He Said, She Asked, It Replied: Rein In Your Dialog Tags!

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by Floyd Largent, Developmental Book Editor

As a writer, you probably find it awfully boring and repetitive to keep using the words “said,” “asked,” and “replied” in your dialog. But the fact is, these dialog tags are so widely accepted that readers barely notice them, especially the first two. In a sense, they’re transparent, which allows the reader to get into the story more easily.

Some writers are far too sensitive to the concept of “echoes,” as Jasper Fforde calls them in his “Thursday Next” novels. That’s when the repetition of the same or similar words too often throws the reader off. Most of us make an effort to avoid echoing, and that’s not a problem when using most terms. But it doesn’t work for everything. We’ve all read stories where the characters regularly cry out, exclaim, shriek, snap, bark, blurt, howl, growl, holler, bawl, rumble, grumble, grate, state, croak, explain, query, request, reiterate, even iterate and ejaculate instead of just say or ask, when the last two words would work better. The writer doesn’t want to be boring, so he or she takes a tour of Roget’s to get the point across. It’s fine to use alternate dialog tags occasionally, to indicate strong emotion; but like Chicken Kerala, a tale can get both annoying and painful if over-spiced. Ann Marble, writing in 2001, notes that many editors and critics refer to melodramatic dialog tags as “said bookisms.”

Science fiction writer Barry B. Longyear (Enemy Mine) once expressed his dislike of dialog tags in general, in a story in which he found himself in an alternate universe where his doppelganger made liberal use of them. Indeed, you needn’t use dialog tags very often, as long as the action carries along or supports the dialog. Consider this little passage, which I made up on the spot.

Harvey eased down on the throttle. “You like fishing much?”

“Sure.” Bernadine paused to light a cigarette. “Don’t get to go very often, though. We almost there?”

“Ayuh.” The guide pointed at a rocky peninsula jutting out of the south shore of the lake.

“There’s always some big-uns lyin’ about that point.”

Weighing the fact that all fishermen are liars against Harvey’s desire to earn a decent tip, Bernadine figured that the fish probably were lying about the point, rather than him.

In this passage, I used no dialog tags; the action pulls the story along, bringing the dialog with it. We learn who’s speaking (or thinking) without the need for “said” or “asked,” although there’s no reason I couldn’t have used them. It all depends on personal style. When writing my own fiction, I find Longyear’s method useful, but it’s also handy to use basic dialog tags during long exchanges. Otherwise things get confusing; in Thursday Next’s world, people can’t even tell who’s speaking without a dialog tag, and things can get just as perplexing for readers in the Real World if a writer isn’t careful. Even editors (ahem) have been known to lose track of who’s saying what when dialog tags are too sparse. We have a tendency to revise at that point, hoping we’ve picked the right speaker for that specific bit of dialog.

Adverbial dialog tags are an interesting case, offering a simple way to punch up dialog when used correctly. For example:

“Open the door,” he said angrily.

The word “angrily” conveys the mood nicely, though you can do this just as well by using an exclamation point after “door”:

“Open the door!” he said.

Depending on the context, I might have him growl or shout if I used an exclamation point; and just between you and me, I have to keep an eye on my own use of adverbial dialog tags when writing fiction (he admitted wryly).

While adverbial dialog tags are effective, avoid abusing them for your own pleasure. You may think it’s cute to use a construction like:

“Can I have some sugar?” she asked sweetly, or “The temperature’s going up!” he said hotly.

See what I did there? Believe me, it gets old fast for the reader. The Brits have a word for saccharine silliness like this: twee. Like eating too much candy, it’ll make your readers queasy after a while.

I can honestly say that most writers do pretty well with their dialog tags, but I still see the occasional writer who is so averse to repetition that he or she uses “said” and “asked” (or their present tense equivalents) rarely, as if they were precious coins to be hoarded. Please spend them instead. There’s a place for emotive dialog tag terms like hollered, growled, hissed, et al., but if you use them infrequently, they’ll have much more impact. Those are the tags you should hoard.

Rather than use “said bookisms,” let the context speak for you most of the time. You might not need to use many dialog tags at all.

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