Bernard, the soon-to-be-copyediting squirrel, and I created a kerfuffle today over dialogue tags. He is of the mind that only lazy writers use varied dialogue tags. I’m pleased that his night classes are proving that he’ll be a tough little editor, but I just don’t agree that the only acceptable dialogue tags are:
He squeaked, she squeaked, they squeaked, you squeaked, I squeaked, and we squeaked.
Oh, I’m sorry. Bernard explained to me moments ago that I can use another: One squeaked.
Now, I have to admit that the non-descriptive dialogue tag rule has strong advocates. For example, Rob Hart’s article, “On Dialogue Tags: Why Anything Besides ‘Said’ And ‘Asked’ Is Lazy Writing (15 December 2011)” makes interesting points. Vivid action supports the show-don’t-tell rule of noveling, and he is correct that chortle (which I am about to find-and-replace in my own novel) is “a horrible, terrible, stupid word.” The anonymity of said and asked–and possibly even replied–has its appeal.
Now, I agree that verbs which relate to unspoken communication make for horrible dialogue tags. The action word chortle is clear: to chuckle gleefully or to express with a gleeful chuckle. No words are spoken when one chortles. I expect if one did chortle words, one would be asked to repeat one’s self. However, I disagree that descriptive dialogue tags are “the laugh tracks of the writing world.”
Here are a few informational articles on tagging dialogue:
“Dialogue Tags” from Fiction Writers’ Mentor (Author not attributed.)
We are blessed with a vibrant and varied language. Readers need words which generate mental friction to grow their working vocabularies. However, purple prose can send readers running and leave authors to fret over receiving a nomination for a cringe-worthy writing award.
Especially when it comes to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. That, alone, makes the case for removing descriptive sex scenes from any fiction not in the erotica or romance genres.
Well, after starting out ready to leap into the fray on the side of eschewing ‘said’ and using primarily creative and descriptive dialogue tags, I realized that Bernard was partially right. (Don’t be so smug, Bernard, or it’s a bazooka instead of a red correction pencil for you!) In the world of show-don’t-tell fiction, dialogue tags have an intended use: arrows pointing toward who is speaking when the identity of the speaker is unclear. Because ‘said’ is considered invisible, it acts as an arrow instead of a word. The reader knows to direct his or her attention to a character before moving on to the next line, paragraph, and page.
Sometimes, however, attention must be paid to what is happening throughout the conversation. A creative or descriptive dialogue tag might just add instead of detract or distract. Before risking purple prose, however, one may wish to consider:
- Does this action verb involve speaking in its definition?
- Would action butted up to the dialogue serve better to express the emotion?
- Is the word, itself, so awkward or egregious that it halts the story flow for a reader?
- Will using this descriptive dialogue tag make less sense than a road sign warning you of bovine abductions by alien spacecraft?
As an author of the science fiction genre, I love being part of a long and glorious history of word abuse. While I’m pretty sure I’m not counted among the grimly grim of the space aces (I feel obliged to do a search for ‘grim’ in the Dome Trilogy, now, and eradicate it from the Cryptid Series entirely), I hold my own when it comes to groan-worthy prose.
Just one more gift of being a wordsmith, I suppose: I get to decide how I hone my writing skills every day.
For people who would like it, I made a PDF list of words other than ‘said’. And yes, some may show up as descriptive dialogue tags, but not in the volume I initially intended: