What Your Choice of Dialogue Tags Says About You

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Photo credit: Marc Wathieu on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s post is by editor Christopher Hoffmann from Copy Write Consultants (@CWCauthorassist).

There are so many moving parts an author needs to pay attention to when writing fiction—POV, character development, narrative structure, happy-hour specials—that it’s easy to miss the small stuff, the things that we think we instinctively understand and already do very well.

How dialogue is set off from the rest of the narrative is one of those little things that makes a big difference in how your story reads and what the reader understands about you, including:

Are you a Serious Author, an author of genre fiction, or a clueless dilettante?

In the everyday speech of most people, we really only use a couple of dialogue tags when discussing direct discourse: said and like. Said is used by almost everyone; like is largely limited to people who were born after 1970 (or 1965, or maybe 1960; this isn’t an exercise in linguistic demography).

“Then the judge said to me, ‘You are hereby remanded to state custody for a term of no less than ninety days for the egregious overuse of the words fraught and curated.’ And I was all like, ‘How can I possibly keep my self-help-slash-boutique-spice blog going without those words?’”

But the written word allows us the use of many, many more dialogue tags: exclaimed, answered, yelled, spoke, stated, replied, questioned, shouted, gibbered, opined, etc. (Just to be clear, spoken language allows this as well, we just rarely avail ourselves of them when reporting speech verbally.)

So how do we decide which words to use where? And more importantly, which words not to use, maybe ever?

Said and Only Said (or Asked)

One way to look at it is to consider any movement away from the exclusive use of said or asked a step away from the very “best” writing, from the kind of writing intended to be considered “literary.” If you spend any small amount of time examining blogs or books on writing, you will find that this is a very common directive: use said, asked, and nothing else.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the most common works in conjunction with that other famous maxim: show, don’t tell. If you use the word ranted to describe the speech act of one of your characters, you’re telling your readers how to understand what is happening rather than illustrating through action and dialogue.

The young man stared wild-eyed at the judge. “My blog is the only thing that keeps the demons at bay! How am I going to sell my homemade anchovy bitters now?” he ranted.

Rant means to talk excitedly and vehemently; from the perspective of many literary prescriptivists you should already be giving your reader enough information that she understands this dialogue as ranting without needing it to be colored in for her.

On the other side of things, certain dialogue tags are simply redundant:

Looking the defendant over, the judge opined, “Fish never belongs in a cocktail, young man, and moreover, I find the ensemble you’ve worn to court today to be overly modish and without regard to classic sartorial conventions.”

The reader doesn’t need to be told that the judge opined, as his statement constitutes an opinion and not fact—fish would obviously go well in a cocktail! I mean, if wormwood is really what makes absinthe special to some folks, I don’t see why the je ne sais quoi of a killer Caesar salad shouldn’t be the same for a fantastic tipple. Not that I’m going to try it.

All of which is to say that if you aspire to the more literary side of writing, consider very carefully when using dialogue tags other than said or asked.

Other Words Can Be OK, Too

But what if your main goal is to produce something well-written, entertaining, and, well, maybe even unabashedly commercial? Luckily for you, the conventions of commercial and genre fiction are much more forgiving.

While opined in the example above might be considered to be redundant or unnecessary by some, in other contexts it might be interpreted rather as giving early color to a bit of dialogue. The reader gets a sense of what is coming before it arrives. It also gives away the perspective of the narrator, something that may be very desirable—this also applies to the example using ranted. Consider:

“When I get out of here, I’m going to come after you, and you’re going to wish you’d never heard of organic oregano,” he said.

The reader needs to rely on context and the content of the speech to form an opinion about what is being said. On the other hand:

“When I get out of here, I’m going to come after you, and you’re going to wish you’d never heard of organic oregano,” he ranted.

Here, the narrator is telling the reader what she thinks about what the young man is saying. Depending on the POV you’ve chosen, this can profoundly affect how the reader interprets what is happening. (For more on POV and how it affects narrative, check out other excellent posts on Jane’s blog, here and here.)

If you choose to use tags other than said and asked, it’s still a good idea to limit these; think of them as dashes of hot sauce—a few can be tasty, but too many ruin a dish.

Some Outliers

There is another subset of dialogue tags that are often disapproved of outside particular genres of fiction, sniffed at and side-eyed by many authors and critics. These include breathed, sighed, and snarled, among others.

Purists will point out that these words do not denote speech acts; one may quibble with the use of rant, but it at least describes a way of speaking. However, there are contexts in which the use of this kind of dialogue tag is accepted and appreciated.

In romance novels, for instance, these tags often find a home because they make the dialogue bodily; they can sensualize dialogue in a way that the words don’t necessarily suggest by associating them with the physicality of the speaker.

As she handcuffed him, the bailiff breathed, “I love organic oregano.”

“I wish I could share some with you,” he sighed.

Given the young man’s outburst in the earlier example, if said was used here instead of breathed, one might interpret the bailiff’s words as sarcasm; instead the reader senses that the words were said softly, perhaps close to the young man’s ear, and represent warm feelings on the bailiff’s part. Likewise, while sigh is not a speech act either, we all have sighed while talking and recognize the bodily actions as simultaneous.

As with other non-said/asked dialogue tags, these should be used sparingly.

For Clueless Dilettantes Only

Finally, some words exert an irresistible pull on novice writers and even those more experienced who have simply been paying too much attention to happy-hour specials. These words are made to function as dialogue tags, but they are incoherent—the usage is forced and the result comes across as amateurish. These include smiled, laughed, sneered, frowned, and hissed (as well as so many others I’ve tried to forget).

“I know that relationships among cellmates can be awfully fraught, but I’d like for us to get things off to a good start,” smiled the young man to the burly convict standing in front of his bunk.

What can it possibly mean to “smile” words to someone? How could one “sneer” something? These don’t add meaning in the way breathe and its compatriots can—they are merely shortcuts that when examined closely prove nonsensical. Save your editor time and yourself money by avoiding these at all costs. The money you save can be used at happy hour.

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