Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Comment on Dialogue Tags

I forget that we’ve been told never to use said.

It’s not that I really don’t remember, it’s that I assume every new individual has already gotten past it, come to terms with it, has about 16 arguments in their arsenal as to why we should or should not be using it at this time.

So when my friend asked me for some advice on dialogue, I wasted ten minutes trying to figure out what she was concerned about. My personal experience is that Painful Writing either comes from not knowing something or being too afraid of something. Until I knew what that something was, I couldn’t really tell her why she was stumbling.

I asked her, and she couldn’t put it into words. She kept hinting at the issue, but my brain, thinking we were on the same page despite her being in the exact position I had also experienced for the majority of my early career, would not guess that maybe she just wanted to use the word said and felt like she wasn’t allowed.

The issue was finally solved when I happened to gloss over it, mentioning something like, “When you’re using said, consider—”

She immediately jumped on it.

“I am allowed to use said?” she said. “I was told since kindergarten not to.”

Then I remembered. Yes. That’s right. There is this controversial issue that seems super important when first starting out that, with time, will later be a worry completely forgotten about. I do consider what verbs I want to use in dialogue tags still, but it has long now stop being an issue of taking sides and just doing what I feel is right.

My friend was relieved. It seemed to lift a weight off her shoulders. I know that feeling. I too have been victim to being concerned about inane “rules,” even ones I didn’t agree with. We are so limited by the “you should” “you shouldn’t” mindset that we often are looking for permission to make choices that we logically know are good (or at least fine).

I said, “Yes, you have my permission to use said.”

She told me to shut up.

Sure, people do use it way too much. Above, I had it twice within the same line; something I did out of satire. You’ll notice that having them so close together can sound weird. Or you might have noticed that you did not notice. In either case, it is fairly true that when reading any “bad fiction” the dialogue tags are the first choice to stand out.

I’m not denying that it can be hard to make tags sound right (they are somewhat unnatural outside of the context of text and literature). But, as most authors learn, using said is still an option. For that matter, so is not using it.

There are a couple of easy ways to tell when either is appropriate.

1) When it is repetitive.

We think faster than we speak, speak faster than we write. This is the number one reason our First Book sounds unnatural. The brain thinks differently writing than when we are saying something. Primarily, we talk so fast that we are less likely to repeat the same word over and over. Listen when someone is ranting and you’ll notice that, while they do echo more often than a professional book would, it is a lot less than a bad high school essay.

When writing, some authors will type a sentence, stop, type another. We forget what words we used, so we will reuse them. This sounds unnatural because, had he been at speaking speed, he would have remembered he’d just said that and would try to use something else.

This is a long way to prove that repetition is bad, something in which most of us already know and agree with. Or so I assume. Basically, using said too much in the same space sounds funny.


Most occasions the repetition is more about the sentence structure than the word choice. It is common to have dialogue consistently: “Quote,” pronoun verb. Essentially, “Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Get the hell away from me,” she proposed.

Sometimes it’s not the issue of the term said, but that there is no variation on the delivery. Play around with order of words and means to convey who is speaking and how they are speaking, and then you open up the option to use said again if so desired.

At times, this:

“There’s nothing in the punch,” said Jeremy.

She looked at him before holding it out and saying, “Smell it.”

“I am not going to walk around sniffing cups,” he said. “Just drink it.”

is more interesting than this:

“There’s nothing in the punch,” Jeremy insisted.

“Smell it,” she goaded.

“I’m not going to walk around sniffing cups. Just drink it,” he spat.

Honestly, if I was actually writing this scene, I would probably do a mixture of both, varying in both structure and with synonyms. Toying with diversity is the fun part, and by having a whole bunch of different options, the author can do what he wants in a satisfying way, not needing to sacrifice to any artificially imposed boundary.

(Actually, if I was actually writing this scene, I would probably do no dialogue tags and then proceed to get a bunch of “Who the hell is talking?” Because I never learn.)

2) When it is obvious the author is trying not to use the word said.

Metareading should be avoided as much as possible. This is where the reader stops thinking about the story and starts considering the author’s intention and motivation. She tears from her willing suspension of disbelief and is completely brought from the world back to reality.

Because using said or not using said is talked about so much, readers pay more attention to it. Not only that, but they will relate to an author trying not to use it. This is not a good thing. If the reader thinks she can make it, she’s not going to buy it. So when someone notices that the author is making an effort to not use the word, she won’t be impressed.

If the only reason behind a choice is to not be said, it will read like that. The said synonym needs to have multiple purposes to sound natural, i.e. there is a cause for the narrator to be saying it other than, “I just said said.” It should indicate a facial expression or tone that adds to the dialogue, but doesn’t abruptly subtract to what is already implied. Especially when the reader is picturing something better.

3)  When it draws attention to verb and the importance is the pronoun.

In most circumstances, the reason why a tag is there is to tell who is talking. Now before you say duh, there are some moments in which it is there to tell how it is being said. It’s just less common.

Tone is important, and text doesn’t have any. It can be influenced and indicated, the reader being led to imagine how it should be heard, but without vocal inflection and body language, it often can be misconstrued. We can give a few details, but we don’t have enough time to go through everything that’s significant.

