I’m venting today about obtrusive dialogue tags.
But first—a story:
Back in the day when I taught the King’s English to the masses, I worked at a small school in deepest, darkest southern Missouri. The native language of the area is a combination of Scotch-Irish Appalachian, a little Elizabethan, and a smattering of modern slang and inventive metaphors and is known as the Ozarkian dialect. I grew up in the area but my folks were from ‘away’, so I speak two languages—English and Ozark.
The two are not always interchangeable. If you want to talk to locals and get anything done, you better sound like they do. If you want to get gainful employment outside of the area…well, there’s no accounting for people’s prejudices, but an Ozarks accent tends to give other people delusions of grandeur. For a Tale within a Tale, go HERE.
Anyway, one of my favorite kids—a large, young man of the redneck persuasion—got suspended. I ran into him in the hallway and asked about the incident, hoping to provide some comfort.
“What happened?” I asked, assuming my serious-but-understanding-teacher persona.
“I didn’t do a thing wrong,” the kid said with a manner often adopted by persecuted saints. “Mrs. B. asked me to define a word and I did and she got mad and sent me to the office.”
“Ah. What was the word?”
He blushed and lowered his voice.
I could see the whole thing play out in my mind. He’d read a story in English literature and the author used the dialogue tag ejaculated. And this moronic teacher put ejaculated on a word list for teenage boys and then got mad when one of them gave her a totally accurate definition. It may not have been the definition she was looking for, but it was certainly predictable. What she expected to come (oh, dear) from such an inclusion in the weekly vocabulary exercise, I am not certain.
My prejudice against the overuse of dialogue tags happened long before this kid was martyred in the name of the cause.
Dialogue tags, also referred to as attributions, are those bits that indicate who said what and sometimes how they said it. Dialogue tags are markers that keep readers in the conversation, knowing who is speaking, and giving additional info about the scene, the character, the plot. Dialogue tags are not the enemy—but the overuse or mutation of them is.
She snarled. He yelled. He declared. She whined. He cried. She screamed.
These characters sound like they’re on speed.
Now, I’m all in favor of clever word play like these Tom Swifties.
- “I’m no good at playing darts,” Tom said aimlessly.
- “I’m a softball pitcher,” Tom said underhandedly.
- “I like hockey,” Tom said puckishly.
- “That’s a lot of hay,” Tom said balefully.
- “Let’s get married,” Tom said engagingly.
- “I forgot what I was supposed to buy,” Tom said listlessly.
- “Mush!” said Tom huskily.
- “I’ll have a bowl of Chinese soup,” Tom said wantonly.
- “I can’t find the bananas,” Tom said fruitlessly.
- “I’ll have the lamb,” Tom said sheepishly.
- “This milk isn’t fresh,” Tom said sourly.
I highly encourage these kinds of tags. Otherwise, when I’m trying to find out who bludgeoned Patricia to death with the stuffed owl in the solarium, I like my dialogue tags the way I like my men: easy to ignore.
I think of writing dialogue a little like a tennis match. You have a couple of people volleying comments to each other, and your head pivots to watch the action. In a 2-party conversation, you don’t need dialogue tags every time somebody says something. It’s enough to start off the match with a clear indication of who is speaking and then let the conversation unwind from there, adding little tags here and there for clarity. If it’s a terse conversation, you can get away with 6 or 7 tagless exchanges—maybe more.
When you have more than two people talking together, the tags become more important—and more difficult to achieve smoothly. In a perfect world, you’ll write dialogue so evocative that no more than the occasional ‘he said, she said’ is required.
Or you can advance the action and plot and do a million other things instead of providing distraction to readers. My own preference is an action tag which avoids any synonyms for said and instead shows the character reacting to the events.
I just finished reading a book in which the characters were constantly yelling at each other—or whining—or crying—or declaring.
By the time I got to page twenty-one, every time someone declared something, I wanted to reach in the book and slap that character. And for good measure, I wanted to visit the author’s dusty garret and slap him/her.
Maybe, if I’m very, very good, after I shuffle off this mortal coil, I will be assigned to some Universal Author Enforcement Agency (That acronym would sound like the noise you make when you puke off a bridge) so I can pop into authors’ rooms, slap them, drop some advice, and disappear in a mist of glitter.
Let’s just say that struggling through an entire book of he cajoled, she shrieked, he harangued, he cajoled, she declared, she whined—and on and on like that—proved more traumatic than I realized. Hence this post!