This is the third and final part in my series on dialogue. Click HERE to read Part One—Regional Overkill, and click HERE to read Part Two—Sounding Real.
Book after book has been written about them. Blog after blog has featured articles with cautionary tales. And yet . . . the overly awkward dialogue tag still manages to work its way out of the garbage can and into manuscripts the world over.
In fact, while researching for this post, I was astounded at the number of articles I found which advocated "the death of 'Said'" and "making your dialogue more interesting with anything but 'said'" and other generally bad advice.
I'm not saying there's never a good moment for a shout here and there, but the advice to young writers on various teaching blogs & forums goes directly against the advice of best-selling authors, who sometimes advise to skip tags altogether as often as possible, and more often suggest "said" or "asked" as a way of making the tag disappear.
Personally, I tend to skim over dialogue tags when I'm reading, so I like the idea of eliminating them more often than not, unless the conversation becomes confusing. Maybe it's because I read decent books that use "said" and "asked" and, as promised by those high-level authors, those two particular words become invisible after a little while.
No one wants to read the old-fashioned (and thankfully, almost never used) "he ejaculated" as a dialogue tag. The more obscure tags will pull a reader from the story as physically as tipping him out of his chair. Think of how often you've read "blustered," "queried," "wailed," "bellowed," "quipped," and the like. I don't know about you, but when I read those words, in my mind the character is instantly replaced by the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, a blusterer & bellower from way back. Or suddenly the character is Lucille Ball, wailing her trademark waaahhh.
Elimination of dialogue tags in certain spots can be effective for quick back-and-forth action. If your characters are written distinctly, their manner of speech should indicate easily enough who's talking.
Another mistake inexperienced writers often make is to use dialogue tags that don't work in the physical world:
- "I love you," she breathed. Nope. You can't breathe in while speaking. And breathing out is not the same as forcing air through your mostly closed vocal cords.
- "Don't do that," he growled. Nope again. Try growling and saying anything intelligible. You're not Batman.
- "Get over here, NOW," she hissed. Double nope. Hissing and speaking don't mix, and hissing sounds usually require the use of the letter "s." Just ask Harry Potter.
- "What do you mean, you won't?" he barked. Nooooope. Unless it's a dog literally barking, and you understand that he sounds like arf arf woof woof grrr but you can translate it in your head like a foreign language, or—oh, forget it. You get my point.
So . . . to recap these three posts neatly: don't overuse regional dialect and slang, make sure your characters sound as real as the people around you, and make those dialogue tags disappear, whether literally or figuratively.
I'd love to know: Have you ever read a truly abominable dialogue tag? Have you written one you regret (or that your editor made you regret until you removed it)?