Often there is flexibility.

“How are you doing?” can be said in many different ways, but the reader will pretty much get the point unless there is something unusual about it.

“How are you doing?” he spat.

is a very different image then the assumed

“How are you doing?” he said.

If, however, there are subtle moods and context being played, or if it’s a joke, or if there’s a specific rhythm, or if there is a large spectrum on tonal options, or if there is a specific personality that needs to be conveyed, the author will add a tag not because is unclear who is talking, but because the readers’ natural assumptions need to be contradicted or unified.

“Get away from me,” he said flatly.

tells a different attitude and intensity than

“Get away from me,” he hissed.

The first would solicit a separate reaction than the second, and, if the audience isn’t on the same page as the author, they might not feel like the responses are rational. In the first, where he is not as upset as much as put out, he can probably be talked down pretty easily. In the second, it would be harder to get him to listen. If the audience is picturing A and the reader is picturing B, the scene might not be cohesive.

That being said, this isn’t usually the case. Most casual dialogue will come out on track, following indicated moods and open for various tones. In these circumstances, noticeable verbs sound really strange.

Abnormality draws attention, attention indicates importance, putting importance on verbs is unusual. It happens every day, but is still less common than inflection on prepositions and nouns, or, primarily, negatives and positives. So when the important part of the tag is who is talking and it looks like the author wants us to notice how he is talking, it can feel unnatural; subconsciously he would chose a blending word if he didn’t want to have attention drawn to it. Because he chose a colorful word, it seems as if it is important for it to be that word. If the significance is beneficial to the author and not the story, the reader will unfortunately come to that conclusion.

So situations like,

Jim walked in. Susie immediately clapped her laptop shut.

“Hi!” she squeaked. “What are you doing here?”

are sensible. The point behind the dialogue is to show she is nervous, so how she said it is what the reader should be paying attention to. But places in which the author only wants to tell which character is saying what,

“Does your mother know you’re out here, little boy?” Tommy queried.

“Nah. I just saw his mother last night!” Fred teased.

“Don’t bring my mother into this!” Grant ejaculated.

can sound really, really off.

4) When we want support or influence.

Tied in with the rest of my points is the concept of influential verbs versus supportive verbs, and how what we want to use depends on the rest of the scene.

If we think of writing like driving, influential words would be the gas or the break, whereas supportive verbs would be coasting.

A supportive verb is a word free from preexisting connotation. It has no innate judgment or description attached to it. Words like “said,” “walk,” “sleep,” and anything you might find in a Dick and Jane book are supportive words. They can be done in any way a human can think to do something. An influential verb is the opposite. It tends to mean something specific, and can’t be paired with just any adjective.

We can walk cautiously or casually, but it’s hard to picture someone ambling gingerly.

Supportive words don’t add anything to the scene; they support what is already there. This means that if a voice, style, or atmosphere has been created, it won’t be brought to a screeching halt by “said.” But it also won’t keep up the tone for long. The story will start to lose its ambiance if there aren’t enough influential words pushing on the gas.

Essentially, the right influential word can create a fantastic tone, but it’s not all that uncommon for authors to be hitting the break when they meant to hit accelerate. Using the wrong influential word can destroy what has already been built.

Therefore, said is a great tool to use when there isn’t an appropriate influential word to take its place. As long as the tone is conveyed through action and the actual dialogue, there isn’t a problem. When the author has used supportive word after supportive word in the bulk of the text, however, he will find he hasn’t gone anywhere. You can’t coast without gaining speed first.

5) Whenever the hell you want.

I think the “because I don’t want to” is a viable argument. Great books come from passion, opinions, and personality. People who try to remove their own personal tastes from their writing will create something with no taste.

In the long run, a person is allowed to decide whether or not he wants to shoot himself in the foot, but more to the point, it’s up to him to decide if he’s shooting himself in the foot. From personal experience, sitting around trying to trust other people’s differing opinions is hard, and to some extent, impossible. Sometimes we just have to make our own opinion and have faith in it.

The writer is his own master and he gets to decide if he likes the way something sounds. Of course, he needs to try and be unbiased, to focus on his goals and the best tactics to achieve them, and not to be a member of the “I meant to do that” party. But, because he’s the only one who has to face the ramifications of his choices, and because writing is so subjective, and because there’s so much bad advice out there, we can’t disregard our own personal preference.

And, in reality, the problem isn’t that an author is wrong about his opinions, it’s that he might not have any. Which is to say, we sometimes don’t know if we like it better with or without said. That’s where the biggest headaches come from: uncertainty.

The best advice for knowing when and when not to use said is to consider how we personally feel about it. Remember that you’re creating a style that you want to be known for, a book you want to be proud of, and influencing literature in a way you want it to be influenced. So check out other writers and see who you like and don’t like, and if dialogue tags contribute to that opinion. Consider your goals, the story, the atmosphere, the characters, and how said does or does not support them.

But, remember, when all is said and done, it’s really just about, “Did I want to use said?” If the answer is yes, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. If the answer is no, then it also doesn’t matter what other people think. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then it’s time to figure it out. Until an author knows what he wants to do, he can’t know if it’s the right thing to do.