“Say what?” she intoned incredulously.
Yes, that’s right. Today’s topic is on dialogue tags.
Here’s a direct quote from many, many critiques/contest entries I’ve judged: “Avoid said/asked dialogue tags.” Why? Because.
Yes, back in the day when most of us started writing, the books we were reading used dialogue tags such as:
…he said cheerfully
…he said heavily
…he said laughingly
…she whispered breathlessly
…she intoned incredulously
Remember those? Because we were so used to reading them (and yes, I pulled out two books that I took all of those from—one from the mid-1908s, the other from the early 1990s), that’s how we attributed our dialogue when we first started writing.
But times—and accepted styles—have changed.
“The only attribution (dialogue tag) you’ll normally need is ‘said,’ although there will be times when more specific verbs such as ‘whisper’ or ‘yell’ or ‘ask’ might be called for” (William G. Tapply, “Dialogue: The lifebood of the mystery story,” The Writer, October 2008, p. 31).
When I was in graduate school it was explained this way: readers see “said” or “asked” much like a period or comma. It’s more like punctuation than anything else, therefore those are unobtrusive.
Sometimes, when dialogue is moving quickly and you need to pepper in an attribution here and there to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking (especially when there are more than two characters “on stage”), a good said dialogue tag can be particularly useful. Embellished dialogue tags—those using more descriptive verbs or, even worse, adverbs—come across as author intrusion. If your character has just explained something in dialogue, the reader knows it and doesn’t need a “she explained” tag. Same thing with “argued,” “elaborated,” or “confirmed.”
But better an embellished verb than an adverb! Elmore Leonard wrote: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” (qtd. Tapply, p. 32)
Why are adverbs bad? Because, even more than the descriptive verbs, adverbs tell rather than show:
- “Say what?” she asked incredulously.
“Say what?” Her eyes widened and jaw went slack.
If you feel you need to emphasize the incredulity or quickness or cheerfulness with which your character has said something, instead of adding an adverb, look at the dialogue and the surrounding narrative/introspection and do whatever you can to show the emotion/speed/whatever through the dialogue/narrative than through an adverb. If your character asks something “nervously,” show the nervousness through her body language or through the creepy-crawly feeling on the inside of her skin.
So how can you get rid of dialogue tags and use action/introspection to indicate who’s speaking and the emotion and action going on in a scene?
- “Are you all right, ma’am?” the police officer asked as he came around the vehicle.
“I think so,” Kelly answered hoarsely, coughing from the powder the airbag had released.
This can be changed to:
- “Are you all right, ma’am?” A police officer came into view in the passenger-side window.
“I think so.” Kelly’s throat stung and scratched, and she coughed, unable to get the nasty, metallic-tasting powder from the airbag out of her windpipe.
See the difference? Not only does it get rid of the attribution tag, but it takes us deeper into Kelly’s POV—showing what she’s experiencing instead of just telling what she’s doing.
What’s your experience with using dialogue tags? Any that you’re fond of using that you’ve been dinged on by editors or in contests?