Thursday, February 28, 2019

Drive, he said.

Dialogue tags. Hints. Tips. Gripes

From Jim

A month ago, I posted a piece here on writing advice that floats around the Internet and writers conferences. One of the topics I took issue with was the accepted dictum that writers should only use “said” as a language tag. A spirited debate ensued, and I enjoyed it. Now, just four weeks later, we’re discussing that very topic. So here is what I wrote about it then:

Take, for example, the admonition against using any dialogue tag except “said.” This is so dogmatic and so random. We have dozens of powerful verbs that describe speech, so why not use them when appropriate?

“Go to hell,” he yelled/shouted/screamed.
“Oh, never mind,” he mumbled/grumbled.
“What about Tuesday?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she answered/replied.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“You’re such a selfish so-and-so,” I hissed.
“My leg,” he moaned.
“But I don’t want to,” she whined.
“Good morning,” she sang.
“Get out!” he bellowed.
Some others: quipped, snapped, harrumphed, snorted, mused, offered, chirped...

Okay, you may not like some of these, but where exactly is it written that these are bad style? And who exactly decided that they were bad? What are the criteria being used? It’s not like math. It’s not two plus two. There’s not necessarily a “wrong” answer.



This week’s topic got me thinking, and I decided to make a word count of the most used words in my work in progress. I’m over 105,000 words and nearing the end. Of course I’ll edit it down and polish it up before it’s ready for publication, but this exercise gave me great insight into where I might improve.

Take, for example, the most common word in my book: “the”. It appears 5,362 times. I don’t think that’s unusual.

The second most used word in my book is “I”. Since my books are written in the first person, this comes as no surprise either.

Next comes the indefinite article “a” or “an”. 2,831 times.

He, his, my come in next. Everything normal.

But what is the most common verb in my book (besides “was” of course)? By far it’s “said.” Even if you eliminate the occurrences where it appears in narrative, it’s still the most frequently used by a large margin. Seven hundred and seventy-nine times as a dialogue tag. Not bad for a guy who thinks other dialogue tags are okay. The runners-up are: asked, 237; whispered, 12; offered, 6; mumbled, 5; grumbled, 3; replied, 3; moaned, 2; answered, 2; screamed, 2; whined, 2; yelled, 1.

I truly do believe the vast majority of dialogue tags should be “said.” But that doesn’t mean other verbs can’t add spice to the narrative. Paraphrasing my mantra from my years in subtitling, “the best dialogue tag (subtitle) is the one no one remembers.” But at the same time, let’s not forget that there are great, powerful verbs out there. Why is it good writing to use them in narrative but not in dialogue tags? Seems arbitarary to me.

So make sure your reader knows who’s speaking, and then, to identify your speakers, use a verb that doesn’t get in the way. And change it up a little! Don’t chain yourself to someone else’s rules.

3 comments:

RJ Harlick said...

Like your last sentence, Jim. "Don't chain yourself to anyone else's rules" Good post.

Susan C Shea said...

I agree that on occasion a different verb is important. If the lecture room is quiet and your narrator expects quiet, then to have someone bellow makes sense. How else will we know without come complicated work-arounds?

Alan Orloff said...

"As usual, Jim, you are on the money," he prevaricated.