hyena out of hiding, but it’s our best shot.”

A fair amount of the book’s dialogue is written like this. It’s so over-the-top stylistic in an unattractive way, that such a paragraph would be covered with red pencil marks if it were handed in as an assignment in a college creative writing class. Most teachers would scribble in giant letters at the top of the page, “What’s wrong with ‘he said’ and ‘she said.”

One might otherwise suggest–even though Dan Brown certainly kept his readers even though many of his characters gave long lectures in history in the middle of action scenes–that giving one character a thousand words of facts to tell another character makes for a larger flaw in the book.

I found Dan Brown’s novels compelling because of the short chapters and the on-going action. Yet I did have to smile when professor ABC spent ten minutes lecturing police inspector XYZ about ancient history while they were in a shootout with the bad guys.

I’m about 20% of the way through the thriller on my nightstand, and the vast amounts of information being conveyed from one character to another in such an awkward fashion is so tedious that I want to quit reading. If I had another fresh book from the store, I would.

Obviously, this author has sold a lot of books. That alone makes me hope that this book delivers in spite of its style. Those of us who aren’t New York Times bestselling authors don’t need to throw out “he said” and “she said” as our primary dialogue tags because doing so will lose us a lot of readers.

You may also like: The Invisible Said—Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Ban Said.


EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal fantasy stories including the three-story set “Emily’s Stories,” now with a brand new cover.