Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dialogue Tags

He argued.

She cried.

He yelled.

She accepted.

He asked.

She inquired.

He suggested.

Okay, hopefully you get the point by now. I notice in a lot of books dialogue tags like the ones above. Look at this line of dialogue:

"How are you today?" Joe asked.

Most readers admit to skipping over any dialogue tags such as "Joe asked", and if that's the case, do we really need to go beyond "He said" and "She said"?

With the above line of dialogue, the question mark is the indicator that Joe is asking a question, so you're only repeating yourself by saying "Joe asked". Some dialogue tags use fancier words to appear as though they are not repeating any information, but they still are. For example:

"How are you today?" Joe inquired.

To inquire is to ask a question. So Joe is asking a question, and the writer is reiterating the fact that Joe is asking a question. See how this line of dialogue reads without:

"How are you today?" Joe said.

Using "said" is a less-intrusive word. And if you don't need to indicate who is speaking, you can nix it entirely. Two words gone from your word-count!

Look through your manuscript at all of your dialogue tags. Do you use tags that are more than just "said"? What are your tags providing in explanation? For instance:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!" Susan yelled.

Read it without:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!"

Not only does the sentence inform us that Susan is angry, the exclamation point at the end indicates that she's probably yelling, so do I really need to add in "she yelled"?

No. It can be cut.

For another example:

"Sure, I'll take the job," she accepted.

Here, the character is saying Yes to something, and there is the unnecessary repetition of the fact that she's accepting the job. It can go.

As mentioned, most readers skip over dialogue tags. They're focusing more on the name of who is speaking and then moving on to the next line, so if your reader is going to skip over information such as "yelled", "accepted", etc. Why write it? Use dialogue tags other than "said" only when really necessary to convey information that cannot be conveyed in the dialogue itself.


Tabitha said...

I use very few dialog tags. Instead, I will periodically insert an action befitting the tone of the conversation. It could be subtle body language or an emotional outburst. I'll only use a dialog tag where actions don't work, and I still need to identify the speaker. :)

Rick Baker said...

All the experts say to use mostly 'he said', 'she said' dialog tags. Every book on writing style that I've read says this. I've followed their advice, too.

It's interesting to find a book where the author and publisher decided it didn't matter. My daughter was reading the Stephenie Meyer book 'Twilight' for an assignment. I casually looked at the book and noticed there were almost no 'he said', 'she said' dialog tags. It was always something like 'he muttered', 'she yelled', 'he grumbled', etc.

beth said...

I also have problem with attaching description on the end of the tag (like: "he said, rolling his eyes"). It's my way of cutting adverbs, but it's still not good.

Thanks for the post!

italktoRAINBOWS! said...

I tend to only leave and adverb there if it feels right, if it doesn't cut into the flow of a story.
Most readers skip over all the 'he said' or 'he yelled' stuff because they know who is talking. So, when I write, I only place in an adverb where it won't harm the flow of the writing.
Nice post though.

Tia Nevitt said...

Something to think about. I am guilty of the question followed by, "he asked." I tend to think that "asked" is as transparent as "said." I may be wrong.

I don't think I ever wrote "She accepted" but I may be guilty of a "he suggested" or two.

Rick Baker said...

I occaisionally do the "he asked" and question mark thing, too. Not intentionally, though. When I find that I usually change 'asked' to 'said' or remove the question mark. It seems redundant to me to have both.